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The Dead Pool Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 7, 2008

    The Dead Pool Review
    “There is one question, Insp. Callahan ... why do they call you Dirty Harry?”

    It is often easy to claim that “Dirty” Harry Callahan, Homicide Inspector for the San Francisco Police Department, is just an extension of Clint Eastwood's already-tailor-made and cult-favoured Man With No Name anti-hero from Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy, but beyond both being crack-shots with six-shooters, there is little to bring the uber-cool maverick copper to roost beneath that famous Mexican poncho. Harry may be just as laconic and cool under pressure, but his resilience and pure machismo is also far more complicated. Despite coming under our scrutiny for five films, we only ever get to scratch the surface of this wildcard. His past, barring a throwaway line regarding a wife, now deceased, is about the only reference we get to someone is more than just a collection of quips and knee-jerk, zero-tolerance justice-dealing. His Western icon was also just part of an amazing ensemble - Gian Maria Volante, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach who all, arguably, stole the show from under him in the trilogy. But here, with the Dirty Harrys, he was the undisputed star and main attraction.You could say that Clint Eastwood was the first “real” star to create an ongoing association with a particular character with his Spaghetti-Western icon, then cementing this rock-solid role-inhabitation with the unforgiving Harry. The James Bond franchise was getting under way at the same time as Leone's displaced oaters but Mel Gibson's Mad Max and Martin Riggs were still a long way off, as was Indiana Jones, Rocky and Rambo. Clint possibly invented this vogue for ongoing adventures for characters that were made for the movies and not derived from a literary source. But Dirty Harry was also much, much more than just a vehicle for a popular star about to lay waste to the decline in law and order and the rampant social decay that America faced once it had turned its back on the sixties.

    Famously, the screenplay written by Julian and Rita Fink was to have featured Frank Sinatra or Steve McQueen in the title role. Even John Wayne had once been earmarked for it and only found solace in his own modern-day detective sagas McQ and the Britain-based Brannigan to try and atone for passing up such a terrific cowboy-to-cop transition - a decision that he rued until the day he died. Arguably, Eastwood had already tested the water for such a genre-crossing premise with Don Siegel's earlier Coogan's Bluff (1968) that saw a southern cop in Stetson and pointed boots hitting the big city for a thrilling culture-clash and this re-teaming with Siegel for Dirty Harry seemed like the natural extension of the same concept. Hard-line and equally hard-hitting, the film was viewed as a hefty hoof in the nuts by the do-gooding left-wing liberal pansies campaigning for softer laws and a weakened judicial system. But even though the politics of this seventies anti-crime crusade were designed to rock the complacent, there was never any doubt that Harry was unutterably alone in his single-minded determination to fight fire with fire - we sure as hell rooted for him, but we knew damn well that he was trouble. The crucial thing to remember is that with Vietnam still ringing in America's ears, race-riots still raging and immense discontent seething beneath the surface, it would have been fundamentally wrong not have found some popular voice to shout out for natural justice in a world that was teetering on the brink of urban anarchy. Dirty Harry wasn't just timely, he was downright necessary.

    His first adventure was also the grittiest and most disturbing. Detailing in sharp relief the hunt for a vicious and clearly insane rooftop sniper calling himself Scorpio, who taunts the police with letters and demands and ups the game considerably when he begins to take young hostages, the film becomes a personal vendetta between him and Harry. Pulling absolutely no punches and featuring scenes of violence that still hurt even now, Dirty Harry would court controversy and catapult itself to international acclaim and notoriety. That it was also an utterly brilliantly conceived and executed film that combined police procedural with a new-wave action aesthetic, and urban realism with mesmerising performances was just the icing on the cake and it remains a benchmark that thrillers even today struggle to come anywhere close to emulating. One thing is perfectly clear - a line had been crossed and from this point onward, movies would never be the same again. The seventies spit, rage and nihilism had swaggered onto the screen and when these traits were depicted by the good guy ... well, all bets were off.

    “Get the hell out of the way, Hammerhead!”

    Sequels were inevitable, given the success of Dirty Harry. Magnum Force, written by the ever-macho John (Conan The Barbarian) Milius and Michael (Heaven's Gate) Cimino followed in 1973 and upped the action and the bodycount considerably. It may have fudged the motivations of the character when it pitched the normally take-no-prisoners Harry against a renegade group of motorcycle cops who have become a stylised death squad executing the scumbags that he would usually have wasted no time blowing apart, himself - they offer him a place on the team but, in a definite nod to the original's most vociferous protesters, he refuses - but it successfully carried on the valiant vigilante ethic that society was secretly enamoured with. 1976 mellowed Callahan even further when he was forced to take on Tyne Daly's rookie partner and tackle an oddly motivated hippie terrorist clan in The Enforcer, directed by James Fargo, who would later provide Clint with an equally cute partner from a minority group in “Right Turn” Clyde, the orang-utan, for Any Which Way But Loose. Eastwood, himself, took the directorial reins when he returned an older, slower Dirty Harry to the screen in 1983's atypical Sudden Impact with off-screen paramour Sondra Locke, who was still putting our boy in jeopardy after the earlier The Gauntlet (which Eastwood directed and is often mistaken for a Dirty Harry entry) spewed fists and bullets like a prototype John Woo. And then, right at the back of the pack, clearly taking Harry an adventure too far in 1988 came the dumb-yet-fun The Dead Pool, notable now for early turns from Jim Carrey and Liam Neeson.

    “Anyone can see I didn't do that to him?”


    “Cos he looks too damn good, that's how!”

    A considered loner, Harry would walk, unhurried, through heaps of casual set-piece crime-fighting - it is funny just how many times his junk-food lunch, coffee-break or simple drive-bys would be disturbed by some heist or other going down just across the road, forcing him to draw his .44 once more and rock the neighbourhood with wry put-downs and allegedly “fascistic” executions. But, right from the word go, the films established a newer and much more visceral approach to screen violence. Long before George Romero put bullets through heads in Dawn Of The Dead, the Dirty Harry films were blowing chunks out of noggins. The gritty presentation of physical beatings was also considerably in-yer-face, too. And a surprising thing about this is that it was often Harry, himself, who was on the receiving end of fists and feet and could occasionally come to resemble a battered pumpkin after a severe pasting. One is immediately reminded of the vicious clobbering and kicking he gets under the merciless onslaught of Scorpio at the foot of the big cross - “Hubba, hubba, hubba!” This is a common thing in many of Eastwood's films from those for Sergio Leone to The Gauntlet, Sudden Impact and Unforgiven - the guy likes to show us his characters are hard, but vulnerable.

    “No, no, no, no, no, no ... not yet. Don't you pass out on me now, you rotten oinker!!!!”

    Andy (now more professionally known as Andrew) Robinson was simply amazing as the deranged Zodiac-inspired killer Scorpio. With bleary, yet bug-eyed intensity, wildly flapping hair, a maniacal laugh and a shockingly brutal and purely indiscriminate obsession for sky-high violence, Robinson's Scorpio is still hugely watchable despite his depravities. The world was a sicker, more perplexing place once the swinging sixties had lost its intoxicating spell and discontent manifested itself in ever-more gratuitous and unspeakable ways. The killers prowling the streets had become monsters and their methods and madness were proving far beyond the capacity of the legal system to cope with. Setting out his agenda right from the start with his immortal “When an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard. That's my policy,” Harry seems to be the only fighting chance that society's got when faced with such remorseless psychos. Throughout the rest of the series, Harry may get beaten, battered and bruised and go up against some pretty tough swine, but there would be no nemesis quite so damaging nor so cruelly haunting as Scorpio. His disregard for human life - anyone's, be they a priest, a teenager, an OAP store-keeper, a child out playing or even an entire school-bus full of them - is so frightening and penetrating that Robinson's face and voice would sicken people for decades after his reign of terror as Scorpio, so indelible was his portrayal. The lengths he would go to in order to entrap Harry were more than extreme too - that cash-on-delivery beating he takes really pushing the envelope and the only thing that stops us from enjoying seeing the sick sonofabitch suffer in such a systematically pulverising way is the fact that he seems to be enjoying it too. “You really want two-hundred's worth?” enquires the professional bone-breaker. “Every penny of it ...” grins Scorpio through what will soon be broken teeth.

    But it wasn't just Harry and the villains who would suffer throughout the series. Like a one-man cyclone, Harry Callahan would ensnare seemingly all those around him with destruction.

    Reni Santoni's Chico Gonzales tasted the grief and danger of working with Harry and would bow out with a few of Scorpio's bullets in his body to boast about when he went on to become a teacher. Early Smith (Felton Perry) would come to realise just how close to the wire his imposing partner was willing to go when he was forced to his knees with a sawn-off shotgun to chew on during the liquor store stakeout. Even series-regular Det. Frank DiGeorgio would gasp his last into Harry's face with the demand that he be avenged. Most tragically of all, of course, was poor Tyne Daly's severely truncated career as a Homicide Inspector - a wonderful move by the Finks, again resuming screenwriting duties after the Magnum Force interlude, who tapped into the heart of the character and actually made her quite mythical when held up against Callahan's other cohorts in the series. But the fact is that Harry's infamous kiss of death was just as dangerous to the good guys as it was to the bad. His very rogue status on the Force was a thing of folklore and treated with kid-gloves and the utmost respect. Yet whilst his frequent sparring with the bosses - John Vernon's Mayor, Hal Holbrook's Lt. Briggs, Bradford Dillman's Captain McKay (he also, rather confusingly, played a “Briggs” as well, later on) and Pat Hingle's slow-coach hick Chief Jannings up the coast - the rest of the cops seems to hero-worship him. The great shoot-off in Magnum Force when Harry, an acclaimed and highly glamorised figure in the PD pistol range tournament, strides out to take his position and the earlier praise that Sweet, Grimes, Astrachan and David Soul's Davis show him when he arrives at their practice session reveal that he is an enigmatic figure of virtually ballistic sainthood.

    “Nothing is wrong with shooting, as long as the right people get shot.”

    Both Magnum Force and The Enforcer would play down the dark psychological menace of Dirty Harry in return for higher bodycounts and a somewhat lighter tone. Cheerfully episodic, Magnum Force even finds time to give Harry some loving in-between the plentiful shoot-outs, although he would forever remain a bullet-caressing bachelor throughout the movies. Mitchell (Lethal Weapon) Ryan's bottle-hitting pal of Harry's, Frank McCoy would further cement the hero's obvious likeability and, naturally, his Omen-style powers of bringing death with him wherever he goes. The stunts were escalated in this entry, too, with planes, chases, Harry dangling precariously on the hood of careering car and an awesome high-rise plunge for an unfortunate nudie-cutie all making for a more comic-book visual momentum. A brighter, breezier film again, The Enforcer slightly fudges its threat with baddies that look like Luke Skywalker and a chubbier Burt Reynolds who, despite kidnapping the mayor, killing their own wounded, stabbing all and sundry in the back with one incredibly nasty knife - it's an American First World War fighting blade with a spiked knuckle-duster built into its handle (!) - and letting rip with a stolen LAWS rocket on the streets of San Francisco, somehow forget to pack any menace into their collective personality suitcase. The ending set on the visually superb Alcatraz - somewhere that Clint Eastwood would get to know a little better in another film - also felt rushed and contrived. But it is interesting to remember that the idea of war veterans holding a city to ransom with missile launchers from a hideaway on the prison island would be revisited when Nic Cage and Sean Connery enjoyed an explosive time on The Rock much later on for Michael Bay.

    “Well, we're not just gonna let you walk out of here.”

    “Who's we sucka?”

    “Smith and Wesson... and me.”

    BOOM-BOOM ... it's the way he tells 'em!

    Curiously, these days it seems common to denounce Sudden Impact when, at the time of its release, it lived up to its title and, as far as the critics and the punters were concerned, it more than delivered the requisite thrills and spills. What is clever about this story of a deeply psychologically scarred woman (Sondra Locke) exacting her brutal revenge (“A .38 calibre vasectomy!” as one character so eloquently puts it) on the gang that raped her and her sister is that it places a dark sympathy with her quest for retribution and allows us to enter, quite intimately, into her serial-killing plight. Of course we want this gang violently put down, but Eastwood, as director, develops a mood not unlike the taut psycho-dramas of Hitchcock of quasi-haunting tension and shivery suspense, smothering every motivation in thick, swirling swathes of grey. Locke, not a good actress at the best of times, nevertheless manages to conjure up a deeply troubled anti-heroine whose sanity will most certainly not be cured by the end of it all, and the moral ambiguity that Harry had been flirting with throughout his earlier exploits journeyed even further from the high ground than ever before. A rather sad misstep involving him chasing after a robber on a commandeered tour bus lets the prevalent tone of weird vengeance and dark romance down, though. But you have to hand it to Clint for showing Harry, beaten again and almost drowned and having just discovered his friend with his throat slit, only getting mad and unveiling his ultimate Magnum automatic for payback once he's that the dog he's minding has been kicked about too.

    “It's a war, isn't it? I guess I never really understood that.”

    There is a strange sense of continuity throughout the series. Certain cops are carried over from picture to picture - such as John Mitchum's burger-filled “Fatso” Frank DiGeorgio, who may not look like his brother Robert, but sure sounds like him in The Enforcer - and Bradford Dillman's Captain Briggs/McKay evolution. But the most curious piece of perennial casting would be for the great, and obviously versatile, Albert Popwell. Cropping up as the celebrated bank robber in Dirty Harry who has to ponder the awesome question of whether he feels lucky or not with regards to Harry's “six shots ... or only five,” he would next be seen as the simply horrible pimp with a knack for drain cleaner execution in Magnum Force, then again as black militant group leader Mustafa in The Enforcer and finally as Harry's not-as-stealthy-as-he-thinks chum Horace in Sudden Impact. The Dead Pool would even deliberately reference Harry's prior case history with tenacious journalist Samantha Walker (the lovely Patricia Clarkson from De Palma's The Untouchables and the very recent Married Life opposite Chris Cooper) probing him for a scoop on what makes the man who caught Scorpio all those years ago tick - something that the other stand-alone movies studiously avoid. The other constant would be the snazzy, funk-fusion scores from the prolific Lalo Schifrin who was, inarguably, the king of the sixties/seventies urban action riff. He only missed out on one of the series - The Enforcer - which was scored by Eastwood regular Jerry Fielding, but, even here, Schifrin's unique and exciting approach was maintained and the score fits right on in with the others. The prevalent anger of the stories was often evoked with wailing female vocals and terrific electric bass guitar barrages. The action would be laced with catchy jazz-inflected tempos and the character of Harry Callahan would be etched with ultra urban-chic. Schifrin captured an era and its raw mood with an infectious new wave vigour that may now sound dated, but is as iconic as the main man, himself. Please note that all the available scores will reviewed in-depth separately.

    “A good man always knows his limitations.”

    It is worth mentioning that the most poorly received movie, The Dead Pool, is also a very prescient story carrying a theme of dangerous and corrupted celebrity that is still so relevant these days when absolute nobodies can be blasted into the media limelight and hordes of untalented wannabes do their utmost to garner what they consider to be their rightful share of fame and glory. This personal notoriety is actually something that Insp. Callahan, if he really existed, would almost certainly have courted when you consider the ultra-high profile of the cases and incidents that he has been involved in over the years. Admittedly, the film goes about its business in a cack-handed manner, but this is definitely an element that it can legitimately boast about and does add a new texture to the tried and trusted formula. Interestingly, Eastwood had, himself, already delved into this murky territory of obsessive infatuation with a pop-culture figure in his directorial debut Play Misty For Me way back in 1971, the same year that saw Harry hit the streets for the first time. The Dead Pool, in many ways, becomes the logical conclusion to such a career. Tired, weary of the media circus that swirls around him and angered by the scavenging nature of journalism as it picks apart the raw carcass of tragedy, Harry's swansong also becomes a bitter side-swipe at the state of society's jaded love affair with death and depravity. But Harry realises that he is a dinosaur now - albeit one that can still outrun his much younger Asian sidekick Quan (played by Eva C. Kim) and out-lift him in the gym. But under the direction of former Eastwood stunt-double, Buddy Van Horn, and uncomfortably skewed towards the MTV generation, The Dead Pool now feels like the most dated film of the series, losing that essential “cool” of the first three and dropping Sudden Impact's darkness in favour of laughs.

    “Go ahead ... make my day.”

    It's irresistible, isn't it?

    Time, now, to honour the best moments of Dirty Harry's sensational, trend-setting adventures. Scorpio's eyeballs bulging out of his balaclava when Harry rams a flick-knife into his thigh; the ominous meeting with the three remaining kill-happy cops in an underground car park in Magnum Force when our boy, undaunted by their barely veiled threat, throws down the gauntlet; Harry supplying three hoods the getaway car they demanded in The Enforcer by driving it straight through the liquor store window right at them; his neon-silhouetted approach down the pier towards the bad guys at the end of Sudden Impact, whilst Lalo Schifrin's score thuds out a percussive heartbeat amid electronic growls and shrieks, Harry reverting to something altogether more primal; Scorpio's random acquisition of an unsuspecting target for his cross-hairs and the subsequent arrival of a police helicopter to interrupt the proceedings; a passenger-plane's co-pilot asking the fan-favourite question “Excuse me, Captain, I know this may sound silly ... but can you fly a plane?” just before a disguised Callahan slams on the breaks and sends a couple of hijackers tumbling down the aisle; Scorpio's horrified expression when he surveys his arch-nemesis standing calmly atop a bridge waiting for him, realisation dawning upon him that all his plans are going to be blown to shreds; Harry spinning Brigg's car around and ploughing it straight into the killer-cop pursuing him on a motorcycle; the entire epic game of cat and mouse when Scorpio bounces Harry all around town before making the ransom drop - “You know what? I changed my mind ... I'm going to let the girl die!”; Harry leisurely striding across a road littered with debris and an overturned car and unconcernedly through the fountain of an sheared-off fire-hydrant to tease a perp with the immortal “Do you feel lucky?” line - cult scenes and set-pieces to a one and all anchored by the super-sure superiority of Clint Eastwood and a camera that knows when to just sit back and let him do his thing.

    Oh, all right, go on then - the moment in The Dead Pool when Harry beats the proverbials out of two mobsters who have actually been assigned to protect him, beautifully plunging one's head through the guy's own car window in the process. Notice how I avoided listing that ludicrous car chase from the same film which just has to be the absolute nadir of the entire series! What the hell were they thinking?

    Horace King, after demolishing a target with a shotgun to impress Harry - “Not bad, my ass! You've got to strain the remains for the fingerprints.”

    Harry's wry response - “Well, this is the .44 Magnum Auto-Mag and it holds a 300-grain cartridge. And, if properly used, it can remove the fingerprints.”

    Barring the above mentioned weapon, which was actually designed specifically for Sudden Impact, Harry Callahan's customary choice of firepower was a gun-lover's wet dream back in the seventies. Its sheer size, power and status once Eastwood assumed the role of its major PR poster-boy fast became legendary. “That ain't no cop's gun,” observes one sweaty mobster as Harry does the gun-barrel equivalent of the Imperial Star Destroyer passing endlessly overhead from Star Wars as he draws the .44 from his shoulder-holster. And, as iconic as a lightsabre, it becomes a cherished character in its own right. Just check out the damage that it does. Crims are blasted through plate glass windows, Hill Street Blues' own Joe Spano, moonlighting as a robber in The Enforcer, smacks his head violently against the shelves as a .44 slug lifts him four feet clean into the air and the great instance when Harry's bullet tears through a sheet of steel hoarding and blows a chunk of white skull-bone out of the head of the loser lurking behind it. By the way, I don't believe that there is anybody other than Clint Eastwood who can fire the .44 Magnum, double-action, with one hand! I've fired one a few times and despite having done a lot of weight-training and it almost blew me off my feet and I was using both hands and only firing single-action. With the onset of Mad Martin Riggs and the sexiness of the 9mm Beretta virtually eclipsing the days of the wheel-gun in movies, it is still wonderful to see this awesome weapon so coolly brandished. It seems almost pleasantly nostalgic in a world of automatics - offering an umbilical link back to The Man With No Name, I suppose.

    The boxset is presented with Dirty Harry and Magnum Force in one fold-out book and The Enforcer, Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool in another. A further box contains the letters, map, note from Clint and the replica shield and ID, and the hardback book is wedged in the middle of all this. This makes a great, substantial package for a terrific series of movies that may rise and fall in individual quality but charts the evergreen magnificence of one of Hollywood's greatest stars in, arguably, his most scintillating role. Dirty Harry is an all-out classic, with Magnum Force fitting in very nicely beneath it and doing all the right things - upping the action, the quips and the set-piece mayhem. The Enforcer drops the tension but still adds plenty of action whilst Sudden Impact breaks new ground with an unusual plot, dark intensity and a haunting coda. The Dead Pool is nice to have but really isn't a film I can imagine many returning to but, all things considered, this is one hell of a high calibre series. Iconic. Mythical. Thought-provoking. And enormously good fun, too.