Dirty Harry (1971)

The title character of Dirty Harry, Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood), is a well-known cliché in the movies: a police detective who chafes under all the rules and regulations that get in the way of his catching criminals. For example, in the movie Dragnet (1954), Officer Frank Smith (Ben Alexander) asks his partner Sergeant Joe Friday (Jack Webb) why the laws always protect the criminals, to which Friday responds, “Because the innocent don’t need them.” This attitude is rather widespread, unfortunately. An innocent man, the thinking goes, would never insist on having an attorney present while being interrogated by the police, would never demand to see a warrant before letting the police into his house, and would never plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to testify at his own trial. Only criminals do that sort of thing.

For people who think that way, Harry Callahan is their kind of cop, because he never lets something as fussy as a bunch of rights get in the way of catching the bad guys. In one scene in the movie, the district attorney tells Harry he violated several of the suspect’s rights, namely the ones embodied in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Harry says, “I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.” The district attorney responds that he should be, because the man will have to be released as a result, none of the evidence collected without a warrant being admissible, because that is the law. Harry says, “Then the law is crazy!” Harry then asks of the deceased victim, “And Ann Mary Deacon, what about her rights?” Thus does Harry give voice to much of the frustration felt by the audience that criminals have rights at the expense of the rights of their innocent victims.

The district attorney in that scene refers to the Miranda ruling, which requires that a suspect be informed of his rights to an attorney and the right to remain silent. Before the Miranda ruling it used to be habeas corpus that conservatives hated. In the movie Scarface (1932), for example, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is arrested and then released on what Tony jokingly refers to as a writ of hocus pocus.

The circumstance in which Harry violated all that suspect’s rights involved torture, and this movie brings out all the necessary conditions for torture to be justified in a movie. When depicted in film, torture is usually portrayed as something evil, something done by Nazis, for instance. But Dirty Harry is one of the first movies to present torture as being good. Early in the movie, the “Scorpio Killer” has buried a little girl alive with only enough oxygen to last her a few hours, and then demands ransom for her release. Harry agrees to deliver the money. When he does, the serial killer announces that he intends to let the little girl die. When Harry catches up with him, he tortures the killer until he tells him where the girl has been buried.

Even if we disapprove of torture in real life, we cannot help but approve of Dirty Harry’s actions while watching the movie. And this is for five reasons: (1) We are certain the man is guilty. Dirty Harry knows, as do we, that the man he is torturing is the Scorpio Killer. (2) The punishment fits the crime. The Scorpio Killer is evil, and clearly deserves the pain Harry inflicts on him. (3) There is a time element. In just a few hours, the girl will die, so the information must be extracted from him immediately. (4) The situation is ad hoc. Although early in the movie a doctor jokes about Harry beating a confession out of a suspect, it is our sense that he does not routinely torture criminals. (5) The torture is effective. We find out later that the girl was already dead, but Harry does get the information concerning where she is buried.  More on this topic is covered in my essay “The Evolution of Torture in the Movies.”

A few years before Dirty Harry was produced, another movie employing a similar type of police detective was Madigan (1968). Early in the movie, another detective says of the title character (played by Richard Widmark), “Madigan doesn’t always go by the book, but he’s a good cop,” thereby spelling out the cliché referred to in the opening paragraph, which is inept, dramatically speaking. Fortunately, Dirty Harry does not tell us Harry is that kind of cop. It shows us through his words and actions. That is just one of the reasons why Dirty Harry is a great movie, while Madigan is just second rate.

But it does raise the question, will we ever see a movie about a police detective who never violates a suspect’s rights, who never uses undue force, who never enters a suspect’s house without a warrant, and who believes that it is more important to obey the law than catch the bad guys, and as a result, the criminals often escape justice? In other words, will we ever see a movie in which someone says, “Detective Fussbottom is a bad cop, but at least he always goes by the book”? Probably not, but if we ever do see such a movie, it will have to be a comedy.

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