The movie opens with a sniper shooting a girl in a San Francisco rooftop swimming pool; assigned to the case is Detective Harry Callahan. He is called to the office of the mayor, who has received a demand for $100,000 from the killer, calling himself Scorpio, or he will kill another. From the start we see that Callahan has a problem with authority, as the mayor calls into question his unorthodox methods. A decision is made to try to gain time by placing a notice to the killer in the paper, while at the same time mounting helicopter surveillance and rooftop vigils. Meanwhile we get a glimpse of Harry's methods - and his outsize .44 Magnum - when he foils a bank robbery (the famous "Do I feel lucky?" scene).
Harry is commended for his handling of the incident, but is then grudgingly landed with a new partner for the Scorpio case, Chico - a Mexican sociology graduate. Meanwhile Scorpio has been spotted from a helicopter, but escapes, and Harry and Chico cruise the streets that evening looking for him. They see someone who matches the description and follow him, but he is not the man - and Harry gets comically mistaken for a peeping Tom. They are then called to another location, where it turns out the man in question is actually a jumper on top of a building. Harry gets on the crane-lift, distracts the man and, after a struggle way above the ground, brings him down to safety - he tells Chico he is called Dirty Harry because he gets all the dirty jobs.
Next day, a 10-year old black kid has been shot by Scorpio, and that evening a rooftop shootout between Harry and Scorpio ensues - but the latter escapes again. He then kidnaps a 14-year-old girl, rapes her and buries her alive, demanding $200,000 for her whereabouts. Harry is sent with the money and is run around the city from phone to phone by Scorpio, and when they meet in a park Harry is beaten up, and Chico - who has been tailing them - gets shot (but not fatally). Harry however stabs Scorpio in the leg with a stiletto, and is able to trace him through a hospital to the deserted Kezar Stadium - where he beats the girl's whereabouts out of Scorpio. She is already dead though, and Scorpio walks away because his rights have been violated.
Now Scorpio hires a thug to beat him up, so he can lodge a brutality case against Harry (who says it's obvious he didn't do it - because "he looks too damn good"). Scorpio meanwhile has robbed a liquor store and obtained a gun, and goes out and hijacks a school bus, demanding the money and a plane. Harry refuses to be the mayor's "delivery boy"; instead he goes to the bus's route and leaps onto its roof from a trestle bridge. After a high speed drive while Scorpio tries to shake him off, they end up in a quarry, where Harry chases Scorpio, exchanging shots all the time. Eventually Scorpio grabs a boy who is fishing and holds him as a shield, but Harry shoots him in the shoulder, leading to a reprise of the "Do I feel lucky?" scene - this time delivered with venom. Scorpio takes his chance, and is gunned down by Harry, who disgustedly throws his badge into the river.
This is the film which finally secured Clint Eastwood's position as a major force in American cinema. It was highly controversial on its release - the ever-hostile Pauline Kael described the film as "fascist", but many other more reasonable critics also criticized its politics for excusing police brutality. In the era following the noted Miranda and Escobedo cases, this was something which was high in the public's consciousness.
But the film is unjustly criticized for this: in essence it is the story of a basically good cop who get more and more frustrated with the red tape and bureaucracy by which he is bound. When a girl is buried alive and dying, the foremost idea in his mind is - quite reasonably - to use any means at his disposal to save her life. Similarly, we can see that in the normal line of duty, he is just an ordinary cop who does his job without getting involved emotionally - note the light-hearted smile which plays across his face as he addresses the wounded bank robber, and demonstrates that his gun is, in fact, empty. There is an impression almost of respect for the good, "honest" hoods, with whom the police deal on a regular basis - but when a psychopath such as Scorpio appears, the difference is clear. Callahan takes the case almost personally, and we can see his changed point of view from the different way he delivers top Scorpio the same speech as he gave the bank robber. He is disgusted with this sort of criminal, and it is this that makes him throw away his badge.
All the time, we build up a very clear picture of Harry Callahan's character. Some of it is obvious, such as his arguments with his superiors, but there are other points that show the same thing - for instance, when told by the mayor to take a seat he does not take the one between his two superior officers, but instead sits over by the wall. He is a lonely man, and his job is all he has: his wife was killed by a drunk driver (although this is not dwelled upon); he eats lunch and dinner in the same diner every day; and he always wears the same shabby clothes. Despite the "final" note on which the film ends, he is a character who would serve Clint well over the years - and despite the critics' scorn of the film, the movie-going public could identify with this man, and made the film his highest-grossing to date.
Listen as Clint Eastwood speaks candidly about his thoughts on this film and his character Dirty Harry.
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