Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry (Photos: Warner Bros.)

Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood in what would become his signature role, opened nationally on December 23, 1971, just two days before Christmas. While the film might not have been the most orthodox one for the season of peace on Earth and goodwill to men, it was certainly a gift for moviegoers, proving to be the second largest moneymaker released that December (just under the 007 outing Diamonds Are Forever) and the sixth biggest hit of its year.

The picture was such a success — and its lead character was so popular — that Eastwood would ultimately make five Dirty Harry flicks in a 17-year span. Here’s a look at the quintet. (Ratings are on a four-star scale.)

Clint Eastwood and Andy Robinson

The first and best film in the franchise, Dirty Harry (1971) introduces us to the character of Inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood, of course), a gruff San Francisco cop who uses any means necessary (even illegal ones) to catch his man. These tactics come in handy once he tangles with a psycho killer who calls himself Scorpio, a giggling nutcase who mainly divides his time between sniper-shooting civilians and kidnapping children (Andy Robinson effectively plays one of the screen’s great villains). Director Don Siegel’s classic sci-fi flick Invasion of the Body Snatchers was alternately read as both right-wing (anti-Commie) and left-wing (anti-McCarthyism), and he found his controversial police thriller experiencing the same sort of dichotomy. On one hand, it’s clear that Harry has little use for liberal laws that protect potential criminals (critic Pauline Kael famously called him a “fascist”), yet the character was championed by the other side for being so decidedly anti-Establishment. (And who among us doesn’t side with Harry when he tortures the guilty Scorpio in order to save a little girl’s life?) Either way, there’s no denying the brute force of this expertly constructed picture, and the taciturn acting style of Eastwood (in a role first offered to Frank Sinatra!) helps make the classic quips (including “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya … punk?”) stand out even more. ★★★½

Clint Eastwood

Magnum Force (1973) finds Harry stating, “Nothing wrong with shooting as long as the right people get shot.” It’s a telling line, since the plot of this first follow-up deals with a gang of rogue cops (future TV stars David Soul and Robert Urich, along with Tim Matheson and Kip Niven) who work outside the law by executing criminals who have slipped through the system. (Peter Hyams’ underrated 1983 drama The Star Chamber, starring Michael Douglas, would sport a similar premise.) They’re certain that Harry would applaud their efforts, but the maverick cop finds their rigid judge-jury-and-executioner methods too distasteful even for him. Harry’s stance serves to deepen the character even further, and he finds a worthy adversary in Lt. Briggs (Hal Holbrook), a humorless superior who’s constantly breathing down his neck. ★★★

Clint Eastwood and Tyne Daly

Harry’s partners usually end up wounded or dead, and The Enforcer (1976) finds him paired with a novice officer who will be lucky to survive even one day in the field. Because of quotas that need to be met, Harry is matched with a female: Kate Moore (Tyne Daly), a desk clerk with no street experience whatsoever. It’s hard to ascertain whether Harry’s more peeved at being partnered with a woman or because more qualified officers were bypassed for the promotion, but he slowly softens as the pair chase after a group of militants called The People’s Revolutionary Strike Force (a sign of the times, as this outfit was clearly inspired by the Symbionese Liberation Army). The presence of Kate allows a gentler side of Harry to emerge, and Daly’s fine performance as a committed policewoman served as a warm-up for her star-making role on TV’s Cagney and Lacey. ★★★

Sondra Locke

The only film in the series directed by Eastwood himself, Sudden Impact (1983) is primarily remembered for its classic line, “Go ahead, make my day” (rapidly co-opted by then-President Ronald Reagan), yet the movie also deserves credit for wading through the same muddy waters as Dirty Harry and Magnum Force. This time, the vigilante at work is neither Harry nor other cops but ordinary citizen Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke), an artist seeking revenge on the five men and one lesbian who raped and beat her and her teenage sister years earlier, leaving her sibling in a vegetative state. The most financially lucrative of the series, this was also the sixth and last film in which Eastwood starred opposite real-life girlfriend Locke. Paul Drake’s turn as the chief thug is cartoonish even by the standards of this series (subtlety from actors portraying villains is a rarity in this franchise), but there’s a lovable performance by Harry’s latest “partner,” a homely mutt he names Meathead. ★★★

Evan C. Kim and Clint Eastwood

It’s difficult to determine whether The Dead Pool (1988) is a desperate attempt to extend the franchise or a smart parody of cop films that have come before it; either way, there’s enough to enjoy in this increasingly silly film. Here, Harry learns of a betting pool in which the participants predict which celebrities on their lists will die before a predetermined date; Harry’s name is on one of the lists, and when other famous Bay Area folks — among them a rock star, a TV talk-show host, and (blasphemous!) a film critic — are murdered, the cop is forced to watch his own back a little more closely. The supporting cast is notable for its inclusion of one cult figure — Evan Kim, known for his leading role in the “A Fistful of Yen” segment from 1977’s Kentucky Fried Movie (here, he plays Callahan’s partner) — and several rising stars: future Oscar nominees Liam Neeson and Patricia Clarkson as, respectively, a horror film director and a television news reporter, and Jim Carrey (billed as James Carrey) as the ill-fated rock star. Look quickly and you can also spot cameos by the members of Guns N’ Roses (whose hit “Welcome to the Jungle” is prominently used twice in the film, once lip-synced by Carrey). Do not look for Albert Popwell, who appeared in all four previous Dirty Harry flicks, each time in a different role (including the “punk” bank robber in the original). ★★½

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