By Marc S. Sanders

The very first R rated picture I ever saw in theaters was the fourth installment of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry franchise, entitled Sudden Impact.  I was eleven years old and I loved it.  My brother Brian took me with his best friend Nick.  Age 11 and I’m in a crowded theater on a Saturday night watching a brutally violent and sometimes funny crime drama with the cop who carries the .44 Magnum.  Looking back, it felt like a rite of passage.  It felt rebellious.  I’d now be the coolest kid in school as I recount for them everything I was allowed to see that their parents refused to even consider.

Brian introduced me to many of what remain my favorites this very day.  He introduced me to Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners,and then at age 8 or 9 I must have watched the first of Eastwood’s series, Dirty Harry, on video tape.  At that age, you just want to get to the next shootout where Harry allows his bloodletting revolver do the talking while he finishes his hot dog.  I watched those first three films (Dirty Harry, Magnum Force and The Enforcer) over and over again.  As an adult, I more so appreciate the themes of the San Francisco cop, Harry Callahan.  He always had a low tolerance for the bureaucratic BS of court procedure and legal precedent.  He was always smart enough to know who the real bad guys were and that was enough to bring them in. If they didn’t cooperate, well then there were other means. 

The first two films in the series question Harry’s procedures and philosophies.  The third film, although entertaining to a degree, deviated from that.  The fourth film returns to test Harry’s beliefs in police enforcement and justice.  Only this time, it’s actually from the perspective of a gang rape victim, played by Sondra Locke.

Much of the first hour of Sudden Impact is episodic.  Scene after scene shows Harry’s encounters with various hoods that he has a connection too.  Harry disrupts a wedding to undo a vicious mobster.  Later, those guys try to take him down.  Some punk kids get off on a technicality in court.  They’ll have something to say to Harry as well, and just in case you need a little more action, there is that very memorable coffee shop robbery where Harry tempts all of us to “Go ahead.  Make my day.”  There’s also good laughs as Harry is gifted a bulldog he calls Meathead. 

Weaved within these various moments is a separate story focusing on a beautiful painter who has a knack for killing men with one bullet to the genitals and another to the head.  She has revenge on her mind following a gang rape of her and her sister ten years prior.  Eventually, Harry is assigned to investigate and he is on his way to a fictional neighborhood known as San Paulo (filmed in Santa Cruz).  Harry has to navigate around a difficult police captain (Pat Hingle) as the killings continue to happen out here.

I’ve always been fascinated with the Dirty Harry series.  Surprisingly, when I do internet searches on the films and character, I don’t find much that explores the measure of rights and law.  Yet, beyond the sometimes-comic book violence of the pictures there’s much to question and think about.  Is Harry right with his chosen actions?  After all, the films make clear that the bad guys are the bad guys.  The writing however, makes it a challenge when legality interferes and the rights of men and women are tested.  Sudden Impact does the same thing.  With Eastwood directing, he makes the viewers witnesses to what the Locke character is subjected too.  That should be enough, right?  Real life is not that clean cut though.  However, in an age of internet surfing and headline breezing, people are endlessly tried in the court of public opinion and not a court of law.

The first film in the series had Harry declare that the law is crazy.  The second film tested the protagonist when he uncovers that people supposedly on his own team were carrying out vigilante murders against the worst mobsters and pimps in the city, as a means to clean up the streets.  Now, another and more personal vigilante appears.  What makes Harry right and these others wrong?  I don’t think any of the five films in the series ever give a clear-cut answer.  That’s okay.  I’d be frightened if there were a direct response, because it remains a complex issue.  When the courts fail us, what is there left to do?

Do not mistake me.  I am not calling for violence.  I’m just questioning a system that is sometimes broken.    

Recently, a local trial wrapped up where a retired police officer shot a man in a movie theatre who became argumentative and belligerent when he wouldn’t turn off his cell phone.  Popcorn was thrown, a gun was drawn and a man was instantly killed.  The retired police officer was found not guilty by a jury of his peers.  The court of public opinion by and large have been outraged with this verdict.  The grieving widow felt as if justice was not served.  Followers of the story didn’t either.  Another story focused on a beloved teacher who was hit by a car in a school parking lot.  I actually got into a public Facebook debate with someone who said the driver should be punished to the full extent of the law.  I questioned if the driver is truly guilty of murder or manslaughter.  It could have just been an accident.  We are humans to a fault.  How do we know the teacher didn’t just step in front of the car without looking?  The opposing view insisted the driver had to be speeding.  Maybe.  Yet, at the time neither of us knew that.  A car going at 5 mph can just as easily crush a human to death as a car going at 30 mph.  I insisted to the person I was sparring with that she was riding a slippery slope of presumption without all of the facts disclosed.  A police report has yet to be publicly disclosed.  Circumstances always come into play.

I know I’m digressing.  With a Dirty Harry picture like Sudden Impact, it’s laid all out for you.  Harry will request that four robbers put down their guns before introducing his friends Smith & Wesson.  He’ll also consider the circumstances after a woman’s life has been permanently scarred with no one to side with her.  A police officer should not be judge and jury.  Yet, it’s reassuring those films like Sudden Impact or Dirty Harry will allow a comeuppance for the wrongdoers in the world. During the closing minutes of the film, Sondra Locke delivers a monologue that at least is worth consideration even if it’s not agreeable.  I don’t believe our society should turn into a wild west circus where you can get gunned down in a movie theater over thrown popcorn.  I do believe however, that evidence must be taken more seriously in many circumstances.  Suspicion must be valued more often. 

Sudden Impact might have a right-wing attraction to it.  It glorifies gun violence, for the sake of action entertainment.  Harry doesn’t just have a .44 Magnum.  Now, he also has a .44 Magnum Auto Mag!!!!  (Whatever that is!)  Ironically, this picture is primarily told from a woman’s point of view where she wants to be believed and she wants justice, much like many of the messages of the Me-Too movement that gained major traction in 2019.  It’s insisted that when a victim says they have been raped or assaulted, no matter how far back the incident occurred, it should be believed.  The argument is where’s the proof?  Like Harry Callahan though, proof is not always the end all be all.  Instinct and common sense sometimes have to prevail.  Again, it’s a slippery slope, but it’s also always worth questioning.  Harry Callahan is always worth questioning.

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