The seventies and eighties were the golden eras for cop films. While many of these films have aged as gracefully as curdled milk, they remain entertaining relics of cinematic history. One bad-ass detective that defined the cop movie genre was San Francisco’s inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan, played by the stone-faced actor Clint Eastwood. The character featured in five movies between 1971 and 1988 with varying levels of success at the box office. Let’s rank all five Dirty Harry movies. Do you know what’ll take the top spot? I guess you need to ask yourself a question. Do you feel lucky? Well, do you punk?
5. Sudden Impact (1983)
Ten years after a horrific sexual assault, Jennifer Spencer is on the hunt to kill everyone involved. Moonlighting as an artist in San Francisco, Jennifer finds and kills one of the men on her list, putting her on the radar of Harry Callahan, who’s having his own problems. Forced into a sabbatical after numerous cases of public destruction, Harry takes a break in the seaside town of San Paulo. He finds a town with a dark secret underneath its sunny facade. Concepts of justice and vengeance are blended into one another when local police are implicated in willingly protecting those behind a ten-year-old crime that brings Jennifer and Harry together.
Sudden Impact is by some margin the worst film in the franchise. The premise, while believable, is handled poorly by Eastwood. While you can empathise with Jennifer Spencer’s pain, she is an unlikable character. Her sister, who has laid in a comatose state since the attack, is used as a device to justify murder. Magnum Force uses a similar method of explaining the police death squad bringing justice because the courts have failed to do so. Callahan is opposed to such a concept; despite his criticisms, he still believes in the justice system. However, in Sudden Impact, that belief is scrapped in favour of a pointless romance plot.
Sudden Impact is available on Amazon Prime.
4. The Dead Pool (1988)
Hot off the heels of a career-defining arrest Harry Callahan is thrust into the world of low-budget horror movies, hunting down an obsessive serial killer. Partnered with a younger detective, harry must juggle a tentative relationship with a journalist while dodging assassination attempts from organised criminals. It’s a popcorn movie that doesn’t stray far from the narrative devices of earlier films – new partner, love interest and a new threat.
While some noted the tiresome nature of the film familiar themes, The Dead Pool was warmly received and is a thoroughly enjoyable movie that brings back some of the suspense that was absent from Magnum Force onwards. Also notable are the performances of a young Liam Neeson and a relatively unknown Jim Carrey in a rare dramatic role. The film also explores the dark side of the 80s obsession with fame, exemplified in a memorable scene involving a man willing to set himself on fire to get on the 10 o’clock news.
The Dead Pool is available on Amazon Prime.
3. Magnum Force (1973)
The acquittal of a known gangster has San Francisco in an uproar! With crime on the rise, many find themselves asking for justice at the barrel of a gun, and a zealous group of officers take it upon themselves to be judge, jury and executioner. Harry Callahan is no stranger to bending the rules but still believes in upholding the law, not extrajudicial murders. Magnum Force might be almost fifty years old but still holds up today due to the continuing controversy over the actions of police officers.
Magnum Force can be an uncomfortable movie to sit through. It deals with police brutality, themes of race and sex, mental illness and even plane highjacking. The Dirty Harry films always toe the line between levity and seriousness, and Magnum Force finds itself on the serious end of that line. The cast is stellar and has the cream of 70s talent – Clint Eastwood, David Soul and Hal Holbrook, all of whom give memorable performances.
Magnum Force is available on Amazon Prime.
2. Dirty Harry (1971)
San Francisco is a beacon of progressive values, but within that facade of tolerance, a serial killer called Scorpio targets minority groups and children. Righteous detective Harry Callahan is tasked with bringing this elusive murderer to justice, but the red tape of the city’s legal system constantly gets in the way. Though there are some moments of levity with Harry’s wry wit and memorable quotes, Dirty Harry is a serious movie that deals with genuine fears. It’s a fantastic example of the ‘cat and mouse’ crime movies that would come to dominate the decade.
Dirty Harry was released only a few years after a spate of serial killings left a permanent scar on the psyche of San Franciscans. Until relatively recently, the Zodiac killings were unsolved, so the failure to catch a serial killer was still firmly in the minds of every member of the city’s police force. The parallels are clear – Zodiac is swapped for Scorpio – he sends taunting letters to the police – Both took place in the same city. Several copycat crimes have been blamed on the film, including a kidnapping in Victoria, Australia and Livermore, California. These things aside, Dirty Harry is a classic movie that is as enjoyable and uncomfortable now as it would have been in 1971.
Dirty Harry is available on Amazon Prime.
1. The Enforcer (1976)
A radical movement with money on their mind are terrorising San Francisco. When Harry’s partner dies at the hands of these revolutionaries, he endeavours to dismantle a conspiracy of accomplices and bring down the movement. To improve equality within the police force, Harry’s new partner is a woman with zero experience as a detective. Unhappy with the arrangement, Callahan can’t help but become fond of her bravery and skill when given a chance to prove herself. The narrative between Harry and Kate would rightfully be seen as misogynistic by today’s standards, but in a country where less than 7% of police officers were women, it would’ve made sense in 1976.
I love how the franchise constantly entwined real-world events into the movies. The radical People’s Revolutionary Strike Force (PRSF) is loosely based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping of 1974. Such militant groups were common, usually built up by former Vietnam War veterans who no longer saw a place for themselves in society. Inspired by the political fervour of the period and trained in gorilla warfare, it seemed a good move for a desperate person. I love this movie, and it is, to my mind, the best in the franchise due to the political and social themes the film explores.
The Enforcer is available on Amazon Prime.
The Enforcer is a near perfectly balanced movie and ultimately takes the top spot. Dirty Harry and its sequels are classic examples of neo-noir cinema and make for brilliant comfort viewing for those of us who revel in 70s and 80s cinema. Do you agree with our ranking? Leave a comment down below – Go ahead, make my day.