Clint Eastwood became a star in westerns, but he became a superstar playing cops. One can even identify the exact moment when it happened. It is early in Dirty Harry, when a gang tries to rob the bank across the street from Inspector Harry Callahan's favorite hot dog stand. He looks up irritably as sirens sound, guns fire, cars start crashing. Then he strolls out into the street, still chewing his food as he unlimbers his .44 Magnum, wounds one of the miscreants and opens his immortal dialogue with the man ("I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five."
This exchange provides one of the sublime moments in modern American movies, not least because it so deliciously parodies the whole tradition of super-cool movie heroism without ever acknowledging what it is up to. Audiences, of course, loved the scene and the tough, suspenseful Don Siegel movie in which it was embedded. Ultimately, Clint would reprise his Dirty Harry characterization four times. But one critic, Pauline Kael, loathed it. The action genre, she wrote, "has always had a fascist potential, and it has finally surfaced." Her criticism made the movie "controversial:' and her insinuation that Clint was some kind of right-wing crazy dogged him for decades.
Dirty Harry tapped into popular resentment of what many felt at the time was an excessive judicial concern for criminal rights. In those days, the liberal intellectual community felt that these protections, most famously expressed in the Miranda decision, had been late in coming and required defense against critics in law enforcement. When Dirty Harry appeared in 1971, the spirit of the sixties--generally anti-establishment, specifically anti-police--was still very much felt in the land.
But Kael gave him a bad, or at least excessive, rap. It is certainly true that Harry Callahan's attempts to capture a psychopathic killer who is terrorizing San Francisco are constantly thwarted by a police bureaucracy bowing to liberal pressure and that he fails to observe all legal niceties in this case. Granted, Harry is not always--to put it mildly--careful in the way he expresses contempt for this caution, and he is not often delicate in his handling of suspects.
On the other hand, his willingness to take certain aspects of the law into his own hands fits well within a long tradition of rebelliousness against bureaucratic authority in police dramas. The cop who refuses to go entirely by the book is nearly always the hero in these films. Dirty Harry merely ratchets up the intensity of that very basic conflict. In any event, Kael was dead wrong about the nature of fascism: in its essence, fascism is bureaucracy gone mad, intruding into every aspect of ordinary life, and is, as this century's history amply proves, a phenomenon of both the left and the right. Since Dirty Harry Callahan is at least as much against bureaucracy as he is against "coddling" criminals, he is manifestly an anti-fascist-some kind of instinctive libertarian more likely, and a man who judges his fellows on the basis of deeds rather than ideology.
As we look back on the film almost a quarter century later, we see two things: that at every level of society sympathy has switched decisively toward victim rights and away from criminal rights, which makes Harry Callahan look almost like a prophet; and that the violence of the movie, also much criticized at the time, looks mild in comparison to the preposterous firepower now routinely released in urban action films (Die Hard or Lethal Weapon films or almost anything starring Sylvester Stallone).
All of that aside, Harry's undiminishable appeal lay not in his actions, or even in his "philosophy." It was a matter of character. He was the ultimate blue-collar guy, stuck in a tough, underpaid, generally unrewarding job, harassed by fancy-talking, over-privileged bosses. The difference between him and the guys (and gals) in the audience is that he had the cheek and the gumption to talk back and to take muddled matters into his own hands, straightening them out without asking permission to do so. His lonely, loveless life, his bad wardrobe, his cruddy diet--these were the prices he paid for his independence and his devotion to duty, and people identified with that tradeoff, too.
Clint Eastwood understood this character. He had been raised in blue-collar Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, gone to a trade and technical high school, knew (and continued to respect) working-class people--their virtues, their frustrations, their outrages. Ultimately, that is what he thought this movie and all the Dirty Harry movies were most essentially about. And the other cops he has played--whether it was the drunken loser Ben Shockley in The Gauntlet or the sexually confused Wes Block in Tightrope--partook of these same characteristics. They were never smooth guys, or articulate guys. They weren't even too smart. They just had good, sound instincts. These figures flattered them with understanding, but never toadied to them. Or talked down to them. No wonder Clint's audience could never get enough of them.