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!'

While this originally started out as a fresh look at the Dirty Harry series, along the way I was prompted to take a slight detour and a kind of post viewing epilogue, which I will get to shortly. I had seen all of these before but my memory was pretty fuzzy, 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, while others are always a treat. So to get things started let's join the original loose cannon himself, Inspector Seventy-One Harry Callahan, as he reels off a few good lines and a hits a few duds in the course of the hunt for the Scorpio killer in the original Dirty Harry.

This choice of subject matter does seem a little bizarre when you know that this story was inspired by the real life case portrayed by the movie Zodiac - one that was famously never solved. Something that was still in the public eye at the time of its release. However regardless of whether the material could be considered in poor taste this is still a fun thriller for the most part. Whether it's a truly great film is questionable, but it's entertaining nonetheless. This is mainly thanks to two elements, Andy Robinson as Scorpio himself, plus the other big character... Lalo Schifrin's score. The swinging 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 vocal work in the killer's theme.

Now you're probably expecting me to cite the big man himself as a part of the appeal here. Callahan with his terrible jacket, his huge gun, and all his quotable lines. Of course it's part of the fun, but I found on re-watching that the real scene stealer was actually the killer. It's a wild eyed, manic, and high pitched performance from Robinson who screeches and raves when he gets caught or whenever the mood takes him. It's a totally different character than you'd expect in a role that could just be a silent psychopath. The opening sniper sequence sets it up to be that way until later when he goes off the rails. Clint on the other hand has done far better things elsewhere, and he comes off as a little wooden up until the finale where things really start to get him angry, and the that line is delivered a second time with some appropriate malice behind it.

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 thought this kind of thing could be found 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 plans go awry. The idea of him going to a back alley crook and paying for a beating to prevent Harry's investigation is particularly striking, and the climax where he torments a school bus full of kids is a great finale. But as everyone knows this isn't a one off, even when it seems certain that Harry is out of a job once the credits roll.

So onto the sequels. I seemed to recall that the subsequent outings varied in quality but overall were not that bad. However it was immediately apparent that these were not so great after all, and there was a lot of unimaginative rehashing involved. Even the raw ham of 'go ahead, make my day' in Sudden Impact lost it's spark by the time I'd got to that forth instalment. 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 or the sense of character afforded by the music and the original villain. It's not that they aren't inventive in some ways, but they often feel pretty lacklustre.

The first of the sequels has a new, harder hitting breed of vigilantes on the streets in a deliberate attempt to counter balance the right wing overtones in the original. But it never gains any real momentum, and the mystery aspects are all telegraphed early on. In part three, The Enforcer there's another great title and another attempt at going in another direction. 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. It's a shame as she has some good moments with Eastwood and it could have led to a promising buddy cop future. 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 an appearance from a certain James Carrey.

The others are at least watchable, but this just feels like a parody, or worse an unrelated TV pilot. Even the music is out of place despite the original composer making another appearance. It does at least feel as though they put some effort into a story with themes about hero worship and sensationalism in the media. But this is the film with a remote control car doing jumps over the San Francisco streets. Despite so many attempts at doing it again the sequels never get past the simplistic murder mystery feeling despite Eastwood directing one of them himself. These aren't a total disaster by any means, but by the end watching few episodes of Columbo instead might be a better idea.

So here's where things take a detour as we move away from Dirty Harry, and into a realm of quiet retrospection. The heroes are greyer, and so are their acts of heroism. All of this ageing anti-hero stuff is played up a lot during the urban drama Gran Torino, and it's amazing that the plot was never written with Clint in mind. It's a tale of intolerance, resentment and anger. It's probably not meant to be as amusing as I found it with this in mind. But while there are many heavy themes and some genuinely unnerving moments I can't help but give a knowing smile as the guns get drawn and the local hoods lose their cool in the face of Clint's grimace. There's a certain level of self awareness and a sly sense of humour that has to have been intentional.

Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is a man out of time, having just lost his wife and living in a dilapidated neighbourhood he doesn't recognise any more. The locals all seem to be gang members who want to steal from him or migrants from South East Asia, a people he only sees as a reminder of his service in the military during the Korean War. He's a bitter old man, someone who's very distant from the heroes of the '70s and '80s. But it's not all played for tragedy, at least not wholly. There's a dark sense of humour here, something which is at its most sardonic during scenes in which Walt's family are involved, and their portrayal as spoilt children who just want to take his property adds to his resentment.

If there were any faults it's probably that the story is told with very broad strokes as Walt finds friendship with his new neighbours after the eponymous car is nearly stolen, and his blood relatives are shown as being worthy of his disdain. The ending in particular feels a bit too neat and tidy as the health issues caused by his age and the problems caused by local hoodlums both reach a dramatic apex. However this is still a poignant story, and the blend of dry character humour and unsettling crime drama are mixed together well in a story that feels like a conclusion to Clint's past personas as well as being its own thing.

While on the subject of ageing anti-heroes however, I thought it was time for a fresh viewing of something a little different, one that also puts a full stop on Clint's past, this time as a gunslinger. An anti-Western, Unforgiven. With a number of great casting choices this is a reflection on the genre as a whole, and also the history it was supposedly based on. It's a slow burning character piece with dark shadows and intense moods. I particularly enjoy Gene Hackman as self righteous sheriff Little Bill, and his scenes with eccentric gunslinger English Bob (Richard Harris) are very memorable. It's a story which never plays to the usual archetypes, as Bill's calm and logical demeanour early on descends into brutality when he feels it's justified, and Bob's celebrity facade is stripped away to reveal a weak man that is all ego and tall tales.

They all have some kind of depth, and the expected tropes are painted in many shades of grey. The players are all interesting in some way rather than just being 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 any more' but perhaps is simply trying to escape his past rather than truly change his ways. He struggles with getting back into the saddle (quite literally in one instance), 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 it comes to the job in hand; he's lost the taste for it. Perhaps he didn't like it that much to begin with.

It's full of interesting moments and often defies tradition, telling a story where even the music is sparse. Where you'd expect a full on classical score with Ennio Morricone style themes and overplayed motifs, there are just a few simple and atmospheric tunes. It isn't all bleak silence and sudden violence though. Despite of the dark subject matter it's a film that often looks particularly pleasant. There are a number of great panoramic scenes and the Alberta location provides 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 an iconic figure in the Western genre.

Dirty Harry   4/5

Magnum Force   3/5
The Enforcer   3/5
Sudden Impact   2/5
The Dead Pool   1/5

Gran Torino   4/5
Unforgiven   4/5