Character Study, Film Follies

Character Study-Harry Callahan

Every once and awhile a film will come along that will so embed itself in pop culture that a person need never have seen a film to quote it. Dirty Harry is one of these films. It and its subsequent sequels proved to be so impactful that we use phrases such as “Do you feel lucky?” and “Make my day” as part of our everyday conversation. Even Dirty Harry itself has become a slang term in our lexicon. All of that is due to Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of the titular Dirty Harry, and in this edition of Character Study, we’re going to break down exactly what makes Harry Callahan tick.
Or at least that was my intention, but the thing is having gone back and watched all five of the Dirty Harry films I found myself realizing that there is not much there. Perhaps in a pre-Black Lives Matter/#Metoo world this kind of character could exist, but not anymore. Dirty Harry was always a fantasy and was by no means the originator of the ‘strong silent type who gets the job done by any means necessary’ trope. But in the modern world, Harry’s casual racism and sexism combined with his flagrant disregard for the idea of due process present him as nothing more than an avatar of armchair masculinity, wish-fulfillment at its most obvious.
The most important thing for us to examine are Harry’s fascist tendencies. On multiple occasions throughout the film series, Harry expresses contempt and disdain for the law. Harry frequently abuses suspects in his custody, performs illegal searches, and uses his badge to bully and intimidate those he is investigating. All while insisting on a black and white worldview of good guys versus bad guys. Two major plot points in the films stand out in this regard.
The first, which occurs in the second movie, is when a group of vigilante cops, who are going around town murdering criminals who got off on a technicality, ask Harry to join them. He gives what for him is a long speech about the need for the law, which might be more believable if he hadn’t spent his first two film outings breaking it over and over. The idea that this super cop, who repeatedly beats suspects he refers to as scumbags, would blanch at killing murderers in cold blood stretches the bounds of plausibility but is at least in keeping with the fantasy of the macho good guy with a big gun. Sure he beats up some bad guys and kills suspects by baiting them into unnecessary shootouts, but in the end, he knows where the line is.
Or at least he does until the fourth movie, where Harry is presented with almost the exact same scenario. A woman is murdering criminals who got away with it. The only difference is that instead of being a cop, she is a victim. So in this instance, Harry covers for her, and in doing so lets her get away with murder. This is the final proof that Harry does not care about the rule of law but instead uses his badge to enforce his own morality upon the populace. Arbitrary application of the law upheld through the use of force, that is almost a textbook definition of fascism.
Dirty Harry lives in the zeitgeist as a bad-ass take no prisoners cop who is willing to do what is necessary to catch the bad guys.But take a closer look and you’ll see that Harry Callahan is, in fact, the real bad guy of these films because he does something far more dangerous than any of his over the top villains. He encourages the authoritarian fantasies of his audience, fantasies which when manifested have a detrimental effect on the real world.

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