Every Dirty Harry Movie, Ranked

Movies Lists Clint Eastwood
Every Dirty Harry Movie, Ranked

Clint Eastwood could lay claim to the title of cinema’s most famous cowboy, affording his stoic bravura to Westerns helmed by the likes of Sergio Leone, John Sturges, Paddy Chayefsky, Don Siegel and himself, in which he reckons with the violence and greed in the formative years of the American west. But it’s his tenure as the rule-breaking, take-no-prisoners cop Dirty Harry Callahan that sees him wrestling with the changing landscape of American sociopolitical issues in real time, from the initial film’s release in 1971 to the final installment in 1988.

The Dirty Harry franchise is one defined by the reactionary nature of its central conceit: That sometimes someone like Harry Callahan taking the law into his own hands is the only way to get shit done, procedure and policy be damned! But there’s an interesting line to be traced the further along in the franchise you go, as the pure right-wing pipe dream of the first film gives way to later entries that seem to reconsider what a figure like Harry means to America as he approached the end of the 20th century. In almost all cases the politics of the movies end up either confused or loathsome, but then that’s what gives them their memorable texture. Dirty Harry is the gun-slinging, unrepentant cowboy to follow The Man with No Name’s footsteps, and the inevitable byproduct of America’s origins in violence. 

Here’s every Dirty Harry movie, ranked.

5. The Enforcer (1976)

By 1976, the Dirty Harry franchise had started to lose some of its luster, though not necessarily its commercial appeal if the box office receipts are anything to go by. This third entry is where the series abandons its skeezy atmosphere, the streets of San Francisco now shot with typical, bland coverage by James Fargo, Eastwood’s longtime assistant director. The grit of Don Siegel’s initial entry is long gone, as is the application of the series’s reactionary political bent being used in any meaningful capacity. In The Enforcer, Harry Callahan faces off against his greatest enemy yet: Affirmative Action! That’s right, he’s reluctantly paired up with Kate Moore (Tyne Daly) as his new partner, giving Eastwood plenty of opportunity to crack snide remarks at the audacity of having to be out in the field with… (gasp!) a girl?? Maybe if she learns to harass and kill as indiscriminately as Harry they’ll learn to get along! 

This is bar none the dullest of the Dirty Harry series, both in terms of filmmaking aptitude and how it uses Harry’s regressive view of social issues as shallow signifiers to get cheap pops from the audience. Take moments like the incredulous look on Harry’s face when he finds out he’s working with Kate, or when he calls the queer-coded extremist villain—part of a terrorist group called the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force, intended to be reminiscent of the Symbionese Liberation Army—a “fuckin’ fruit” before obliterating him with a rocket launcher. At least the latter is an admittedly welcome touch of flippant insanity. But that’s an outlier. Overall, The Enforcer feels less like a Dirty Harry movie and more like a cobbling together of broadly offensive right-wing notions as a form of novelty, the script desperately searching for an actual story to hold them together.

4. The Dead Pool (1988)

Certainly the strangest of the Dirty Harry films, this final entry acts almost as a fleeting epilogue to check back in on how Harry is doing towards the end of the ‘80s. To that end, the previous entry, Sudden Impact, was a more fitting conclusion for the franchise, but The Dead Pool has some appeal if you take it on its own terms. Eastwood’s longtime stunt double Buddy Van Horn takes on directing duties with a screenplay by Steve Sharon that inserts Callahan into a satirical pop thriller about the violence of the entertainment industry. No, really. If it had come out a decade or so later I’d assume it was trying to capitalize on the popular metatextual qualities of Scream. But for a peppy ‘80s murder-mystery that just happens to feature America’s favorite old-fashioned, take-no-prisoners inspector, this is an amusing jaunt. 

The Dead Pool loses most of the tricky texture of the series up to this point for something much more broadly palatable and light on its feet—hell, it’s basically a comedy—but it has a collection of entertaining moments, performers and ideas that make it a somewhat fruitful curio. Worthwhile aspects include Liam Neeson as a brash, pompous horror director, Jim Carrey as a druggie rock singer shooting an unhinged music video for “Welcome to the Jungle” and also Slash from Guns N’ Roses starring (and firing a big harpoon gun) in the film that Neeson’s character is filming. The most memorable sequence, though, is the prolonged car chase in which Callahan and his new partner Quan (Evan C. Kim) must outrun a bomb-strapped RC car pursuing them throughout the streets of San Francisco, the glaringly ridiculous nature of which makes it no less fun to watch.

3. Magnum Force (1973)

In taking over directing duties from Don Siegel, Ted Post commits Magnum Force to the same seamy tone and violence of the first movie, though writers John Milius and Michael Cimino flip the script entirely on the politics. Magnum Force pulls an ideological about-face that feels directly in response to the backlash that Dirty Harry received upon release. In pitting Callahan against a rogue death squad of other cops that are out exacting justice where the legal system refuses to, the film strips away the thorny implications of Harry’s own vigilantism by turning him into the law-abiding one taking down the other vigilante cops. But, of course, he still has to be “Dirty Harry,” and so he still wields a brazen sense of extrajudicial brutalizing that is now played largely as uncomplicatedly heroic. Y’know, because the other cops are worse. Ironically, this one ends up more ideologically murky than Dirty Harry

Apart from that, Magnum Force is a perfectly competent, if comparatively lackluster, piece of action sleaze. Post depicts events with a sturdy hand, there’s some good Clint mugging happening, and with this kind of nice ‘70s San Francisco location work, there are worse movies to hang out with. The longest of the franchise, clocking in at over two hours, pacing is this film’s greatest enemy. It’s sluggish often enough to get you wondering when things are really going to get moving, though the project as a whole is constantly fascinating as we watch filmmakers attempting to wrangle the rampant psychosis of a character like Harry Callahan into a full-blown, commercial-friendly franchise. 

2. Sudden Impact (1983)

It had been seven years since audiences last saw Inspector Harry Callahan in the lackluster The Enforcer when Sudden Impact hit theaters. For Dirty Harry’s first foray into the new decade, Eastwood stepped behind the camera, the only time he did so for the franchise despite his illustrious career as a director. His measured, often contemplative directing style helps to flesh out the most insightful reckoning of Callahan (outside of the first entry). It does so by sticking him into a gritty rape-revenge drama, with a script adapted into a Dirty Harry movie by Joseph Stinson, working from a separate screenplay that Charles B. Pierce and Earl E. Smith wrote to star Sandra Locke. 

Sudden Impact retains much of that original script—including Locke herself, starring as vigilante assault victim Jennifer Spencer, who has returned to her hometown of San Paulo to enact justice against the perpetrators. Callahan investigates the murders while striking up a relationship with Spencer, her culpability unbeknownst to him. Following the cheap provocations of The Enforcer, Sudden Impact is refreshing in the way it capitalizes on the very foundation of Harry’s “ask for forgiveness later” approach. By applying it to someone whose motives are justified, and who has found that the only way to achieve absolution is to work outside of the law, it forces us (and Harry) to question the methods and permissibility of vigilantism. It places the regular notions of the series into a new context, pitting Harry’s callous use of violence against someone whose belief that killing is the only option rings as a much more credible thought. Eastwood imbues Sudden Impact with a much more mature reckoning of the origins of the franchise from over a decade prior, and Locke steals the film with the most poignant performance any of the Dirty Harry films ever saw. 

1. Dirty Harry (1971)

One of Eastwood’s final collaborations with a director he would go on to refer to as his mentor, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry is one of the purest distillations of the newfound age of cynicism that America had been thrust into at the turn of the ‘70s. It was a major box-office success, though not without facing controversy over the plainly right-wing politics and regressive themes that populate its story. Protesters lined up outside the following year’s Academy Awards ceremony holding up signs adorned with statements such as “Dirty Harry is a rotten pig.”

They’re right: Harry Callahan is a rotten pig, and yet the discord between the film’s sympathetic view of his behavior and its simultaneously clear-eyed commentary on Harry’s “judge, jury and executioner” style of policing is what makes it so invigorating. It envisions a society enamored with a fascist brand of heroism. Dirty Harry revels in a familiar American death dream where our ideal heroes circumvent institutional directives and power because the only real way to catch the bad guys is rough justice. Too much oversight is ineffectual. Dirty Harry sells the fantasy too: Harry is a cool, composed badass whose rampage of fury stops just short of the criminals he’s chasing down, though they share similar power fantasies. He’s the guy who jumps atop a school bus and lands just the right shot to stop the serial-killing psycho, and he’s also the guy who isn’t racist or sexist: He hates everyone equally! His vigilante exploits are captured with exquisite framing and a perfectly scuzzy vision of ‘70s San Francisco—one that suggests that a guy like Harry is only a natural byproduct, and necessary savior, of such a disturbed, violent society. According to Dirty Harry, the only fix for this world is a punisher with a .44 magnum detached from the confines of the law.

Trace Sauveur is a writer based in Austin, TX, where he primarily contributes to The Austin Chronicle. He loves David Lynch, John Carpenter, the Fast & Furious movies, and all the same bands he listened to in high school. He is @tracesauveur on Twitter where you can allow his thoughts to contaminate your feed.

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