Some films manage to evolve into more than just flickering images on a screen. They become ingrained in our culture, the characters near adjectives to describe life, the stories as well-known to men and women as some childhood fairy tales.
“Dirty Harry” is one such film. As it turns 45 on Dec. 21, it’s just as important and popular as it was when Clint Eastwood first grimaced behind a .44 Magnum and uttered, “You got to ask yourself one question — do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
At 86 years old and with his last acting job occurring in 2012, Eastwood is a long way off from the young action star he once was when he headlined the 1976 “Dirty Harry” movie. Still, even as a praised director and a man in his twilight years, fans clamor for the filmmaker’s best role and a possible new entry.
The franchise is still so popular that Eastwood was asked as recently as 2008 about doing another entry. “That is not correct,” the then-78-year-old filmmaker laughed at the “Changeling” premiere in regard to the chance of his running around with a .44 Magnum again. After actress Angelina Jolie joked about taking over the role, Eastwood quipped, “Yeah, Dirty Harriet, starring ‘Tomb Raider.'”
It may sound odd for an action-oriented franchise to still be pining for a man three decades removed from it, but it speaks to the power of the character of Dirty Harry and the longstanding popularity of the films.
Everybody knows the classic lines that have gone onto shape ideas of machismo and influence culture.
“Nothing wrong with a little shooting as long as the right people get shot,” Harry famously uttered in “Magnum Force.”
Then, in one of the franchise’s most popular entries, the Eastwood-directed “Sudden Impact,” Harry’s line, “Go ahead. Make my day,” was later used by President Ronald Reagan in a speech as president. Reagan used the line as a warning to lawmakers thinking of proposing tax increases. “I have my veto pen drawn and ready for any tax increase that Congress might even think of sending up. And I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers. Go ahead — make my day,” said Reagan at the 1985 American Business Conference in clear reference to the 1983 film.
Beyond the lines and the sharp looks lies what has truly made “Dirty Harry” stand the test of time — the character’s his red-blooded Americanness. One hundred percent individualistic, skirting bureaucracy, and always putting the little man (meaning the victim) above the system, Harry was an American rebel through and through, with an efficient code of justice he refused to ever bend.
“I felt the character was a man of purpose. Once he decided on something, there were no side movements away from it, no extraneous movements. He was a very determined soul,” Eastwood told MTV in 2008.
Before Eastwood got the part, the studio was interested in everyone from Robert Mitchum to Frank Sinatra. After losing Sinatra to a hand injury (he couldn’t properly hold a cannon like the .44 Magnum), Eastwood was brought into the project … and the rest is history.
The film wasn’t without its detractors when it was first released. Thought up as a counterculture answer to films sympathizing more and more with criminals and bad guys, “Dirty Harry” was an extreme version of the story of a man who would stop at nothing to get justice for the victims of crime.
In response to critics such as the since-deceased Pauline Kael, who called the original film a “Gestapo movie” in a New Yorker review, Eastwood told MTV, “I didn’t care less. Somebody else called it a fascist masterpiece. People are always calling people names, the great right-wing conspiracy or the great left-wing conspiracy. You make a movie, and if somebody reads something into it, then great, more power to him. [Director] Don Siegel and I were both very moderate politically. We didn’t think much of it. We just had a good time with it.”
The film, preserved by the National Film Registry in 2012, is a snapshot of the American spirit, of unbridled individualism.
Eastwood, an outspoken conservative and former mayor, has never shied away from speaking his mind, even when his opinions go against the Hollywood grain. It’s a trait that has made it hard to distinguish him from his silver screen counterpart.
At 45 years old this week, “Dirty Harry” is as much a piece of our American culture as ever before. The character’s name is practically an adjective unto itself. The film, preserved by the National Film Registry in 2012, is a snapshot of the American spirit, of unbridled individualism, of the lone man versus the system. It stands the test of time because the film perfectly captured the idea of the individual — and the idea that Americans must always fight for their rights and moral code.
And for those still holding out hope that in some strange universe the 86-year-old Eastwood will squint his eyes and white-knuckle a .44 just once more, it’s not entirely out of the question.
After a screening of the original film in 2008, Eastwood was pushed on the subject of revisiting the character for the first time since 1988’s “The Dead Pool.”
He told MTV, “There could be a scenario. I suppose if some mythical writer came out of nowhere and it was the greatest thing on the planet, I’d certainly have to think about it.”