The job of a sniper requires hours of reclusive sitting; waiting for a target to come across the scope. In most cases, a sniper doesn’t chase his or her target; the target comes to them. It’s a lonely job that doesn’t demand much more than a man and a gun. Sure, nowadays equipped with radio sets and GPS trackers, they can do a lot more, but before all that, it was just a man and a gun. It makes sense why Scorpio (Andrew Robinson), the sadistic serial killer in Dirty Harry, is a sniper. Scorpio’s not given much back story in Dirty Harry, but he’s a definite loner. He works as a groundskeeper at a nearby stadium, where he lives alone, in a decrepit room beneath the stands, probably no bigger than a closet. We also know that he kills, for the fun of it.
In a very different way, Police Officer Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is a loner too. His wife died many years ago, leaving him to live alone. When the department assigns him a partner to work with to catch Scorpio, he informs the guy that every partner he’s had has been shot or worse, killed. Callahan’s character resembles that certain type of gun-slinging, “my way or the highway” Western sheriff persona that Eastwood became so synonymous with during the ‘60s.
And just like those old Westerns, Officer Callahan is given the amenable task to take down the bad guy, Scorpio. It’s an overdone plot line sure, but here, it succeeds on many levels where other movies like it falter. Most police thrillers lend themselves to the standard hour and a half chase with a malicious serial killer that the cop never sees until the very end of the movie in a thrilling final scene in which he rightfully serve his justice. We all know it and come to expect it. Callahan must be one of the better cops in Hollywood because the final showdown in Dirty Harry occurs within one hour of the movie. Officer Callahan tracks down Scorpio to his one room shack inside the stadium, pins him down and cuffs him. Scorpio is taken to jail and by right the movie should end there. Unfortunately, Callahan’s forcible entry, lack of warrant and abusive treatment to Scorpio are rendered unconstitutional allowing the criminal to walk as a free man despite the sniper rifle and confession that arose from Callahan’s forcible and illegal entry. As a result, the whole investigation is dropped because of his actions. Callahan refuses to settle with this and continues the search all on his own.
And that‘s what sets this good guy-bad guy movie apart from every other one of its kind. In the latter half of the film, almost equal screen time is given to Callahan and Scorpio. The movie gives lots of screen time to the criminal, allowing him to develop as a character, which many movies like this don’t. Besides gangster movies like The Godfather or Scarface, criminals in the supporting cast seldom receive attention. And with the acting given by Andrew Robinson, Scorpio demands and deserves it all.
One of the final scenes of the movie shows Scorpio hijacking a school bus with young children on it. After quietly threatening the bus driver with a gun, he turns around to the confused children and begins to lead them in a sing-along. The children’s innocence gets the best of them as they sing-along with Scorpio unaware of what is actually going on. One boy does realize the bus is headed the wrong way and begins to cry for his mother. Scorpio walks over to the boy and slaps him across the face, demanding that he stop crying and sing. He loses all control of himself as he begins to curse and yell at the children, threatening to kill all of their mothers. The bus driver continues to drive, crying and helpless. It’s scenes like this in which the Scorpio’s personality is brought out that make this movie great. Andrew Robinson gives one of the most underrated villain performances ever. The AFI has its own 100 Heroes and Villains list. Callahan’s on there at #17 but to my surprise Scorpio is nowhere to be found. I also see similarities between Scorpio and Heath Ledger's Joker. Ledger's character will definitely earn him a spot on the next edition of the AFI list list, but I guess Robinson's villainous portrayal will always be overlooked.
By day, San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but you would never notice it watching Dirty Harry. Many of the scenes take place at night when the bums and crooks are up and about, when the neon glow form strip clubs and nude bars light up the streets after most have gone off to bed. Like in Taxi Driver, we are forced to recognize the evil that lurks beneath our beautiful city. Unlike Travis from Scorsese’s film, Callahan doesn’t have time to complain. He is forced to ignore it, which he does well. As a cop he knows how to clean it up, one crook at a time, even if that means venturing beyond one’s constitutional rights.