(Cleanliness at its Dirtiest) Minutia Madness Dirty Harry Edition

Minutia Madness: Dirty Harry
By Bret Dorman

(As always, SPOILERS! may apply to the movie in discussion.)

Everyone knows what makes a movie good. Blurbs like “compelling”, “powerful”, and “explosive non stop thrill ride that will leave you on the edge of your seat!” are common place on movie posters.

Classic Dirty Harry Poster

In reviews (including my own) people point out how the direction is “great”, how the writing is “awesome”, and how the acting is “wonderful”. Every once in a while you can find a really great essay from a smart film critic (a real one) or film maker that actually explains why a movie is good and helps you as a viewer become a better film watcher.

But what about those small moments that fall in between the cracks? I understand the need to talk about a movie in the broad sense, its the easiest most SPOILER! free way of saying if you liked or didn’t like a movie. I prefer people to talk in specifics, to actually know why something is good or bad. But this goes beyond all that. This is blowing the tiniest detail way out of proportion. This is what makes me a film nerd. This is… Minutia Madness!!!

Dirty Harry
written by Harry Julian Fink & Rita M. Fink and Dean Riesner; Directed by Don Siegel

Last week, on Minutia Madness’ premiere article, I picked a small stroke of a hat brim from the movie Le Samourai. Perhaps not the best choice to start of such a specific article series, but it is the ultimate of small details that I geek out over. This week, I went with the opposite. Most people have seen Dirty Harry, or at least know of his ‘reputation’. Plus, if you haven’t seen the movie yet (you should) this scene is (pretty much) the second scene of the movie. No need to worry about watching the scene out of context. All you need to know is Clint Eastwood is “Dirty” Harry Callahan, a San Fran cop who dislikes the red tape of the legal system which makes it easier for criminals to get away. He prefers to just let his gun serve as the gavel of the law. BANG! Order in the court… and on the streets! (I should moonlight as one of those people who writes the descriptions of movies on the back of DVDs.)

Alternate Dirty Harry Poster

Here, Dirty Harry is just trying to enjoy a hotdog while processing the grim crime scene he just visited. But crime doesn’t take lunch breaks! He notices a potential robbery taking place and phones it in, deciding to let the boys in blue handle the situation. Before he can finish his hotdog however, the alarms ring and the robbers are close to making their getaway. In a great “Aw shit” (Why me? Why now?) moment, the more than capable Harry reluctantly decides to go put an end to this, still finishing his bite of hotdog. He disposes of the first two baddies with relative ease, just getting a small nick from a bullet in the process. The last baddie is laying at the bank doors. He’s been shot, but still alive, gun within reach as Harry approaches holding out his six-shooter. How many shots does he have left? Clearly if he has even one, he’ll have plenty of time to kill the baddie before he can reach the gun. The baddie must make a choice decision gamble. Dirty Harry, whose life is potentially on the line, gives this famous monologue:

I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head, clean off you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well do ya punk?

Not only is Dirty Harry cool enough to stop a bank robbery while out manned, out gunned, and finish his hotdog; he has a monologue about how badass his gun is. The speech is specifically designed change the question in the “punk’s” head from ‘Should I reach for my gun?’ to ‘Do I really want to risk dying today, right now?’ It’s an awesome scene in great movie. The End!

But wait… Let’s take a closer look at the punctuation in the monologue. Dirty Harry lays out the whole thing straightforwardly and pauses normally at all the right moments. Except there’s one moment where he gives the slightest of pauses mid-sentence as well as exaggerate one specific word:

But being as this is a .44 Magnum the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head, clean off

That’s right. The dramatic emphasis he puts on the word clean. Here’s the video:

First off, the actual choice of the word “Clean” is a bit ironic. “Dirty” Harry Callahan gets all the “dirtiest” jobs and usually ends up making a mess. To describe one of the most violent things you could do to someone, shooting them in the head at that range with that gun, as something of an improvement reflects how Harry feels about criminals in general (as cemented by his indifferent willingness to pull the trigger at the very end regardless).

There also that slight pause, muttering the word “clean” through his teeth and out the side of his mouth, and even cocking his whole head towards the side as he says it, as if saying the word itself gave him a physical reaction. As I mention before, Dirty Harry doesn’t want to just say “Hey, either you can risk it and kill me or I kill you. What’s it gonna be?”, he doesn’t even mention the robber’s gun or him getting shot in the monologue (which is well rehearsed and been used in numerous occasions I’m sure), because those factors are irrelevant. He is specifically relaying exactly what kind of damage his gun, the one he is holding at the bad guy’s head right now, can do.

Dirty Harry Tribute Poster

At a moment like this, with your life on the line, you can’t just say a bunch of words, no matter how cool they are and expect that alone to get the job done. The speech is well written, very short and to the point, highlighting the big three components of the situation in three chunks (number of bullets remaining, damage gun can do, asking baddie if he’s ready to die). To really sell the speech though, not just ask the bad guy what choice he’s going to make, but to ingrain in his mind the worst case scenario, that’s what eliminates the reaching for the gun choice. And it is the word “clean” that sells that monologue instead of just making it “some cold blooded shit to say to a mother fucker before [he] pops a cap in his ass” (Jules on his own speech in Pulp Fiction).

So go ahead and scroll back up and give the monologue a shot in your own voice. The best way I can describe it is like this… The whole “six shots or only five” is winding up, the pause before the word “Clean” is like lobbing a ball up in the air and then saying it is like hitting a home run. The “‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya punk?” is running the bases in celebration of already successfully accomplishing the hard part.

The scene ends with the robber asking what is on everyone’s mind and Dirty Harry choosing the most badass way to answer. The rest of the movie is just as good. It’s definitely an older, pre-Die Hard action movie but the social commentary is strong. If you’re going to make a movie about the rights of criminals and how difficult the system makes it for cops to do their jobs, it doesn’t hurt to put Eastwood in your starring role. You can argue against the points the movie is trying to make, but you can’t argue against Eastwood’s innate baddassery.

So what do you think? Does the word clean deserve special attention from this classic monologue? Or am I just crazy for focusing on this minute detail?

A Cultural Icon

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