Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dirty Harry Box Set: DVD Review

In 1971, Clint Eastwood was on the verge of becoming a star. Sergio Leone’s Dollar trilogy had rescued him from TV Westerns and made him a marquee name (even if it was a man with no name). But it was with Dirty Harry, and in particular the scene which ends with “Well do ya, punk?”, when Eastwood’s scowl passed over into legend. The film, directed by Don Siegel, was as taut a cops-and-robbers tale as Hollywood ever produced but no one at the time paid attention to the craft involved. Critics, the media and the public were divided down the middle on the issue of whether the film was, as per reviewer Pauline Kael’s famous putdown, a “fascist work of art”. What’s interesting is how the remaining Dirty Harry films would take the premise of an edgy, violent cop at war with the system and tweak it in ways that were often unexpected.

Magnum Force, the second in the series, literally takes aim at its liberal critics; as the credits end, Harry points his .44 Magnum straight at the screen and shoots. With a group of rogue patrolmen playing the bad guys, the film tries to peg its antihero as a lesser evil. This is a bit of a con – Harry is excessive no matter who the antagonist is. But it’s difficult to deny the guilty pleasure in watching a perpetually pissed-off Eastwood battle the system until he gets frustrated and pulls out his cannon of a handgun. Next up was The Enforcer, the only film in the series that recognises the potential for humour in Eastwood’s stony mutterings. Under the direction of James Fargo, and paired with a female partner (Tyne Daly) for the first time, this was Harry’s last great outing.

Two more films would follow. Sudden Impact, with Eastwood himself directing, tried to present a more sympathetic killer, but ended up trite and predictable. The Dead Pool, directed by Eastwood’s one-time stunt double Buddy Van Horn, was also unremarkable, the only point of interest being a cameo by pre-fame Jim Carrey. Despite this decline in quality, the series as a whole has been remarkably influential (its raggedy spiritual heirs range from Lethal Weapon to Bad Boys) – a fact you’re reminded of again and again by the numerous special features on this box set. There are audio commentaries for three of the films, discussions on Harry, his methods and cinematic legacy and several looks back at Eastwood’s career. We’d recommend the Sudden Impact commentary by critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel; perceptive and wry, it’s a good deal more rewarding than the film itself.

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