“I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” – Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in Dirty Harry, 1971
Before Dirty Harry Clint Eastwood was a star. He worked his way up from playing uncredited characters in b-movie turkeys like 1955’s Revenge of the Creature to supporting roles in everything from a Francis the Talking Mule comedy to a string of westerns and war pictures. Television’s Rawhide made him a household name in America and his trio of spaghetti westerns with Sergio Leone—A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly—made him an international star, but it took an urban vigilante movie to make him a legend.
Loosely based on real life San Francisco police inspector Dave Toschi, one of the investigators of the Zodiac murders, Dirty Harry, is the story of SFPD Inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood) charged with bringing a serial killer to justice. Callahan lives by his own code of ethics and is unafraid to bend the rules to get the bad guy. He’s generally cool, calm and collected, but he took cool to a whole new level early in the film.
Seeing a bank robbery in progress Callahan approaches the scene without waiting for back up. Pointing his .44 Smith & Wesson Model 29 Magnum revolver in a robber’s face he says the words (written by future Apocalypse Now screenwriter John Milius) that made Clint Eastwood a superstar.
“I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
“It’s a very commanding moment,” says former Time critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel. “I mean he’s already a star, there’s no question about that, but in that moment the command of the screen, the command of himself, the strange humour of it, which is a real Clint kind of sense of humour working in that scene, it’s just great. That’s the moment. [After that] there’s no question that this guy is going to be, for a long time a major, major star. So I think in terms of his career, that’s the important line.”
Dirty Harry became Eastwood’s signature role, but it almost didn’t happen. Written for an older man the part was offered to Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra (who had to pass because a wrist injury prevented him from convincingly holding the weighty .44 Magnum). Then it was put forward to Steve McQueen (who turned it down, saying, “I’m only good doing authority my way.”) and Paul Newman who thought it was too right wing for him but suggested Clint.
“Like most pictures that I’ve done I had no idea if anyone would want to see it,” Eastwood says in the documentary The Eastwood Factor (directed by Schickel). “I figured I’d like to see it. If I hadn’t played in it I’d like to see it with somebody else. I just went at it from that angle.”
It was a perfect marriage of character and actor. Jay Cocks of Time wrote that Eastwood gave “his best performance so far, tense, tough, full of implicit identification with his character.” But not all critics liked the movie.
Roger Ebert condemned the film for its “fascist moral position” even though he grudgingly admitted it was well made. Not so with Pauline Kael the doyenne of film criticism. She called Dirty Harry a “right-wing fantasy [that is] a remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values” and labeled it “fascist medievalism.”
“It is suspenseful, it has a moral that I think is very potent, not at all what Pauline Kael thought it was,” argues Schickle. “She’s so full of shit. That woman. I mean, she persisted with that on every movie [Eastwood] made. I think the last one she reviewed was Unforgiven and she didn’t like that. Well crikey, that’s absurd.
“[Dirty Harry] is a movie that gets left off the My Favorite Clint Movies list that people make, but I think it is such a great movie. It holds up beautifully. It is the movie that projected him out of the ranks of stars and into the much smaller rank of superstars.”