DaRK PaRTY: Why do you think the Dirty Harry movies are so popular?
James: The short answer is that they're just entertaining cop movies. But there's also a directness to Harry Callahan which resonates with the audience. We can all identify with the lone hero who struggles with bureaucracy, even if it's just through our attempts to reach customer service. Harry exists in our everyday society, yet he has a freedom to do things we cannot. In this respect, there's an element of fantasy mixed in with the action.
The films are also a good example of an actor and a character blending perfectly. Clint Eastwood is always going to be identified as Dirty Harry. And for many, it's the role that shows him at his best. Once Eastwood realized what a crowd-pleasing formula it was, he was smart enough not to try and reinvent the wheel. When he wanted to explore flaws and vulnerabilities in a cop, he'd utilize a new character like Ben Shockley in “The Gauntlet” (1977) or Wes Block in “Tightrope” (1984). This lends the series a consistency which may also be a factor in its enduring popularity. Even at its worst, you don't have to worry about Harry developing brain damage or having a shark pursue him to the
DP: There are five Dirty Harry movies. In your opinion which one is the best and why?
James: The original may be the quintessential tough cop film, and certainly had a major influence on our modern action heroes. Harry was a classic good guy, but with enough shades of gray to make him interesting. The script and direction were tight, and the violence had a hard, gritty edge to it. It's a film that works on several levels, yet is first and foremost a slick action thriller.
Of the sequels, “Magnum Force” (1973) fleshes out the character and serves as a worthy companion piece. The choice of villain is particularly interesting, as Harry is confronted with a threat that could've sprung from his own darker self. If Dirty Harry is wish fulfillment for the audience, then the vigilante cops are capable of crossing lines that Harry himself will not. This is underscored by his recurring catchphrase, "Man's got to know his limitations."
DP: Which one is the worst and why?
James: “The Dead Pool” (1988) isn't always a given to be ranked last by fans, but it definitely feels like one too many trips to the well. It was one of three films that Eastwood made while serving as mayor of
However, Eastwood probably did intend to strike a balance with the two projects.
It's a competent entry that manages to hit all the expected notes, but this cookie-cutter approach is also the film's biggest problem. There are some clever ideas on display, yet none of them are ever developed to their full potential. By the film's end, Harry has resorted to using a giant spear gun to dispatch the bad guy. Critics regarded this as the character veering into self-parody, although there were a few (such as Roger Ebert) who applauded the film's satirical undertone.
DP: Author Ric Meyers wrote a series of pulp novels about Dirty Harry in the 1980s. What are your thoughts on the series and which books are worth reading?
James: The books are noteworthy in that it's one of the few times Warner merchandised the films. They were issued as part of a "Men of Action" paperback line, and were mainly typical potboilers which happened to star Harry Callahan. They also featured some really cool cover art.
It's been a while since I read through them, but there are a few that stand out. “The Long Death” and “City of
DP: The Dirty Harry movies introduced a lot of characters -- villains, bosses and partners. Other than Harry, who are your three favorite characters from the movies and why?
The Scorpio Killer, Dirty Harry (1971)
Scorpio brought out the worst in Harry, which is another reason why the first film is so effective. We're given virtually no background on the character, and that ends up making his actions seem all the more chilling. Cold and calculating, he essentially defeats the system and forces Harry to deal with him on his own level. Don Siegel peppered the film with religious symbolism, and some like to interpret the character as one of pure evil.
Freddie the Fainter, The Enforcer (1976)
Of all the shady characters Harry Callahan encountered, here's a guy who was just out to get a free lunch. Freddie finishes his meal then fakes a heart attack in an attempt to avoid the check. It's one of the few times where Harry is actually amused by a suspect, and he gives Freddie a break by letting him go.
Actor Albert Popwell
Popwell has the distinction of playing four characters over the course of the series: A curious bank robber, A sacrificial pimp, Big Ed Mustapha, and Horace King. The latter two provided the actor with the most screen time, but it is his brief appearance in “Dirty Harry” that everyone remembers best. He is the punk to which Harry first delivers the infamous, "Do I Feel Lucky?" speech.