At least in the larger U.S. cities 30 years ago, residents had become totally fed up with traditional law enforcement initiatives. It was no longer safe to walk the streets at night. Even more dangerous to do so in public parks. Homes were robbed while people worked during the day. Many of the same homes were robbed again later after insurance coverage replaced the articles previously stolen. Racial animosities, drug abuse, and a widespread contempt for institutional authority all contributed to such problems.
Under Don Siegel's crisp direction, Eastwood and his associates in the cast bring R.M. Fink's screenplay to life (and yes, to death) as they focus on what is obviously an irreconcilable conflict between Callahan and his superiors who include the mayor of San Francisco. Callahan's motto seems to be "Whatever it takes." In some situations, it may take his 44 Magnum, "the most powerful handgun in the world." Callahan has not totally lost faith in his society nor in the importance of the legal system. However, he does feel betrayed. The mayor and even Lieutenant Bressler (Harry Guardino) just don't "get it." This is precisely the same point Jim Malone (Sean Connery) makes to Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) in The Untouchables 26 years later: When orthodox ("by the book") crime-fighting strategies and tactics don't succeed, use others even if they are not (at least technically) legal. Countless other films (such as Magnum Force, The French Connection, and L.A. Confidential) also make the same point.
It is important to remember when seeing this film again, as I did recently, that it portrays elements of an urban society few of us ever experience. Also, that it is a drama, not a documentary. Its primary purpose is to tell a story. The plot focuses on a serial killer named "Scorpio" (Andy Robinson) whom Callahan is determined to eliminate. Even when he eventually does so, questions remain. Don't criminals also have rights? What would happen if all or most other detectives followed Callahan's example? To what extent (if any) should private citizens also be actively involved in law enforcement? I agree with several critics who claim that, with Dirty Harry, Siegel and Eastwood created a new film genre. Its influence proved to be substantial. Each viewer must decide for herself or himself how much social relevance it has retained after 32 years but almost everyone would agree that it has lost little of its entertainment value.
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