Both a cinematic punch in the face and a reactionary Archie Bunker--esque growl against rising crime and legal impotence, Dirty Harry will always be the film that Pauline Kael tagged “fascist.” And why deny it? From its casting of granite-faced Clint Eastwood, perfecting his Leone scowl, to the absurdly elephantine .44 Magnum he waves around a liberal San Francisco peopled by effete Berkeley professors and a weak-willed mayor (Vernon), the movie seems a calculated assault on due process.
Yet as far as ’70s films go, it stands in the company of the greats—not for tapping into the depth of a Chinatown or the fearless indictment of a Serpico, but for shifting the whole cop-killer mode into a vein of barely hinged horror.Yes, you heard it here first: Dirty Harry is a horror film (how else to process its questionably cathartic rage?), and its director, Don Siegel, a consistent distorter of genre to its most desperate extremes. (The Beguiled, made right before Dirty Harry, is as nightmarish a Civil War flick as you’re likely to see.)
There are cosmetic touches sure to distract newbies from the main substance, especially Lalo Schifrin’s ultrafunky score. But try to get Siegel’s masterful camera rise out of your head: gun-happy Harry looming over his jabbering perp, who screams like a stuck pig as the shot recedes high into a dense night fog. This is not a cop film. It’s a monster movie. (Opens Fri; Film Forum.)