Counting Bullets: The Dirty Harry Movies

Note: this is a revised edition of an article first published in 2011.

The Sixties, with all of its commendable trumpeting of tolerance, restraint and free love was always going to be too good to last. Sooner or later there’s always a rebound and in Hollywood few movies represented that rebound better than 1971’s Dirty Harry. Peace, love and understanding proved to be no match for the most powerful handgun in the world and an actor who, at that time, was best known for playing a different kind of cowboy.

The project had been floating around Hollywood for a few years by the time Eastwood came on board. Originally written under the title Dead Right as a vehicle for either Frank Sinatra or John Wayne, it began to do the rounds after both actors turned it down, Wayne because he felt it was too similar to his other roles and Sinatra because a wrist injury left him unable to carry the weight of Harry’s hand cannon. Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum also declined the role, both objecting to the character’s violent, right-wing persona. The script itself went through a number of revisions, including drafts by John Milius (unsurprisingly) and Terence Malick (very surprisingly). Eventually the script was offered to Clint Eastwood, on the recommendation of Paul Newman (after he, too, turned it down) and Eastwood, who found some sympathy for Harry’s dedication to victim’s rights, agreed on the condition that his old friend Don Siegel direct.

What the screenwriters, Siegel and Eastwood created was a movie, and a man, who polarized audiences and critics alike (New Yorker critic Pauline Kael denounced it as ‘fascist’) and who continues to do so today. The character of Harry Callahan is one of cinema’s more challenging propositions, especially for those of a liberal and left-leaning disposition. Unlike many other anti-heroes, such as Escape From New York’s Snake Plissken (who sounded a lot like Eastwood) or X-Men’s Wolverine, Harry exists in a wholly non-fictional world and as a result asks much more uncomfortable questions about that world. It is entirely possible to be appalled at Callahan’s disregard for the rights of those he pursues, but also to cheer him on when he puts the bad guys down. Harry represents an animal justice which must resonate somewhere in everyone, even if the necessary application of law and ethics make his actions just plain wrong.

You could debate the rights and wrongs of Harry Callahan for hours, and that’s what makes him such a potent and important fixture in the history of cinema. Let’s take a look at the catalogue.


Don Siegel



A serial killer is holding San Francisco to ransom and rigidly self-governing Detective Harry Callahan, at constant odds with the city’s policy of tolerance and liberalism, is determined to stop him at any cost. But preferably at the cost of a few .44 bullets.

“You gotta ask yourself a question. Do I feel lucky?”

Having been offered to just about every A-list star in Hollywood, the role of Harry Callahan finally came home to the only actor, at least in retrospect, who could have played the archetypal anti-hero cop. Dirty Harry is Eastwood’s Man with No Name in a contemporary setting, only with an added sense of righteousness and humour. And while the movie can look and sound rather dated, very much a product of its time, it set the template for a thousand loose-cannon-cop movies that followed it but never managed to better it.

Eastwood and his mentor Siegal, always a great pairing, create a taut, brutal classic in which rooting for the cop is not always as easy as it usually is. Few actors could make such an objectionable character so likable but Eastwood’s frosty charm works perfectly. Here is a complex character masquerading as a simple one; a character whose perceived callousness is actually a result of a fervent, concrete belief in right and wrong. Dirty Harry makes you question yourself and your morals in a way that few cop movies had before or would again.

The Punk: Serial killer Scorpio, based on the real-life San Francisco killer who called himself Zodiac (do you see what they did there). Actor Andrew Robinson had to be sent on gun training to stop him from flinching every time he shot his gun, but turns in a signature performance as the deranged, whiny lunatic. In fact, for many years he had trouble getting any roles that didn’t involve being a deranged, whiny lunatic.



Ted Post



After a series of high-profile San Francisco criminals are murdered in broad daylight, Harry Callahan begins to suspect that a rogue hit squad exists within the police department, even as he begins to attract the attention, and admiration, of four rookie cops.

“A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

Magnum Force was a direct and intentional attempt to answer the critics of the first movie by demonstrating the difference between Callahan and a group of genuine police vigilantes. Although Harry is still the same play-by-his-own-rules cop as before, he stands in total contrast to the group of executioners with badges who are slaughtering criminals in cold blood. Even when they go as far as to offer him membership of their group, he turns them downCallahan may be ruthless and trigger-happy, but he’s not a vigilante.

Although Eastwood’s preferred choice of Don Siegel was absent from this sequel, it didn’t seem to hinder the quality at all. Ted Post, who clashed with the now far more powerful Eastwood both during and after production, does just as good a job as his predecessor, even upping the action a little as well as the violence. And it’s to the movie’s credit that it resists the easy route of simply retreading the original, by finding a way to extend the moral complexity and present and even larger grey area for Callahan to work in.

The Punk: Make that punks. Officers John Davis, Philip Sweet, Alan “Red” Astrachan, Michael Grimes and their leader, the unctuous Lt. Neil Briggs make up the hit-squad within the department. Looking a little like Village People when they all turn up wearing the same outfit, the group features quite the list of future stars in David Soul, Tim Matheson, Robert Urich and, err, Kip Niven. Plus the ever reliable Hal Holbrook as Briggs.



James Fargo



Having just foiled a robbery by driving a car through a liquor store window, Inspector Callahan is taken off homicide and made to work in Personnel. But when a group calling themselves the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force engage in a series of escalating crimes, culminating in the kidnap of the Mayor, Callahan is reinstated. Only this time his new partner is a woman, much to Harry’s disapproval.

“Here’s a seven-point suppository, Captain.”

The series loses its legs a little with this third instalment, although it remains an enjoyable slice of debatable Callahan behaviour. Eastwood, despite delivering some of the funniest lines of the franchise, seems to be a little on autopilot here. In fact, The Enforcer is notable for being the first Dirty Harry movie in which Eastwood fails to remain the centre of attention, upstaged as he often is by a charming, engaging turn from Tyne Daly as the brash, inexperienced Inspector Kate Moore. The banter between the two characters is certainly the highlight of this one. The Enforcer also suffers from rather lacklustre action scenes, compared with the franchise’s two previous outings, although the finale on Alcatraz Island is a series high point.

Director James Fargo was originally set to be Assistant Director to Eastwood, but the actor decided not to direct due to a lack of preparation time after completing The Outlaw Josey Wales. Ultimately, The Enforcer is a worthy addition to the franchise but did mark the beginning of the decline.

The Punk: Baby-faced psycho Bobby Maxwell and his motley group of get-rich-quick hippies, layabouts and bums. DeVeren Bookwalter was primarily a stage actor and following The Enforcer primarily remained one. Unlike the foes of the previous two movies, Maxwell is never really explored in much detail, just a background character awaiting his magnum bullet. Imagine his surprise when he gets a bazooka shell instead.



Clint Eastwood



After yet again upsetting the mayor and police chief, despite the positive results, Inspector Callahan is shipped off to the small town of San Paulo to investigate a murder. There he meets artist Jennifer Spencer, who, as Harry begins to suspect, is hunting down and killing a group of men that raped her and her sister 10 years ago. 

“Go ahead, make my day.”

The fourth outing for Harry Callahan is also the first and only Dirty Harry movie to have been directed by Eastwood himself, which is surprising considering he had been directing since 1971. As with Magnum Force, the maverick cop is again contrasted against an out-and-out vigilante, although this time a far more sympathetic and understandable one. An interesting premise in what had become an otherwise increasingly tired franchise. By this time, of course, the rogue cop was becoming a familiar movie figure and Sudden Impact suffers from being just one in a crowd.

The odd thing is, Sudden Impact probably introduces more change into the franchise than any other installment. Moving the action from San Francisco makes for a refreshing change of scenery, the introduction of a female and uncomfortably justifiable murderer, with whom Harry develops a relationship, returns the series to its morally questionable best and Harry even gets a brand new gun. But somehow it all manages to seem like the same old same old, only without the 70s grit that elevated its predecessors.

The Punk: Rapist, bum and all-round pantomime scumbag Mick and his equally sleazy crew serve as the cannon-fodder for either Harry or Jennifer. Paul Drake, who went on to enjoy a dazzling career in lo-fi TV shows, couldn’t have been more of a ham if he wore a top hat, cloak and twiddled his pencil mustache while tying hapless maidens to railway tracks. Dreadful. Shoot this guy, already. 



Buddy Van Horn



After putting away a major crime boss, Harry finds himself dealing with more fame than he is comfortable with. And when celebrities begin dying in mysterious circumstances he becomes aware of a betting ring among the elite predicting which celebrities will die next. As one particular list of celebrities proves to be too accurate to be coincidence, Harry discovers his own name has been added.

“Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one.”

The last Dirty Harry movie, and its easy to see why. The Dead Pool takes both a promising idea and a cinematic icon, and fritters them away on a lazy, flat and badly made attempt to make Harry seem at home in 80s cinema. He doesn’t, and so iconic has the character of Harry become that he no longer elicits the same sense of moral uncertainty as he did way back when. Instead, we get unexciting scenes of Callahan shooting bad guys to a triumphant soundtrack and are left feeling nothing. Eastwood even looks as bored doing it as we are watching it. The character, the actor and the franchise has simply become too old for this shit.

The Dead Pool is notable for featuring early appearances from a young Liam Neeson and an even younger Jim Carrey, but it’s the older Eastwood who ultimately disappoints, portraying an older Callahan who is apparently exactly the same man he was back in 1971. There is one great scene involving a car chase through the streets of San Francisco as Harry is pursued by a remote controlled car, but when Inspector Callahan finally dispatches the bad guy with a huge harpoon gun, he takes that last step toward becoming a parody of himself.

The Punk: The Dead Pool is the first and only movie in the series to keep the identity of its main villain a secret until the end, leading you to believe that Neeson’s movie director is the killer. However, when the true identity of the murderer is revealed to be a nobody stalker we haven’t seen before called Harlan Rook, it has a rather overwhelming ‘so what’ factor to it. Yawn.


23 people thought reading “Counting Bullets: The Dirty Harry Movies” was a good idea. They even said stuff about it.

  1. Colin on

    I really ought to say something about the movies (OK, I will: first two great, three and four yawners, fifth one truly terrible) but the main reason I’m commenting is that I just *know* you designed the gun-chamber and bullets thing yourself. Such attention should be praised!

    • Richard on

      Ha, thanks, Colin. I do tend to take my little rating systems very seriously. Probably put more effort into them than the blog itself! That’s designers for you. 😉

  2. Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

    I just *know* it, too. Great job.

    I love Dirty Harry. Forget all that right-wing, left-wing mumbo jumbo. These movies speak to my inner vigilante. No matter that I’d never condone his behavior in real life. Sometimes, you just want to sit back and watch somebody right the wrongs of the world. It’s why I love Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Who hasn’t had a day like that? Huh? Huh? Minus the trip to the gun store, of course. 🙂

    I never knew that bit of trivia about who was originally considered to play the role of Harry. I can’t think of anyone more wrong than Frank Sinatra or John Wayne. The part that cracked me up in all of this was that Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum declined the role over objections to Callahan’s violent, right-wing persona. Um, aren’t Lancaster and Mitchum ACTORS? Just proves my point that there are few good actors in this world…just lots of people playing themselves. Yawn.

    Great post, Rich.

    • Richard on

      Thanks, Maggie. 🙂

      I think there are a few actors who just have to love, or at least like, the characters they are playing or they just can’t do the job. And Eastwood pretty much was playing himself, anyway. 😉

      I totally agree that sometimes you just want to sit back and watch someone right the wrongs of the world. It’s a cathartic thing, with a little wish-fulfilment thrown in. But don’t be knocking the right-wing, left-wing mumbo jumbo. I love that stuff. 😛

  3. King Uke on

    Another great post Rich. I think that you’ve inspired me to pick up a copy of the first film. It’s been so long since I’ve watched any of these. On the topic of Clint Eastwood… I watched For a Few Dollars More last week and can heartily recommend. Clint’s a cool as ever. But then, so is Lee Van Cleef! All good, clean, hat-shooting fun…

  4. Custard on

    What a brilliant post. It is such a shame that the legend of Dirty Harry has been so muddied down with the final film. They should make a new one, bring him out of retirement. OK that would be a shit Idea. It would suck.

    I loved the first 2 films, brilliant!

    Thanks for sharing Richard

    • Richard on

      I think Gran Torino is the closest we’ll come to seeing Harry Callahan at 81. Can you imagine the chase scenes? Gradual Impact? Nah.

  5. Castor on

    Love the gun barrel ratings! Oddly I have only seen Dirty Harry and The Dead Pool although now, I’m definitely interested in Magnum Force which I never heard of before.

    • Richard on

      Ah, you’ve seen the best and the worst. The bookends. And you haven’t seen Magnum Force, Castor? I’m shocked. 🙂


  6. joem18b on

    As I recall, when Dirty Harry came out, nobody to speak of had ever heard of the .44 Magnum. Then it enjoyed quite a vogue.

    Sadly, times have changed. The last time I pulled mine, all the young punks with their 9s just laughed at me.

  7. Val on

    The first one and the Enforcer are probably my favourites, (though the baddy in the first one annoys me. I’m not surprised the actor got typecast after it) and for the life of me I seem to have forgotten Sudden Impact which means that it’s time for me to re-watch it. Which I can do as I’ve got the boxed set. Which may make you realise that I love the Dirty Harry films! 🙂 Thanks for this post.

    Oh, and if it’s time for me to rewatch the Dirty Harry films, it’s DEFINITELY time for me to rewatch The Matrix…

    • Richard on

      Thanks, Val. Dust off the box-set and let me know if your opinions have changed at all. And as for The Matrix, just make sure you stick to the first one and leave it at that. 😉

  8. rtm on

    First let me say you’ve got the BEST rating in any blog I’ve ever seen (I voted for you on LAMB in this category, just so you know), I LOVE that gun barrel rating!

    I’ve only seen the first Dirty Harry movie, it’s such an iconic role for Eastwood.

    • Richard on

      Awww, thanks, Ruth. I do enjoy coming up with new rating systems for my franchise features. Just can’t help but be a designer (and a show-off), you know? 😉

  9. Dan on

    I definitely agree that the series gradually deteriorates. I’m not sure Magnum Force is quite as good as the first film but it is thoroughly enjoyable. I’m not much of a fan of the rest but Clint Eastwood is great in the role.

    • Richard on

      It’s the old curse with franchises, and after the first couple the Dirty Harry series didn’t really have anywhere else to go. But, like you say, there was always Clint Eastwood doing Clint Eastwood does. 😉


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