- Dirty Harry's America: Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan, and the Conservative Backlash by Joe Street
On August 30, 2012, Clint Eastwood addressed a wildly enthusiastic crowd on the final day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. Eastwood's bizarre conversation with an empty chair representing Barack Obama attracted the most media attention in the days that followed. But equally intriguing were the speech's opening and closing remarks, which repeated two phrases famously used by Eastwood's best-known cinematic character, "Dirty Harry" Callahan. Eastwood's first words—after thanking the crowd—were "I know what you are thinking," which references his taunting a bank robber who isn't sure if Callahan fired five or six shots with his .44 Magnum handgun in Dirty Harry (1971). Eastwood's ended his speech in Tampa with "Go ahead," which then provoked the convention delegates to roar back in unison, "Make my day!," thereby referencing the catch-phrase used by Callahan in Sudden Impact (1983), the third of four sequels that followed the original film.
Eastwood's performance in Tampa not only "reminded listeners of the centrality of Harry Callahan in Eastwood's persona," but also "indicated that Callahan was firmly in the conservative camp, partnering Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in their quest for the White House" (141), argues Joe Street, a senior lecturer in history at Northumbria University. Although this "conservative camp" may be more multifaceted than Street describes, his book is a well-written and thoroughly engaging analysis of Dirty Harry's origins, cultural history, and legacy. Street incisively explores the key themes expressed in Dirty Harry and its four sequels, concluding that "Callahan represents American strength, honor, chivalry, and righteousness while also revealing its bloodlust, lack of respect for the rule book, and fondness for guns" (201).
Dirty Harry's America begins with an assessment of Eastwood's career in the 1950s and 60s, including his earlier collaborations with Don Siegel, who directed Eastwood in three films prior to Dirty Harry. Chapter 2 explores the wider political, cultural, and social context of the 1971 film, particularly how it corresponds to the evolution of cinematic private detectives and police officers who go "rogue in single-minded pursuit" [End Page 109] of their antagonists (41), as well as the "so-called urban crisis [that] manifested all of the fears of American liberals in the 1960s" (43). Chapter 3 considers the significance of San Francisco as the setting for the Dirty Harry films, particularly the city's unusual combination of liberalism and cultural tolerance together with its roots in the Old West and the popularity of both Ronald Reagan (then serving as California's governor) and Richard Nixon (a native Californian then serving as U.S. president).
The book's final three chapters examine the legacies of Dirty Harry—first in the themes that unite the original with its sequels, and then in the ways in which the films continue to resonate in American popular and political culture. Here Street explores Eastwood's service as mayor of Carmel, his roles in more recent films such as Gran Torino (2008), and the references to Callahan in vigilante films such as Death Wish (1974), television series such as Sledge Hammer (1986–1988), video games such as Dirty Harry (1980), and graphic novels such as Sin City: That Yellow Bastard (1996).
In short, Dirty Harry's America is an excellent example of American Studies scholarship, which analyzes this cultural phenomenon from multiple perspectives, including class, gender, geography, law, politics, popular culture, race, and sexuality.