Asymmetrical Harry Callahan

It is noteworthy that all of the Dirty Harry films take place in and around San Francisco Bay. Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were murdered in cold blood in San Francisco City Hall in 1978, chronologically in the middle of the film franchise. Supervisor Dan White shot Mayor Moscone in the Mayor’s office and then walked to the other side of City Hall and shot Milk five times. White had to walk around Milk’s desk, bend down, and place the revolver inches from Milk’s head to fire the fifth shot, leaving his revolver empty. White served only five years for murdering two elected officials. This piece of history and local color is evidence that the Dirty Harry franchise was not merely a shoot’em up string of movies aimed at pulling down blockbuster receipts. To be clear: Justice has been perverted in the hands of bureaucracy. Art imitates life.

Screenwriters Harry Julian Fink and his wife Rita did not write the Dirty Harry screenplays to satisfy the bloodlust of Clint Eastwood fans or to cash in on box office receipts. They wrote it because they had philosophical questions to raise about justice in society. The Fink’s present justice as a zero sum gain versus a defunct system of laws in society.  Harry Callahan must completely win or completely lose. If Harry wins, justice is served illicitly. If the law is respected, then justice is miscarried.

The winds of Western Philosophy fill the sails of this Malspaso Armada. When Harry is in a crisis, the audience wills him to blast a loophole through social morality. Whether the audience is a mob bent on revenge or social justice is up to interpretation. As a body of work, the Dirty Harry franchise has entertained me immensely through the years and more recently as I viewed the films again for this little writing project. From watching these movies I conclude that in the society I live in, justice either prevails or it loses completely. The law has made a compromise of justice. Because justice is a zero sum gain, if justice did not win, then justice must be completely lost. A free press is our best defense against tyranny of government or of mobs. And although I prefer law and order, I can’t imagine living in a country where Inspector Harry Callahan is not possible.


Harry is back in Magnum Force

In 1973 Inspector Callahan, AKA Dirty Harry, is back with Magnum Force. This time, instead of violating the rights of an accused killer to serve justice, Harry is on the contemporary side of the law when he refuses to join a vigilante team of rogue police officers. Harry refuses to join the rogues because his ethic does not support being judge, jury and executioner for a random list of criminals; at least not until the court has its opportunity to screw it up first. Once Harry refuses the vigilante invitation to join them, Harry and his partner are marked for death. Harry’s partner is a good cop and family man. He is killed because he is Harry’s partner. Another cop and other innocent people are killed because the vigilante cop squad is trying to tie up “loose-ends”.

These cops believe that if a few good people are hurt and killed in order to protect the greater society, then the greater good is served. This they believe is justice served. This is the crux of the dramatic conflict. Harry does not see it this way. Harry sees the right of the individual and rejects the tyranny of the connected or elite ruling class hierarchy. Again the husband and wife team, the Finks, have posed a critical question for Dirty Harry fans: Does the end justify the means? One of the greatest contributors to contemporary Western culture, Niccolo Machiavelli, posed this question. In the end, Machiavelli decided the end justifies the means only when stabilizing and improving governments and not in other circumstances such as everyday events or crisis decision making. So in true Machiavellian style, Harry does not agree that the end justified the means when innocent civilians or police are killed. Harry responds by putting himself in the open to let the vigilantes come for him. Then he drilled them each with his “.44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world…and liable to blow your head clean off.”

Let’s skip ahead a few films to 1988 and the last of the Dirty Harry movies, The Dead Pool. As the credits open two cars chase Harry and shoot up his car, trying to kill him. Cut scene to the office of the Police Chief where Harry is being read the riot act for destroying another car which costs too much money and for attracting bad publicity for the Chief and Mayor to deal with. In 1971 Callahan was an over the hill cop, seventeen years later in 1988 he is truly the last dinosaur on the force and still an inspector. (Duly noted, this dinosaur can eat you alive and pass the bones.) We see this lone lawman standing guard between thugs who are pampered and protected by the law and the innocent civilians who need protection. The image of the brave gunman fighting for justice in the Wild West is never far from the imagery. The Chief of Police pressures Harry to work with a reporter in order to spin publicity in the Department’s favor. Harry refuses until the reporter has something he needs. Eventually a romantic interest develops between Harry and the reporter.

The symbology here is important but still it is frustrating to see female roles gain interest only when they can improve the male’s position in the plot. Nevertheless, we now see Harry move from clashing with reporters to actually gaining insight to the importance of the Fourth Estate. Harry espouses a relationship with the journalist, symbolically joining the Fourth Estate with law and order; an unbeatable partnership for seeing justice prevail when the Constitution has reached its limits.

The screenwriters Fink raise the questions: Is justice really the love baby of the law and the press? How free should our free press really be? Is this another zero sum mentality?

Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, Founding Father, architect, scholar, and gentleman plantation owner said that, “I would rather have newspapers with no government, than government with no newspapers!” Harry sees that even if he did not appreciate everything the press did, there is a zero sum mentality and placed his bet on freedom of the press. The message is clear: A government of laws and enforcement is a two legged stool without a free press; a stool easily toppled by tyranny.

Dirty Harry Film Franchise an Expose’ of American Justice

The first film of the Dirty Harry franchise, written by husband and wife team Harry Julian Fink and Rita Fink, opened to audiences fed up with America’s involvement with the Vietnam War and a general public demand for accountability in government and more law and order in society.  According to Wikipedia, the murder rate in the United States grew from 9,110 in 1960 to 20,510 in 1975. Other violent crime statistics such as rape and armed robbery show similar increases during this period. Law and order was the cornerstone of many a political career such as those of Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. The Supreme Court provided a cogent counterbalance to strong arm law enforcement as demonstrated by the landmark decisions of Miranda vs. Arizona and Berghius vs. Thompkins in which a suspect’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights are preserved. In the Dirty Harry franchise, we see Harry violate victim’s rights, fight vigilante justice, and form an unlikely partnership with a woman and the Press all in order to see justice served. In each movie Inspector Harry Callahan steps in to administer justice, and the viewing public, liberal or conservative, appreciates the results.

In Dirty Harry, Inspector Callahan broke the rules and violated the suspect’s rights which led to release of the suspect. As the plot would have it, the suspected sociopathic murderer is right back on the streets snubbing his nose at the inept city government and committing further acts of random violence. Here is the dialogue taken from the famous scene in which the suspect’s rights were originally violated:

The Killer: [pleading] Please. Stop. No more! Can’t you see I’m hurt?

Harry Callahan:  The girl, where is she?

The Killer: [crying with reason] You tried to kill me.

Harry Callahan: If I tried that your head would be splattered all over this field.


Harry Callahan: Now, where’s the girl?

The Killer: [cries] I- I have rights. Why can’t you people just leave me alone?

Harry Callahan: Where’s the girl?

Here we see the court has tied Harry’s hands. If he interrogates the suspect without first Mirandizing him, then the suspect will go free, Harry may be held accountable in a court of law, and ultimately justice is perverted. If Harry follows the law, then he must read the man his rights, arrest him, provide council, and then interrogate. By this time the victim is dead. The politicians and the court have engineered a system that ultimately places law enforcement officers at a literal life and death decision point but they have not provided the answer or protection of the law. Inspector Callahan is on his own with no protection of law to deal with the killer. The screenwriters Fink are asking quite clearly, “What is the appropriate balance between rights of the victim and the rights of the suspect? When and by whom shall this be determined?” Meanwhile, the killer is set free because Harry violated his rights. The killer then hijacks and terrorizes a busload of children. Harry chases the killer to the waterfront and instead of arresting him, Harry executes him. The end scene shows Harry pull out his badge and throw it into the Oakland Harbor.

There is no coincidence that the year was 1971 and Harry was Inspector 71. Why is Harry throwing his badge into the water, one may wonder. It is the symbol of the bureaucracy he is flinging away, or perhaps he sees himself unworthy of the badge, being no better than the killer he just murdered. Maybe he was throwing away the value system that the badge had come to represent. Maybe he was throwing his whole career out. These questions pick at the underpinnings of society and leave conclusions to the viewer. The conclusions of the film are cloudy, leaving space for thought and challenge of convictions.

If it is good and well that the killer is stopped, why must Harry symbolically bury Inspector Callahan at sea? Have the Finks suggested that Law and Order can not thrive alongside Justice in the American way of life? Or that there are no absolutes judgements concerning life and death? That leaves a scary opening for cops who aren’t Dirty Harry Callahan and think they are. The Finks have me convinced that justice is a zero-sum fixed ideology. Ultimately, in a laboratory setting, either all the good guys or all the bad guys will have all the marbles. That is why Harry throws his badge into the water. Because America is a nation of laws, and a cop operating as judge won’t fly. Harry served justice, but justice did not serve Harry.