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Dirty Harry’s America: Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan, and the Conservative Backlash by Joe Street (book review).

For those who wonder what happens when I look through a catalogue, I do wonder when something unusual comes up is whether you people out there would be interested as well. I cover a lot of Eurospan’s distribution of SF-orientated non-fiction but they also cover a lot of other diverse subjects as well. I tend to give a cursory look and a raised eyebrow at Joe Street’s book, ‘Dirty Harry’s America: Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan, and the Conservative Backlash’. We’re talking the Clint Eastwood 5 film series and I haven’t seen any book on the subject before. We all watch these films from time to time, so I was interested in seeing what we have here. It feels geeky, doesn’t it?

The opening of this book has more emphasis on the political situation at the time that made ‘Dirty Harry’ possible to be filmed in the first place. So you have an intense chapter on the political situation from the late-60s to the early 70s and how politicians were reacting to the student and black unrest in San Francisco at the time. George Wallace’s attitude was a police officer at a protest meeting should shoot dead a student who picks up a brick to throw as a warning to the next student tempting to do the same. Ronald Reagan wasn’t too far off that neither.

Things were very right wing back then. I was still in my teens back then and but we didn’t pick up all the things that was happening Stateside in the UK at the time. Of course, we all know that the film’s Scorpio is loosely based on the real ‘Zodiac Killer’ but only as far as his playing with the public, as the real killer never got caught.

With chapters 3 and 4, Street looks at the films and how it draws comparison to real life. In that respect, he does make minor inaccuracies and I’m not sure if this was for not picking up when he watched them or editing discrepencies made when comparing the rest of the world version to the American edition, which was especially prevalent at the time. Anyway, just to show I was paying attention when reading. Callahan pauses and ponders more than a couple times in the original film but when you consider how little he talks, it might be har to spot the difference. According to something I read years ago, the wild goose chase that Scorpio directed Callahan to follow is geographically impossible to do in the times allocated simply because they are too far apart. Film licence with locations there.

In ‘Magnum Force’, I’m less sure if Callahan ‘rigged’ Briggs’ getaway car with much forethought to blow up since all he did was release the timer of the bomb previously put in his letterbox. Street’s comparison of Callahan to various private eyes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe made me check and as far as I can see Clint Eastwood has never played a private detective. Indeed, in a later chapter, Street goes over all the detective films Eastwood has made, pointing out they all tend towards maverick cops bucking the authority from those above. By the time I finished that chapter, I was beginning to think Street was portraying Eastwood as a one-note actor. It isn’t as though he hasn’t made other types of films.

For ‘The Enforcer’, Street describes Kate Moore’s hair as ‘unfashionable’ but when you consider that actress Tyne Daly had the same style in ‘Cagney And Lacey’, I could give a good argument that this is her normal hair style.

I have heard of the American Miranda rights for the police arresting felons but I hadn’t heard before that the right to a lawyer prior to interrogation is called the Escobedo rights.

Street also has a look at the eleven ‘Dirty Harry’ tie-in novels. I did read a few of them at the time but characterisation-wise, they just kept repeating Harry’s film dialogue. Oddly, there is no reference to the fact that the first three films had novelisations made. Before the advent of video tape, novelisations were the only way to read the stories.

A lot of the final two chapters is looking at the ‘Dirty Harry’ influence on American society and the likes of Ronald Reagan using variant quotes from it. Then again, so does Eastwood from time to time but that’s showbiz. Some of the others I’m less sure about. Harry Callahan wasn’t the first maverick cop although he is the best remembered.

At the back of the book there are 44 pages of notes. Much of it is for where Street gets his references from and the couple dozen other quotes there are simply lost in that. If ever there was an argument for putting the important ones on the main text pages, then this is the one as it defeats the object otherwise.

Although you’re only seeing my quibbles mostly above, there is a lot to learn from this book, especially about American society from the 1970s and into the 1980s. As I reflect completing this review, it has dawned on me that it’s only the first film that was ever loosely based on a real event. I suppose we should be grateful there were never any rogue police units as in ‘Magnum Force’ out there. At least we can say that there is a line between fact and fiction.

GF Willmetts

January 2019

(pub: University Of Florida, 2016. 364 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £27.50 (UK), $24.95 (US). ISBN: 978-0-8130-6471-0)

check out websites:  www.upress.ulf.edu and www.eurospanbookstore.com


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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