by Charles D. Leayman
from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 21-22
Webster’s 3rd New International Dictionary defines “fascism” as “any tendency toward or actual exercise of severe autocratic or dictatorial control.” The filmic persona of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan, San Francisco Police, exhibits more than one “tendency” that eminently qualifies him for the “fascistic” label. That the films in which the character appears (including DIRTY HARRY and MAGNUM FORCE) have been among the most successful U.S. movies of the 70s indicates the great extent to which audiences share the ideologies of the filmmakers.
What audiences are chiefly responding to is the fetishization of law enforcement, both in the awesome figure of Harry himself and in the Magnum .44 that he so spectacularly wields. The attraction of such fetishizing is in nurturing a markedly emotional hero worship, while implicitly or explicitly espousing release from fear by force. And make no mistake, the filmmakers deliberately include a massive helping of our fears in their pernicious brew.
Accordingly, the media treatments of police and their procedures almost always are just such mindless celebrations. We see punch-and-sock displays of lawmen, guns, indeed all the paraphernalia of law enforcement, that allow no room for the thoughtful consideration of what ware being shown. At a time when we most need clear information about the workings of the police among us—about their exact function in our society—we are fed instead a debilitating diet of furtively glorified violence and sentimentalized retribution.
Herein lies the chief offense of the “Dirty Harry” films. They offer a continuing apotheosis of Clint Eastwood in the role of Harry Callahan, the San Francisco cop who must repeatedly buck a weak, hypocritical City Hell and take law enforcing matters into his own hands. These films not only promulgates a sophisticated form of hero worship that pretends not to take itself too seriously but also slips us (in the form of “entertainment,” naturally) reams of false information about the supposed reality of Harry’s (and, by extension, our) world.
This time out the unflappable Callahan is pitted against a group of degenerate no-goods who bill themselves as the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force (though their only social aspirations reside in lining their pockets). It’s led by one Bobby Maxwell, an ex-Vietnam vet all dressed up in a Hollywood costume designer’s notion of urban funk (denims, headband, a little skin juxtaposed with some lethal hardware to strike a fashionably S-M note). His compendium of outrageous crimes adds up to a ridiculous caricature of criminality. After preying upon assorted citizens mostly for the sheer hell of it, the group decides to kidnap San Francisco’s mayor (another foolish caricature), spiriting him off to now-deserted Alcatraz Island to await the forthcoming ransom.
The narrative on Harry’s side is tricked up with the addition of a female rookie (Tyne Daly) as his partner. The star’s chagrin at finding himself strapped with a “lady” sidekick is milked for far, far more than its pea-size laugh-getting potential. His initial meeting with her during official examination vigorously flaunts his pathetic, reactionary misogyny in the viewer’s face. One hopes that the story will at least resolve itself into a recognition of equals, with Harry finally coming to recognize female prowess. But no such luck. The film so enjoys patronizing and laughing at Daly’s character that it affords her “equal” status with Callahan only in the act of killing a man. In THE ENFORCER. Clint Eastwood more than proves his willingness to associate himself with projects that are frankly demeaning to women. (His similar enthusiasm for maligning homosexuals is thoroughly and revoltingly documented in THE EIGER SANCTION, which Eastwood himself directed. His climactic cursing here of THE ENFORCER’s Bobby Maxwell as a “fucking fruit!” reassures us that his sensibilities remain as enlightened as ever.)
Just as before, Harry’s monstrous Magnum .44 is the fascist fetish par excellence. He has only to unsheathe it for the audience to lapse into oohs! and aahs! of appreciation. Needless to say, both gun and man are viewed as inextricable, one proceeding logically from the other. The script may recognize its own phallic absurdity (in some of the most leaden “comic” dialogue heard in years), but Harry and the audience take seriously the unabashed power of the weapon. And the use of the wide-rectangle, Panavision frame is anything but arbitrary. Ever since Don Siegel’s original DIRTY HARRY, Panavision’s endless expanse has made all those low-angle shots of Eastwood all the more dramatically imposing (for an antecedent to this strategy, check out Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL). The wide screen has rendered the star’s gliding horizontal walk all the more charismatic, and (best of all!) can bring every last inch of that totemic .44 into full view, and with room to spare. (The second Harry opus, Ted Post’s MAGNUM FORCE, took the most memorable advantage of this ability by playing its credit titles over the gun’s length so that we could soak up its unsung power at our leisure. At the finish of the titles, the hand holding the weapon turned it in the audience’s direction and FIRED!!!, thereby affording latent masochism its finest frisson.)
Carrying on its fine tradition, THE ENFORCER stoops to the consistent use of what I propose to call “trigger words“--terms designed to elicit a particular response from those hearing them—the most blatant example of which is “People’s Revolutionary Strike Force” with bursts of “Right On!” and “Power to the People!” Having just gone through a year of being inundated with news of Patty Hearst and SLA activities, and having come out of a decade when the two quoted exclamations ware intimately linked to various forms of organized militancy, our minds offer up readymade associations (most of which have been helpfully supplied by the news media) on hearing such words. In a film extolling the virtues of a fascistic personality in a society whose officials are hamstrung, the script’s equation of these terms with criminal behavior functions expressly to convince us that they are virtual synonyms. So as not to be accused of “irresponsibility,” screenwriters Stirling Silliphant and Dean Riesner have inserted at least one visual bit that at best ambiguously undercuts the equation and later place another disclaimer in the mouth of a black militant who assures Harry that the marauders “don't really believe in that shit” (“that shit” being actual revolutionary activity). But the force of the imagery and the reiteration of key words (“People’s Revolutionary Strike Force”) work subtly to indoctrinate the audience with a deliberate word/image association that reflects the film’s reactionary ideology.
In similar ways, the visuals are chosen to support, either overtly or with relative discretion, the filmmakers’ personal perspectives. When Harry and his partner leave a ghetto store inhabited by black militants, the camera “just happens” to pick out a hammer and sickle executed in red paint on the storefront. Nothing is made of the emblem, and indeed a viewer could easily miss it. And yet it exists in the fabric of the film, contributing its bit to a fuzzy but discernible thematic lime that roughly adds up to “revolution-militancy-blacks-Communists-violence-crime.”
By an extremely neat scriptwriter’s trick, the so-called “black militants” are effectively defused by both Harry’s imperturbability and the script’s alertness to its audience’s fears. While the storefront blacks are visually rendered as dark and threatening, Harry’s encounter with their leader, Mustafa, discloses a policy of pragmatic opportunism on the part of the blacks that actually allies them with white forces of law and order. Thus, the potential for extreme change that the presence of the blacks evokes is short-circuited by the script’s castration of Mustafa’s hatred of “honkies.” Once again, the white order as personified by Harry Callahan is able to absorb (in this case with smug aplomb) any threats to its existence.
But, you may ask, why take seriously an enterprise designed simply as a relatively mindless diversion? Before answering, I would like to include an especially interesting excerpt from Warner Brothers’ publicity flyer for THE ENFORCER:
The most deceptive and odious feature of the above flack is its camouflaging of right-wing propaganda under a folksy heading of fun. The actual movie likewise disguises its far-right leanings beneath a panoply of jive music, slick imagery, and fledgling director James Fargo’s skill with trashy material. To take but one example: Harry chases a black man suspected of bombing a public building across the roofs and through the alleys of San Francisco. Needless to say, Det. Callahan is completely convinced of the suspect’s guilt before it has even been established. (The continuing opposition between official caution and Harry’s gut-level response to a suspect’s character has become, like almost everything else in the Dirty Harry films, self parodying.) But the really offensive element here is the addition of a kinetic piece of pop music on the soundtrack that simultaneously deflects our attention away from Harry’s presumptuous tactics and reduces the spectacle of white-cop-chasing-black-suspect to the level of mere divertissement for the delectation of audiences who supposedly (according to the filmmaker’s intuitions) enjoy such escapades.
Ultimately, THE ENFORCER is a stupid, brutalizing, and incoherent attraction that aims for an audience’s most irresponsible feelings. Just because of its extreme (if insidious) sophistication--including the ability to laugh at itself—the film filters its half-truths and stereotypes to the public with painless ease. An unending panorama of equally numbing cop shows on TV has already set too many of us up to accept trash like THE ENFORCER even before the projector light came on. The least we can do to defend ourselves is to take a long and perspective look (if look we must) into the ways and means of bourgeois filmmaking’s so-called “dream machine.”