Seven years after James Fargo’s lacklustre The Enforcer (1976), director/star Clint Eastwood resurrected iconic super-cop “Dirty” Harry for a fourth movie. It proved the most profitable entry in the five film franchise and coined Eastwood’s famous “Make my day” catchphrase, yet remains a most curious hybrid of action super-heroics, feminist revenge thriller, sleaze, and crowd-pleasing comedy.
The first fifteen minutes of almost every Dirty Harry movie are a series of random, but fun encounters where he basically shoots, punches and browbeats the criminal populace. True to form, we follow Harry on his rounds: growling through an elevator encounter with juvenile delinquent Hawkins (Kevyn Major Howard), antagonizing elderly mafia rapist Threlkis (Michael V. Grazzo) into a heart attack, and delivering that iconic line as he violently intervenes at a diner hold-up. Meanwhile, George Wilburn (Michael Maurer), a resident of San Paulo turns up dead - shot in the head and genitals. The killer is local artist Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke). Flashbacks reveal she and her sister were victims of a gang rape that left the younger girl in a catatonic state, and Jennifer out for revenge against Wilburn, Kruger (Jack Thibeau), Tyrone (Wendell Wellman), guilt-ridden Alby (Matthew Child), nasty lesbian Ray (Audrie Neenan), and the monstrous Mick (Paul Drake).
When vengeful mobsters start taking regular - if predictably ill-fated - shots at Harry, long-suffering Captain Briggs (Bradford Dillman) sends him to San Paulo to investigate the Wilburn case. Harry clashes with straight-laced Chief Jannings (Pat Hingle), but slowly unearths the truth behind the seemingly random killings. However, Jannings hides a secret and Mick returns to San Paulo intent on brutally ending Jennifer’s revenge spree.
Of all the Dirty Harry sequels this one strains to be all things to all people. Box-office receipts suggest Eastwood understood his audience, yet the schizophrenic approach is often jarring. This one features a nightmarish rape sequence, partners Harry with a comedy farting dog (who amusingly goes the way of all Callaghan’s partners), thrills gun enthusiasts by introducing the .44 auto-Magnum (the models used were custom-made for Eastwood and nicknamed Clint 1 and 2), and has a topless hooker linger centre-frame just so viewers cop an eyeful of her enormous breasts. Part of a group of rape-revenge thrillers, like I Spit on Your Grave (1980) and Abel Ferrara’s superior Ms. 45 (1981) that position themselves as pro-feminist yet dwell on their assaults to an uncomfortable degree, Sudden Impact touches upon vigilantism but never explores the ethics in any meaningful way.
Here, in his final collaboration with then-wife Sondra Locke, Eastwood stubbornly avoids the confrontation that viewers expect: vengeful vigilante vs. no-nonsense cop. Instead he throws in an unlikely sexual liaison and fumbles the moral issues in a way that leaves Harry looking like a hypocrite. This is the guy who wouldn’t abide self-righteous executioner cops in Magnum Force (1973). While Jennifer is certainly a sympathetic character, you’d expect a more reasoned debate about her actions, but Eastwood left that to later, more thoughtful films like Unforgiven (1992). He concentrates largely on thrills and, while Harry’s take no prisoners stance chimed uncomfortably with the Ronald Reagan era (indeed the Gipper adopted “make my day” as his own mantra), this remains an entertaining, action packed film.
As with the Death Wish series, in order to prevent the hero from looking like a fascist, screenwriters had to devise villains more despicable than the last. Whereas the Scorpio Killer from the first Dirty Harry (1971) was a vile, yet just about believable psychopath, here we have a bunch of drooling, sexually dysfunctional, violent sex-maniacs. The kind of men even Mother Teresa would want dead. It’s ridiculously extreme, but Eastwood keeps this cartoon rollercoaster riding high with an array of stunts, climaxing with a gory and garish fairground finale. The sight of Harry looming out of the shadows with his .44 before the cowering criminals proves Eastwood knows how to utilise his own screen presense, know matter how mixed-up his storylines get.
Becoming a superstar in the late 1960s gave Clint Eastwood the freedom to direct in the seventies. Thriller Play Misty for Me was a success, and following films such as High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales showed a real talent behind the camera as well as in front of it. He won an Oscar for his downbeat Western Unforgiven, which showed his tendency to subvert his tough guy status in intriguing ways. Another Oscar was awarded for boxing drama Million Dollar Baby, which he also starred in.
Also a big jazz fan, as is reflected in his choice of directing the Charlie Parker biopic Bird. Other films as director include the romantic Breezy, The Gauntlet, good natured comedy Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man, White Hunter Black Heart, The Bridges of Madison County, OAPs-in-space adventure Space Cowboys, acclaimed murder drama Mystic River, complementary war dramas Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima and harrowing true life drama Changeling. Many considered his Gran Torino, which he promised would be his last starring role (it wasn't), one of the finest of his career and he continued to direct with such biopics as Jersey Boys and American Sniper to his name.