Weekend Retrospective - Beware of ... Scorpio


"Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I'm saying is that man had rights."

"Well, I'm all broken up over that man's rights!"

This originally started out as a fresh look at the Dirty Harry series, but prompted me to take a slight detour along the way, which I will get to. I had seen all of these before so it was interesting to see how much of it, if any, had stood the test of time. As you can imagine certain elements don't quite hold up having not seen most of them for a number of years.

The original loose cannon himself, Inspector 71 spins a few good lines and a few duds in the course of the hunt for the Scorpio killer. It does seem a little bizarre in the knowledge that this is the same real life case portrayed by the movie Zodiac - one that was never solved of course, but something that was still in the public eye at the time of it's release. Potentially poor taste in story material aside it's a fun thriller. Whether it's a truly great film is questionable, but it's an entertaining film nonetheless.

This is mainly thanks to two elements, Andy Robinson as "Scorpio", plus the other big character... Lalo Schifrin's score. Now you're probably expecting me to cite the big man himself as a part of the appeal here. Of course it's part of the fun, but I found re-watching it that the scene stealer was the killer. It's a a wild eyed, manic, and high pitched performance. Clint on the other hand has done far better elsewhere, and he comes off as a little wooden up until the finale where things start to really get him angry, and the that line has some appropriate malice behind it. The soundtrack helps a lot as you'd expect from the composer that worked on Enter the Dragon and Mission Impossible. It's atmospheric and very 70s, but I particularly like the bassy tunes and the voice work in the killer's theme.

My issue is that under the layers of pop culture nostalgia it feels a little bit like a TV pilot. There are a number of great pieces of camera work - particularly the stadium shot where Callahan does his police brutality bit - but at times I though this kind of thing could be in any number of detective killer of the week shows. It's not to say that it isn't well done, but there's a general vibe from the whole thing that I couldn't shake. On the plus side there are a lot of really moody sequences and it definitely keeps the tension building once Scorpio's plan's get out of control. I thought the idea of him going to a back alley crook to pay for a beating to prevent Harry's investigation particularly striking, and the school bus race against time at the end is a good finale. But as everyone knows this isn't a one off, even when it seems as though Harry is out of a job once the credits roll.

I seemed to recall that the subsequent outings varied in quality but were not all that bad. It was immediately apparent however that these were not so great after all and involved a lot of unimaginative rehashing. Even the "go ahead make my day" line in Sudden Impact lost it's spark by the time I'd got to the 4th installment. If only they were as fun as the amusingly macho titles; especially Magnum Force! But it was not to be, they didn't recapture that original sense of urgency. It's not that they aren't inventive in some ways.

The first of the sequels has a new, harder hitting breed of vigilantes on the streets in contrast to the fascist overtones in the original - but it never gains any real momentum. The Enforcer has another attempt at going in another direction and the casting of Tyne Daly has a lot of promise, but in the end it's a bit of a damp squib with an uninspiring Alcatraz showdown. By the time I reached The Dead Pool it was getting a bit beyond a joke as they wheeled out silly accents, sillier lines and a appearance from a certain James Carrey. Even the music is out of place despite the original composer making another appearance. It does feel as though they put some effort into a story about hero worship and sensationalist media; but this is the film with a remote control car doing jumps over the San Francisco streets. They never get past the murder mystery TV feeling either despite Eastwood directing one of them himself. These aren't a total disaster by any means, but I'd prefer a few episodes of Columbo instead.

All of this stuff is played up a lot during the urban drama Gran Torino, and it's amazing the plot was never written with Clint in mind. It's probably not meant to be as amusing as I have found it with this in mind, and while there are many heavy themes and unnerving moments I can't help but give a knowing smile as the guns get pulled and the local hoods lose their attitude when confronted by Mr Kowalski's grimace. There's a certain level of self awareness, a sly sense of humour that must be intentional. While on the subject of anti heroes however, I thought it was time for a viewing of something a little different. An anti Western. Clint's own Unforgiven.

With a number of great casting choices this reflection on the genre as a whole, and also the history it has been based on is a slow burning character piece. I particularly liked Gene Hackman's sheriff Little Bill, but eccentric gunslinger English Bob played by Richard Harris also gets scenes that are all very memorable. It's a story which never plays to the usual archetypes, as Bill's calm and logical demeanor early on descends into brutality when he feels it's justified, and Bob's celebrity facade is stripped away to reveal a man that is all ego and tall tales.

They all have some kind of depth, the expected tropes are painted in many shades of grey rather than simple caricatures. This is certainly true of the bounty hunters led by Clint's William Munny, a man who often claims that he's "not like that an more" but perhaps is simply trying to escape his past. He struggles with getting back into the saddle, literally, but there's no heroic arc or catharsis here as the bloody showdown closes in. Morgan Freeman's Ned on the other hand seems full of confidence but comes apart at the seams a little once he comes to the job in hand; he's lost the taste for it - but perhaps he didn't like it that much to begin with.

It's full of interesting moments and defies tradition to create a story where even the music is sparse. Where you'd expect a full on score with Morricone style themes and overplayed riffs, there are just a few simple and atmospheric tunes. It isn't all bleak though - in spite of the dark subject matter it's a film that looks particularly nice; offering a number of panoramic scenes with a backdrop of Alberta making a stunning double for the American frontier. It has all the hallmarks of a last hurrah, and while Eastwood would go on to make many more films this is a fitting bookend to his career as a figure in the Western genre.