People often call “Die Hard” the definitive action film. As awesome as “Die Hard” is (and it will get a review soon), it is not the definitive action film. That title belongs to “Dirty Harry”, the film from which all modern action films are spawned.
Officer “Dirty” Harry Callahan is a cop who hates playing by the book. And in San Francisco, a killer named Scorpio has been attacking, taunting the police with letters about his killings as well (why, yes, Virginia. It does sound an awful lot like the Zodiac Killer). Callahan is assigned on the case, but it just means that one psycho is going after another.
For all intents and purposes, this created the modern action hero. Callahan is ruthless, ready to kill, has a strong sense of justice. He shoots first, asks questions later. And, to add to the levels of why he works as a character in this film, he’s played by Clint Eastwood (In all honesty, this beats The-Man-With-No-Name as his most iconic character).
Why the film shouldn’t work is because Callahan is never humanized. We never feel like he is a real person (unlike Eastwood’s later roles or even the before mentioned Man-With-No-Name). Other than mentioning that his wife is dead, he seems more like a caricature. The film never condones his actions, but he is never condemned except by other characters. If he can;t be sympathetic, why does he work in this film?
Because Scorpio is outright demonized. It shows that he was inspired by a real-life serial killer, because Scorpio is less than human. He is completely sick, disturbed, psychotic. He kills because he likes killing. If he can get some money out of it, it’s a nice bonus for him.
The film is simple, but works because of both Eastwood and director Don Siegel. Siegel brings intensity to the proceedings that make everything more tense and exciting. Eastwood is also spot on as Callahan: cool and detached, but with a murderous gleam in his eyes that makes you question if he’s really the good guy. The simple films work best because they lay everything out, but can have many other layers. The fascism angle, the timing of the film’s release, the Zodiac inspiration, all of it stems from a simple action flick that created an icon.
Directed by Don Siegel
Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson, Harry Guardino, Reni Santoni, John Vernon