In between whining about grad school this week and watching really terrible red neck comedians in West Valley, I’ve been screening the Dirty Harry series. So far I’ve watched through The Enforcer, and with two more left to go I’ve got to come right out and say that those movies are fucked up. For their enormous popularity I wasn’t quite expecting such sexist, pro-violent fare, but I really should have known better… The movies are so over the top that they’re hilarious. I find myself rewinding segments just to rewatch that silly Lady Detective in The Enforcer shooting the Nun, or a bunch of topless pool babes in San Francisco getting gunned into a pool. Funny!
I remember in Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Carol Clover talks about Dirty Harry as being far more reprehensible than I Spit on Your Grave, which somewhat tries – amid its horrifying exploitative elements – to even the gender playing field. Viewing the films in 2009, I don’t know that I agree with that sentiment. While seeing the films on their release dates would have been something different, the Dirty Harry movies today come across as far more campy than the purposely campy I Spit on Your Grave or Last House on the Left. To me. But perhaps I’m not the kind of person who is meant to watch any of those movies.
The most blatant – funny – examples of camp in the Dirty Harry series is when the films try to rectify themselves and prove to critics that they are more thoughtful than they actually are. Magnum Force, for example, was meant to pacify critics who claimed the original Dirty Harry was pro-violent vigilantism. So they pit Callahan against a gang of vigilante cops. See? Callahan doesn’t like vigilantism! So to prove it, he’s going to shoot every one of those crazy mother fuckers dead!! Likewise, the “feminist” outlook the third film, The Enforcer, takes. Feminist critics giving you shit? Throw in a Lady Detective to run around in a skirt suit and high heels, looking completely foolish. Looks like the typical Dirty Harry fare until she saves your ass at the end, right? Wrong. The Enforcer is so over-the-top sexist that even a Judith Butler-loving-FemiNazi like me is loving it (though also pointing out every inconsistency and ridiculous shot as the film goes on, much to the annoyance, I’m sure, of Scott, who isn’t stupid and probably already knew that a Lady Detective fainting during an autopsy scene probably isn’t the most even-handed move).
Clearly, however, the Dirty Harry films were far from harmless on their initial release. The Hi-Fi Massacre killers found Magnum Force particularly helpful when they used Drano on their victims. And a police department in the Phillipines seemed like think the original film would be a good training video for their forces (according to the ever-reliable IMDB). No, you can’t necessarily blame art for how it affects people, but you also can’t deny the fact that art does have an effect on people. As annoying as it is, violence on television and in film has been shown to create more violent thoughts and behaviors. And such badass-cool violence in a film might be a little more effective. Dirty Harry Callahan has somehow become an image of ideal Maleness, while his conquests might be a version of ideal Femaleness. Much like the Bond girls that those feminist critics just won’t shut up about, the women in Dirty Harry films only serve to further this image of incompetency and prioritized sexuality. No matter how hilarious.
So what do we do with these films? I think the best action to take is to show them on TNT and Spike Television at least a dozen times a year.