Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Enforcer

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

James Fargo’s The Enforcer, with Clint Eastwood billed as “the Dirtiest Harry of them all,” also makes him the limpest, and represents the deterioration of the Dirty Harry Formula—if indeed there ever was such a thing.

Donald Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) told a many-layered story built around two men “above society”: Scorpio, a homicidal maniac whose madness figuratively puts him above society even as Siegel’s camera and mise-en-scène place him there visually, and Inspector Harry Callahan, who is set apart by his badge, the emblem that begins and ends the film. Contrary to the report of many who reviewed the Siegel film, Harry is no cold blooded, fascist executioner. He is sensitive, feels responsibility, takes unto himself the guilt for the inadequacies of the System and its failure to provide proper protection for the people. It is the clash of his individual morality (more that of guardian than vigilante) with the complex sociopolitical realities of the world around him that really informs Siegel’s film, and culminates in Harry’s throwing away his badge and walking into the distance behind the final credits to become one of “the little guys.” Guided by Siegel, one agrees with Harry’s impatience at a System musclebound by its own laws and procedures; yet one also understands the legitimate concern of people like the Chief of Police, the D.A. and the Mayor, and knows that Harry’s impetuousness, however effective in the Scorpio manhunt, would be grotesquely inappropriate in most police work.

The ambiguities implicit in both character and conflict in Dirty Harry are emphasized by Siegel’s use of the camera to stress the physical relationship between Harry and his milieu, the architecture of the city. Greg Way, in MTN 12, has pointed out the importance of the recurring motifs of rooftops, corners and crosses. Close shots of concrete and brick surfaces give physical strength and power to the opposing sides of the film’s central issue, coupled with a visual blankness expressive of the film’s moral opacity. At every turn Harry finds unyielding rock wall. Dark tunnels and rows of archways reiterate the barrier between light and dark, the public and private worlds of both crime and law enforcement on the political and on the personal level. Harry peeps over walls and through fences, is dwarfed by enormous arches, yields the frame completely to a low-angle tilt shot of a distortedly towering monument topped by a cross—a referent for Harry’s moral rectitude, his martyrdom, or the silent presence of an unmoved God?

Ted Post, redoubtable maker of inferior spinoffs and sequels (Hang ’Em High, Beneath the Planet of the Apes), attempted to find a “Dirty Harry Formula” in the Siegel film and to duplicate it in Magnum Force (1973). But his film emerges as neither a problematic morality play nor a symbolist’s view of the violence inherent in psychological reality. With more graphic gore to less purpose, Magnum Force spreads its moral significance around thinly, in an effort to please everyone, and ends up replacing the ambiguity of Siegel’s and the Finks’ Dirty Harry with mere confusion. John Milius’ screenplay for Magnum Force provides ample opportunity for his characteristic examination of codes of violence and vigilantism, but offers no moral base of operations for his world-view. Harry Callahan is not an existential hero torn apart by a world of contradictions, only a smart-talking cop who has little in common with reality. For tough-on-crime viewers, the key victims in the film are big-time criminals of whom, no one would dispute, we are well rid. But to appease cop-hating radical-liberals, Milius makes the vigilantes a group of overzealous police officers who appoint themselves executioners when frustrated by the slowness of the justice system. In a sense, the vigilante cops are mad extensions of the viewpoint espoused by Siegel’s Harry. Post’s Harry, by contrast, stands more to the center, the darling of both extremes rather than the man-without-a-country of Siegel’s film. His significance, in Magnum Force, has bogged down in halting middle-of-the-roadism: “Nothing wrong with shooting, as long as the right people get shot” and “I hate the System as much as you do, Briggs, but until someone comes up with a better alternative, I’ll stick with it.” Hardly the Harry who threw away his badge in frustration at both the ineffectiveness of justice and law enforcement procedures and the moral outrage of unchecked criminal violence. Having the villains be killer-cops gives Milius and Post an easy alternative to the troublesome ambivalence of Dirty Harry. Whereas in Siegel’s film Harry’s most threatening enemies were ironically on the same side of the law as he, here they wear policeman blue but are clear-cut murderers whose brand of justice, far from being legal but ineffectual, is devastatingly effective but distinctly criminal as well. The inescapable end of the vigilante cops is to be themselves erased for the protection of society; and Harry, so doing, becomes not a tortured sinner but a saving angel.

Where Siegel uses his camera to stress the architecture looming over Harry, and Post uses his to emphasize the threat and the reality of graphic violence (the deadly rookie cops are repeatedly shot from low angles to appear both powerful and menacing), The Enforcer‘s James Fargo places the camera as much as possible so as to deify Harry Callahan. He is not above drawing on a Clint Eastwood Formula as well as a Dirty Harry Formula: an extreme closeup of a killer’s eyes in the first reel evokes Sergio Leone to no purpose, and Fargo adopts the general Dirty Harry technique of including a few brief, irrelevant episodes to introduce Callahan and his unorthodox methods. The real introduction of Harry, though, consists of low-angle shots of Clint Eastwood in Limbo, looking like father and savior, and driving through San Francisco in the credits sequence, dominating the architecture that here has been relegated to a colorful postcard backdrop for a run-of-the-mill cop story. Harry always dominates the frame he’s in; Fargo doesn’t seem to know when to make the imposing screen presence of Eastwood give way to adversaries, to provide some balance and conflict.

Only toward the end does Eastwood begin to share the frame anywhere near equally, as his new partner, Inspector Kate Moore, is canonized into the ranks of the hero-cops. Yes, Kate: it’s Affirmative Action time in Dirty Harry Land, with scenarists Silliphant and Riesner going the Finks and Milius one better by giving Harry not an ethnic-minority partner but a female one. In introducing the theme, Fargo demonstrates a naïve view of narrative economy: Harry, relieved of street duty after a dangerous misadventure, is assigned to sit on a personnel board to examine candidates for Inspector. Dismayed to find a woman seated on the board to insure fairness to female applicants, he launches into a speech about how ill-prepared women are to be street cops. Inevitably the next examinee is a woman—not only a woman but the woman who is assigned to Harry as replacement after his partner DiGiorgio has been killed.

Towards the end of the film when Kate and Harry set out alone to track down the villains (a bunch of pure-evil bogus radicals known as the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force, who are really more interested in money and violence than in politics), Kate joins Harry up there against that sky-blue Limbo. Only a reel or so earlier she was still a bozo, with Fargo’s directorial viewpoint amplifying, rather than balancing, the skeptical sexism of Harry. In fact, Kate gets played for laughs through so much of the film that, when she is suddenly in a position where she has to prove herself a capable cop (she does, saving Harry’s life by killing a female member of the terrorist gang who’s disguised herself as a nun and holds Harry at gunpoint in a church), we wonder where this fast-thinking knowhow came from, and how come she didn’t fall on her face or spill her purse that time. Fargo seems to want to score with both the feminists and the MCPs; but he’s ultimately too transparently mediocre to win much applause from either camp.

The significance of the personnel exam board sequence lies in the fact that Harry’s heroism, indeed his near-deification by Fargo’s camera-eye, is grounded in not just his respect for the law he protects but his superior knowledge of that law. The fact that Kate Moore can correctly answer a bizarre “hypothetical question” that the other board members think Harry has put to her unfairly signals the audience that Harry will come to respect the woman officer. Sadly, Fargo and his writers have settled for mere gesture over genuine characterization in deciding that Kate’s shooting of the “nun” should carry the whole weight of both her growth to professionalism and Harry’s change in attitude toward her. The painful process by which these are achieved is scarcely hinted at in The Enforcer.

It may have been omitted because it would have necessitated Harry’s admitting he was wrong; and Fargo’s Harry, quite unlike Siegel’s, is a man who is never wrong, whose actions are never realistically questioned by the scenarists, the director, or their audience. Where Siegel and, to a lesser degree, Post were both sympathetic to the feelings and motivations of other characters, Fargo’s Harry is a hero by default: everyone else in the film is a nut or a buffoon (until Kate is canonized near the end). The role of protector of the people has fallen completely by the wayside for Callahan in his five-year progress from Dirty Harry to The Enforcer. In response to a black radical’s warning that Harry is risking his life for people who wouldn’t allow him in their doors, Harry replies, “I’m not doin’ it for them.” Callahan is here as shallowly in favor of and as solidly wary of “the People” as are the would-be radicals he seeks to destroy. Likewise, even police administration and City Hall no longer have the needs of the People in mind, but only political motives. Whereas in both Siegel’s and Post’s films Harry and the bureaucrats above him represented two irreconcilable approaches to dealing with crime for the common goal of protecting society, in Fargo’s film it’s every man for himself. Harry’s only motive, we ultimately recognize, is to avenge the death of his partner at the hands of the terrorists. He’s fighting City Hall and the SFPD just as often, but again, it’s not over what’s the most effective way of getting the law enforcement job done, but merely over whether or not Harry Callahan’s reputation will be besmirched by association with (feh!) politicians. He isn’t even a badge-carrying cop for the final few reels of the film, though that doesn’t prevent him from wiping out the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force and almost killing the Mayor into the bargain. He gives the badge back some time earlier, in a scene that epitomizes the kind of mistakes that abound in the Silliphant–Riesner script and Fargo’s direction. Harry hands his badge to the Chief with the words “This is a seven-point suppository.” But even as we enjoy the cleverness, the mood is killed by a condescending explanation: “What?” “I mean shove it up your ass!” The real Dirty Harry, tossing away his badge, didn’t need to talk cute or blunt; and in any case was a man too deeply hurt to want to. Ted Post and James Fargo should only have left the badge lying where it fell, and let well enough alone.

Direction: James Fargo. Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant and Dean Riesner, after a story by Gail Morgan Hickman and S.W. Schurr, based on characters created by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink. Cinematography: Charles Short. Editing: Ferris Webster, Joel Cox. Music: Jerry Fielding. Production: Robert Daley.
The players: Clint Eastwood, Tyne Daly, Harry Guardino, Bradford Dillman, John Mitchum, Albert Pepwell, John Crawford, DeVeren Bookwalter.

© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.