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50 years of 'Dirty Harry': Clint Eastwood's genre-defining role

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“Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?’” – Harry (Dirty Harry)

After he established himself as the ‘man with no name’ in the western classics of Sergio Leone, Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood set about making a name for himself in the contemporary sphere as the industry ramped up in the late 20th century. Casting his dusty, western aesthetic aside for a new sharp, suited persona, Eastwood became Dirty Harry in 1971, a role that would help to define the actor’s later career. 

The action-thriller, neo-noir from Invaders of the Body Snatchers filmmaker Don Siegel sees Eastwood star as a San Francisco Police Inspector who is assigned to take down a crazed psychopath named ‘the Scorpio Killer’. It’s a stylish action vehicle for the lead icon, sporting a smart suit, wicked grimace and the evocative double-action Smith & Wesson Model 29, 44-cal. Magnum revolver.

Originally intended as a role for the influential singer and actor Frank Sinatra, once he decided against the project the film’s producers began to look for a younger actor to play the role. With the likes of Burt Lancaster, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman each turning down the role, the latter suggested that the crew consider Eastwood for the part, with the iconic western star eager to come on board. 

Passed through a number of hands, it’s remarkable that the film’s final script has even a semblance of continuity with six different writers each having their own input on the project, including the Badlands director Terrence Malick. In addition to Malick, the pioneering writer of Apocalypse Now, John Milius, also had a hand in penning the script, telling Film Comment in 1976 that his main contribution to the film was “a lot of guns. And the attitude of Dirty Harry, being a cop who was ruthless…I was thinking in terms of Kurosawa’s detective films”. 

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Despite the many cooks that contributed to the boiling broth of Dirty Harry, it is Clint Eastwood as the titular badass who helps to pull the film together dominating the streets as a ruthless processor to Judge Dredd. Almost constantly suited, ready for both a board meeting and shootout, Eastwood’s enigmatic character seems inspired by the meandering individuals of the films of Wim Wenders with the merciless morals of his Sergio Leone identity.

Spawning four sequels released throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Dirty Harry quickly became a figure of popular culture and helped to elevate Clint Eastwood above his stereotype of a wandering star of western cinema. From one stereotype to another, Eastwood indeed became the blueprint of every hardened cop in film and television, with his highly-strung mentality inspiring the likes of Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon, Frank in Serpico and even Marty Hart in HBO’s True Detective

50 years after the release of the influential crime classic, the film remains a cultural milestone in action filmmaking and dirty Harry Callahan continues to be remembered as a figure of great inspiration for the genre to come. 

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