Wednesday, June 16, 2010
In a scene from David Fincher's marvelous Zodiac, detective Dave Toschi and cartoonist Robert Graysmith attend a screening of Don Siegel's film Dirty Harry with unease; Siegel's killer of his film, The Scorpio, was based directly on the Zodiac Killer, who was still at large (and in fact was never caught) at the time of the film's release. Toschi (who worked on the Zodiac case for years) and Graysmith were not alone in their discomfort--I too sat on my purple couch with the similar expression, but my excuse doesn't come from a real-life connection to the killings seen on-screen: I just found the whole film to be ineptly made. In fact, it commits the worst cinematic crime of all--it's simply not all that interesting.
I know that just by being born with a uterus I have a lot of cards stacked against me, but before the reader writes me off as an angry feminist bored at the overflow of masculine outrage (personally I think Harry's .44 Magnum is compensating for a shortcoming) and dismayed at the lack of a reasonably written female character (they are all either topless eye candy, rape victims or wives who don't know how to stand by their cop husbands), allow me to say that the amoral views expressed and actions taken by Harry Callahan are really the least of the film's problems.
Given the rich origin story of the then-still at large Zodiac Killer, it's astonishing how poorly conceived the Scorpio Killer is on paper, and then how poorly executed he is on-screen. This isn't a fault to actor Andrew Robinson, whose eyes do express a wildfire craziness I haven't seen since Kathleen Byron saw red in Black Narcissus. But to only have a killer be crazy for the sake of craziness isn't enough, no matter how chaotic and shattering the early 1970s were becoming. The cat-and-mouse game is very flat since the Harry Callahan sees Scorpio very early in the film and in fact seems to start sabotaging Scorpio's killings by the 20-minute mark, leaving any trace of shadowy mystery in the dust. And although the Scorpio's actions of writing to major San Francisco newspapers asking demands in return for sparing lives is taken directly from the real-life Zodiac Killer, the Scorpio doesn't have the meticulous nature or mystery of the Zodiac Killer, which destroys what could've been a fascinating cat-and-mouse-game. However, I still think the mere notion of a killer who remained uncaught, had many contradicting identities/sightings and an uncanny ability to disappear into the night fog is far more scary than any moment in Siegel's film.
But if the killer is a letdown, the anti-hero isn't a whole lot better. Yes, it is fun to see Clint Eastwood spit out those biting lines, but the script's insistence at having unbelievable moments to make grand soliloquies about the glory of a .44 Magnum threatens to turn the iconic speech into camp. Harry's backstory, of having a wife who died, isn't examined in an engagingly enough way, and maybe exploiting it would've been the wrong direction to go down anyway, but if you have to give the audience emotional exposition, at least do it in a unique way, please. Harry's near-vigilante views might've had a better response in the 70s when there was a lot more tolerance given the unrest in the US, but today it feels more dated, not just because it's not the 70s anymore, but each time Harry encounters a more straight-laced law enforcer who goes by the (law) books, they are either shouting their lines or they seem to be so weak they eventually agree with Harry ("I think he's got a point" is a response to Harry's reasoning of his "I shoot the bastard" policy; no wonder it looked like Toschi had an ulcer in Fincher's film); as much as many will credit this to Eastwood's commanding performance, I only see this as another shortcoming of the script, which doesn't trust its audience enough to make up their own minds about Harry's methods, another nail in its coffin.
In the end, when Harry has fully resigned from the notion of true justice and paid homage to the end of Fred Zinneman's High Noon, after he has bookended his "Do I feel lucky?" speech with more satisfying results (at least to Harry and the audience), the film pretends to end on a note of moral ambiguity, but in fact the film's sense of finality is more disappointing than it should be; by having the film take its plot points from A to B without much originality or even believability, the irony of Dirty Harry is that it's, if anything, not messy enough for its own good.