In 1971, Dirty Harry set out the blueprint for pretty much all cop movies that followed. Clint Eastwood plays a cynical detective – a loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules – who gets teamed up with a rookie cop even though he prefers to work alone. Its reputation is more or less as an entertaining action film and a nasty piece of fascist propaganda: Harry couldn’t give less of a shit about your civil rights, and the film is emphatically not about him learning the error of his ways.
Harry is an extraordinary piece of shit. A guy is about to jump off a building, and they send Harry up to talk him down: Harry punches him in the face. Another cop explains to the rookie why they call him Dirty Harry, saying Harry hates everyone, including a whole list of racial slurs. In the famous “are you feeling lucky?” scene, Harry’s so fucking cold-blooded, reciting his memorised cool-guy speech while he threatens to kill someone, and it’s chilling. But also: it is a cool speech, and he is a cool guy. Like his spaghetti westerns, Eastwood plays an essentially monstrous character with such rock-solid charisma that you find yourself drawn in. The way he speaks through his teeth, the way he squares his jaw, the way he holds a gun: he’s magnetic. This is the essential dilemma of Dirty Harry: are his coolness and his monstrosity in tension with one another, or are they one and the same? Does the film think all the awful shit Harry does is cool? Is it part of what makes him cool?
Roger Ebert called the film fascist (he gave it three stars out of four). Pauline Kael also called it fascist. Gene Siskel called it dangerous. And Dirty Harry is definitely not one of those films where its point of view on its immoral characters is so obvious and forthright that I find debate about it vaguely exhausting: like, there are real people in the world who think The Wolf of Wall Street is pro-Jordan Belfort because even though it’s an incomparable descent into hell, it’s also funny, and those people are geniuses next to the people who think Starship Troopers is fascist. But Dirty Harry is not a misunderstood satire, not really. I think seeing it as fascist makes a lot of sense: if Harry is cool, if you like him and root for him, if you take the ticking time bomb torture scenario the film sets up at face value, then Dirty Harry is an argument for extrajudicial torture, violence as first resort, and a police state.
But Dirty Harry isn’t an “argument”. It’s a film.