Does the “Dirty Harry” Franchise Make Real-World Sense?

Vern Scott
10 min readMay 25


Have you watched a Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry movie lately? Far from being an exercise in right-wing police fantasy, they are actually a clinic on cutting through red-tape bullshit to assert a kind of broad and fair justice (aside from the alleged failures to read Miranda Rights and Illegal Searches). I was also surprised at how much less gratuitously violent they were than many modern shows streamed on our TVs. They are also surprisingly inclusive of women and minorities. Could “Dirty Harry” actually be a model for how to reimagine modern policework?

Is Harry Callahan/Clint Eastwood a kind of one-man Centrist, urban-blight army?

In these times of right-wing fascist MAGA, its easy to forget that the “tough-guy” Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger films of the 70s-90s were actually pretty tame and sensible compared to many today. Eastwood and Schwarzenegger themselves (who both subsequently got involved in Republican California politics) also seem quite politically centrist in today’s lens, even though they were once thought to be “right wing”. It seemed troubling at the time that SF Police Detective Harry Callahan (Eastwood) was kind of willy-nilly shooting bad-guys, but given all the recent gun violence directed at innocent people, he seems the lesser of the evils and a kind of .44-toting sheepdog. Additionally, most of the Harry vitriol was reserved for deranged political Hippies (also white), plus liberal judges/officious administrators (who cared more about the destruction of Harry’s $10k squad car than him catching the bad guy). Blacks, Asians, and presumably Hispanics (there are few) are treated lightly to add to Harry’s “cool”. Similarly, pornographers and sometimes news people are given the rough Harry treatment, while LGBT are held relatively harmless (though there are certainly some oblique shots at ball-busting women in there). Ok now, let’s examine each of the five “Dirty Harry” movies and their messages/catchphrases:

DIRTY HARRY” (1971): Having lived in or visited San Francisco my whole life, just seeing something filmed there is a treat. Yet, I’m also saddened by its decline (due largely to the homeless, drugs, increased crime, rather slothful LGBT culture). As Dave Chappelle recently noted, “San Francisco has become half ‘Glee’ and half zombie movie”. Watching “Dirty Harry” films I’m tempted to shout out “but Harry, you were there when the City wasn’t that bad!”. At the time “Dirty Harry” was made, everyone was nervous about “The Zodiac” killings, and the taunting messages the killer sent to the Chronicle. It was also late-Hippiedom, and the original peaceful/thoughtful hippies had been replaced by the “gimme free-love and drugs or I’ll kill you” idiots, who had long-hair and weird clothes, but were more or less hippie-imposters. At the same time, the sort of “Rights run amok” had taken hold, so that bad guys were being released by the courts on technicalities or on successful “I’m a product of a bad upbringing defense” (all of which was to come to a head 7 years later when real-life vigilante Dan White was released by the “Twinkie Defense”. I remember being in the theater watching “Dirty Harry”, and you can’t imagine all the glee (sorry, joy) the audience felt in watching Eastwood administer justice (it was a kind of amped-up “McCloud”, which was itself based upon another Eastwood cop movie called “Coogan’s Bluff”). This was the same backdrop (essentially Hippie and Black Panther backlash) that catapulted Ronald Reagan to a two-term governorship beginning in 1966. As in today’s world, people yearned for a kind of no-bullshit, quasi-vigilante justice, and Dirty Harry was happy to provide. The thing is, Eastwood/Dirty Harry was a sort of hip vigilante, he didn’t like mealy-mouthed administrators or permissive judges either, was a kind of Robin Hood to minorities and compliant women. The Dirty Harry franchise notably puts African Americans and Asians in a good light (they were seen committing crimes but not the “disgusting” crime element, Harry sometimes has an African American or Asian-American partner, and an Asian American girlfriend). Yes, the disgusting element is the weird/entitled Hippie, of whom everyone was getting tired of at that time (heck, I was kind of a hippie at the time and even I was getting sick of them). In this one, thoroughly despicable “Scorpio” (Andy Robinson) is the perp, and Harry’s partner is Hispanic Chico Gonzalez (actually Spanish-Italian actor Reni Santoni). Naturally, Chico gets shot in the chest by Scorpio and retires (note: Harry goes through a lot of partners during the franchise). Harry overcomes many fruitless attempts by his administrative and judicial handlers to capitulate to Scorpio (I guess the phrase “Never negotiate with a terrorist” hadn’t been invented yet). During a confrontation with a recalcitrant Scorpio at Kezar Stadium (the fondly remembered home of the old 49ers until that year), I found myself imagining sissy-deranged Scorpio being tackled by boyhood 49er heroes Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wilcox. Naturally Harry decides to use direct and unconventional means to finally vanquish the sniveling Astrological killer (this time in an abandoned quarry…the franchise makes good use of abandoned factories, foundries, piers, and of course Alcatraz). Best “Dirty Harry” quote: “You’ve gotta ask yourself ‘Do I feel lucky?’. Well do ya punk?”

Harry may be a kind of 70’s misogynist, but he sure boosted the careers of Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless, in addition to the female cop-show genre. I suppose Harry isn’t as much anti-woman as he is anti-bullshit

MAGNUM FORCE” (1973): This is really interesting, in the sense that it shows Harry fighting a rogue vigilante element within the SFPD, taking the “Dirty Harry” method too far (making stops and killing felons before they have a chance at a fair trial, often African American ones). As such, it would seem the Harrys are standing AGAINST the Derek Chauvins of the world. As in most Dirty Harry movies, this plot mirrored an SF-Bay Area event in real-life, the Richmond Cowboys (in a nearby town, rogue white police officers were using fatal chokeholds on mostly African American suspects). The “Richmond Cowboys” were found to be a kind of secret white supremacist cult within the Richmond Police force. Four of the fascist vigilantes are popular actors Tim Matheson (prior to “Animal House”), Robert Urich (before “Vega$”), David Soul (prior to “Starsky and Hutch” and “Don’t Give Up Us”), and Hal Holbrook as officers Sweet, Grimes, Davis, and Briggs. The movie might stand today as an advertisement for Black Lives Matter, since the death squad officers seem to prey upon African Americans and talk about how hard it is to prosecute a cop. The movie seems to be a reaction to allegations that the original “Dirty Harry” movie made Eastwood look like a lawless thug, albeit a cool one. This movie really reinforces Harry’s “cool” credentials by giving him some discretion (and bedding an attractive Asian American, Adele Yoshioka). Key catchphrase: “A man has got to know his limitations”. Key dialog at the end of the movie when death-squad vigilantes are confronted by Harry:

Harry Callahan : You heroes have killed a dozen people. What are you gonna do next week?

Officer Davis : Kill a dozen more.

Harry Callahan : Is that what you guys are about? Being heroes?

Officer Red Astrachan : All our heroes are dead.

Officer Davis : We’re the first generation that’s learned to fight. We’re simply ridding society of killers that would have been caught and sentenced if our courts worked properly. We began with the criminals that the people knew so that our actions would be understood. It’s not just a question of whether or not to use violence, there’s simply no other way, Inspector. You of all people… should understand that.

Grimes : Either you’re with us or you’re against us.

Harry Callahan : I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me.

THE ENFORCER” (1976): In this one, Harry is paired with an inexperienced female partner from personnel (Tyne Daly, in a role that foretold “Cagney and Lacy”) after his first partner dies. He is also faced with the insidious “People’s Revolutionary Strike Force”, once again composed of rogue Hippies (and an apparent reference to the real-life “Symbionese Liberation Army” that kidnapped Heiress Patty Hearst). Daly starts out awkward and overeager, but soon proves to be a valuable sidekick. Meanwhile, the publicity-seeking Mayor of San Francisco messes up Harry by prosecuting Big Ed Mustapha (a sort of Black Panther, played by Albert Popwell who was in 4 of the 5 “Harry” films) and naively making a deal with the ruthless P.R.S.F. In the end, Daly proves to be competent and a kind of “little sister” to Harry even (spoiler alert) taking a bullet for him. Best lines:

(An apparent reference to perceived onerous lesbian) Callahan: “If she wants to play lumberjack she’s gonna have to learn to handle her end of the log”

(Exchange with Captain McKay)

Harry Callahan: Personnel? That’s for assholes!

Capt McKay: I was in Personnel for ten years.

Harry Callahan: Yeah.

SUDDEN IMPACT” (1983): Callahan is sent to a small coastal California town (something like Santa Cruz) to investigate a series of murders that are apparently committed by a vengeful female victim who was previously molested (along with her sister) by several men. The female lead, Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke), was living with Eastwood at the time, and later they had a messy palimony suit. This time, the bad guys look to be white rednecks, and Harry sees that fellow vigilante Spencer/Locke is held harmless by a kind of “justifiable homicide” thing (fair enough). Catchphrase: “Go ahead, make my day”.

THE DEAD POOL” (1988): This one is about a group of people that bet upon which famous people will die, with someone apparently rigging the game by actually killing people on the list. The movie is early in the careers of Patricia Clarkson, Jim Carrey (who portrays a particularly warped Hippie), and Liam Neeson, while introducing martial arts expert Evan Kim as Harry’s new partner. As usual, most of the bad guys are white (this time Italian mafioso types). Harry even goons the Mafia king-pin in San Quentin by fooling him into thinking he’ll be 6’-5” “Butcher” Hicks’ bitch if he doesn’t call off his assassins. Catchphrase: “Looks like you’re shit outta luck”.

“Dirty Harry” and “Shaft” both came out in 1971. Was Harry a “White Shaft” or was Shaft a “Black Harry”? There seems to have been common cause for blue collar whites/blacks then, against crime, hippies, and bullshit.

SIDENOTES: There is apparently discussion in police and law circles about the “Dirty Harry Problem” (manufacturing “cause”, not reading Miranda Rights, extracting confessions from compromised would-be felons, illegal searches) yet it is not clear that Harry Callahan did these things. Harry is usually dealing with an imminent crisis and proving “cause” is easy (he or a bunch of San Franciscans are about to be killed). Much of this dialog centers around the first “Dirty Harry” when the DA lets Scorpio go free while admonishing Callahan. Nevertheless, the movie highlights the temptations of “dirty” cops. (Paulsen,1997),(Klockers,1980)

I saw the Clint Eastwood movies “Paint Your Wagon” and “The Outlaw Josie Wales” at campus movie houses at Chico State and UC Berkeley respectively, in the late 70s. Though the audience was packed with liberals, feminists, and quasi-hippies, frequently making light of the tough, squinting, Eastwood image (or laughing at him singing “I Talk to the Trees”), you could tell they were enjoying the heck out of it. Everyone seemed to relate to the “boss yells at Harry even though he saved the world” part, as everyone secretly believes their boss is an idiot. Besides, we may all have been close to learning that our parents had been right about many things. I seem to remember that Clint and Arnold were stand-ins for what was considered “machismo” at the time, even suggesting that the .44 Magnum was a phallic-symbol (there was a lot of psychobabble then that seems rather silly now, plus I suppose that Clint/Arnold weren’t p*ssy grabbers and one’s hippie g.f. at the time wouldn’t have kicked them out of bed). I had an older friend at UCB who was a Vietnam Vet, who worshipped Eastwood (he also subscribed to the Eastwood-Black alliance that later begat franchises like “Shaft” and the hilarious Blaxploitation satire “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka”). I’m not sure if the UCB audience was comprised of future police administrators, therapists, and soft judges, but it all seemed to be a guilty-pleasure for them.


Harry: “Wait! Do you espouse responsible environmental protections, non-racist MLK principles, committed LGBT marriage, and libertarian yet responsible drug and abortion policies?”

Would-be Perp: “No, I’m strictly for high entitlement, having license to lie and steal if things aren’t given to me, while milking the justice system to make excuses for my hatred of work and need for immediate gratifications, including crimes against innocent victims”.

Harry: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you…”

TAKEAWAYS: What would the world of today look like if we turned a few Dirty Harrys loose in our cities? Well, it might not look as bad as you’d think, as Harry had proven himself somewhat sensitive to justice, African/Asian/Mexican Americans, and women beneath his rough exterior. Additionally, Harry never needs automatic weapons to get the job done, only a handgun, so how much damage can he really do? Over the years, Harry Callahan essentially morphed into a kind of Centrist vigilante. Yet, don’t expect him to be particularly sensitive to weird Hippies, Pornographers, officious bosses/mayors, and possibly onerous women, given his history. His experience is real-world reflective of people on the front-lines (ie teachers, construction workers, soldiers) who are sold-out by wimpy administrators, tempting them to take matters into their own hands (sometimes that’s their only option, since the administrators are trying to make them the fall-people). Harry has a kind of itchy trigger-finger, but then almost not as much as many of today’s action heroes…in fact he sometimes seems downright discreet! Harry is never shown to kill an innocent person, but he may have simply been lucky (did he feel lucky, punk?) I’m thinking that Harry may have invented the “Unified Field Theory” of good police work that even “Mare of Easttown” (Kate Winslet), “Killing Eve” (Sandra Oh), and “Broadchurch” (Olivia Coleman) subscribe to, that of “let talented, well-paid, intelligent, non-racist cops do their job” (which also works for teachers by the way). Should we trust people like Harry to roam the streets packing .44 Magnums in search of bad guys? Well, that’s already happening thanks to open-carry laws etc, and one suspects that 90% of the people packin’ (good and bad) aren’t of Harry Callahan’s caliber (so to speak), and could stand to make Harry’s day.



Vern Scott

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health