Friday, December 23, 2011

Now We Know Why They Call Him Dirty Harry

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of Dirty Harry.

I don't particularly like television, so I don't really watch a lot of it nowadays. Still, there are a few shows which I enjoy and one of those happens to be Fox's House, M.D. My wife had to turn me onto it because I thought it looked like just another hour-long medical drama in the vein of St. Elsewhere, ER or Chicago Hope. She told me that it was really more of a mystery show (she knows I love mysteries) and informed me that its protagonist, Dr. Gregory House, is a complex, charismatic and provocative character. His antisocial, unethical and misogynistic tendencies are matched only by his brilliant, obsessive and astute mind. Although it jumped the shark a couple seasons ago, I continue to tune in every week. Even through the worst of its outrageously cheesy and absurdly melodramatic plot twists, House himself (superbly played by Hugh Laurie) remains a fascinating character.

Right now, you're probably wondering to yourself why I'm talking so much about House in an article that, given the headline and picture above, is clearly about the 1971 Don Siegel film Dirty Harry, which celebrates its 40th anniversary today. Well, here's my reason. Although it is obvious that House is based on Sherlock Holmes, it occurred to me at a certain point that another fictional character has about equal claim to being a source of inspiration: San Francisco cop Harry Callahan. Harry may not be as brilliant as House, but he has about as much regard for social niceties, can be about as misogynistic and, just as House, always acts in the best interest of those he's trying to help (even if it means disobeying his superiors, putting his own life and career in jeopardy or even tricking, manipulating and sometimes even hurting those he's working to save) in his drive to ensure that justice prevails. The criminals' rights and the rules and regulations that his bosses demand he follow while pursuing those perpetrators concern him less. Harry, like House, just doesn't give a damn and when I realized that in many ways House could be described as "Dirty Harry with a medical degree," I understood not only how iconic Clint Eastwood's brave, tough-talking cop had become but what purpose characters such as Harry, House and their ilk serve for audiences.

Dirty Harry was made in a time when society wasn't feeling particularly safe. This seemed especially true in San Francisco, where the film is set, with the activity of the Zodiac Killer (on whom the movie's psychotic Scorpio Killer, broadly but effectively played by Andy Robinson, clearly is based). Much of that anxiety and frustration ended up being directed at the state and the filmmakers captured it. This anger doesn't seem aimed primarily at cops (indeed the film is even dedicated to San Francisco police officers who have given their lives in the line of duty) but rather to the system for which they work, a system that many people (much like today) felt had gone out of control. It presumed to function in the interests of the innocent but instead came off as more dedicated to preserving itself and/or the rights of the criminals. There is a very strong "anti-authoritarian" attitude present in Dirty Harry.

Throughout the film, Harry's desire to protect civilians from the malevolent force of evil, much to his dismay, constantly gets hindered or thwarted. Consequently, Harry, in essence, becomes a vigilante with a badge. He renounces his oath to serve the law and devotes his efforts to serving justice. In the film's final scene — with the Scorpio Killer in his sights — when he utters those famous lines ("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’ve kinda lost track myself., etc.) for the second time in the film, Harry clearly snarls the words with much more rage and menace — his own has changed. The incompetence of the bureaucracy always annoyed him, but he has become so "fed up" with the whole thing that he no longer wants any part of it. After dispatching Scorpio with his Magnum, Harry removes his badge and tosses it away. Obviously, no one planned any Dirty Harry sequels. This truly ends his character's story, not the subsequent adventures where Harry softens a little more in each new film.

When Dirty Harry was released in 1971, it caused quite a stir. Many critics, including Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, articulated concern over the ideas and values expressed in it (with Ebert even calling it "fascist"). While I fully understand having such a reaction, I can't help but think that they are somewhat missing the point of what role such an extreme character can play for audiences and why Dirty Harry proved to be such a commercial success in its day. We all feel oppressed at times. We all feel abused or maligned and we all secretly wish we could act out the fantasies of retribution we have. Fortunately, we don't (or at least most of us don't) act on these impulses. Still, there is something appropriate about wanting to see good triumph and evil punished. Dirty Harry serves as a vessel for pent-up frustrations with our own impotence, an ideal of the kind of courage and tenacity it takes to do the right thing (regardless of the personal consequences) and watching him do what he has to do proves cathartic. We live vicariously through him as he says and does the things that we can't say and do but wish we could. He understands that the law is merely a man-made institution — it is not sacred — and if he must circumvent it sometimes in the name of the greater good, he'll do it. In fiction, one can get away with this. In reality, we don't have that luxury — reality always turns out to be far more complex, messy and nuanced than the simple black-and-white moral universe represented onscreen. So, we watch the rogue endeavors of vigilante heroes such as Harry, House, Robin Hood, Zorro, Batman or, even on occasion, James Bond (such as in Casino Royale when he just marches into an embassy, grabs a guy by the scruff of the neck and drags him out) and rightfully admire, respect and perhaps even envy them. As long as we don't imitate them, they fulfill their proper role in our lives.

Sometimes to do good, you gotta get your hands a little dirty.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Riddle Wrapped In a Mystery Inside an Enigma

The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 20th anniversary of the release of JFK.

While some might be of the opinion that Oliver Stone’s most archetypal movie is Wall Street or Platoon, I happen to think the film which holds that particular distinction is JFK (which celebrates its 20th anniversary today). It is not necessarily his greatest movie, but it is his most significant in a number of ways. In a career littered with provocative, politically charged works, it has proved to be arguably his most controversial. It marked the beginning of a stylistic period in Stone’s filmmaking (a fast, in-your-face approach to storytelling which culminated in Stone’s outrageously anarchic Natural Born Killers). Finally, it was (and still seems to be) one of Stone’s most personal projects: the result of years of research, overwhelming passion and righteous indignation. Indeed, of all Stone’s protagonists, the man at the center of JFK (who is, somewhat ironically, not the titular character) serves as perhaps the best representative of the ideals and opinions of Oliver himself. In reality, the motives and actions of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (the only prosecutor ever to go to trial in the assassination of President Kennedy) are not entirely clear nor always seem purely honorable, but in the film, Garrison — wonderfully played by Kevin Costner — is a man on a crusade, a courageous hero of the highest intentions and noblest stature crying, “Let the truth be told though the heavens fall!” He is the director's alter ego, a lone wolf fighting the establishment in the name of truth, justice and, yes, the American way.

JFK was my first Oliver Stone picture. My dad took me to see it in the theater when I was a sophomore in high school and I was, as the expression goes, blown away by it. Incidentally, he was (and still is to some degree) a major expert on the Kennedy conspiracy, so he was able to lean over and tell me at various junctures "That's true" or "That's not true" which helped orient me in the somewhat overwhelming deluge of faces, names, dates and theories with which I was being bludgeoned. My dad once owned the largest collection of books, magazines, videos and even vintage newspaper articles about that specific event which I have ever seen. After watching the film and concluding that there definitely was a conspiracy and a cover-up, I even read a few of them myself, including the screenplay to the film which contained a footnoted source for every piece of information that Stone wrote into the expository dialogue and/or imagery of the film. It gave me a whole new appreciation for a movie's potential to tell a story which, if not "true" or "historically accurate," is at least "factual." Eventually I became somewhat of an expert myself and years later, after getting married and moving to Dallas, I finally visited the sixth floor museum and Dealey Plaza (the latter of which, I was shocked to discover, is a very small, and intimately contained space). Now, however, having read multiple accounts from different writers arguing for both sides of the conspiracy debate — including this very compelling website run by Dave Reitzes, whose experience with the film is remarkably similar to my own — I have no idea what really happened on that day in Dallas (though I still think there is more to the story than we are being told). However, one thing that has not changed, is that JFK remains a seminal film in my development as a cinephile.

Much can be said about the movie's many stellar qualities, such as the performances from its immense cast (a dizzying collection of such familiar faces as Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Gary Oldman, Donald Sutherland, etc). In a nice bit of subversive casting, Stone even got the real Jim Garrison to portray Judge Earl Warren of the Warren Commission. Much could also be said about John Williams' suspenseful and emotional Oscar-nominated music score, but the main element of the film which captivated me upon my first viewing (and which I studied very carefully upon numerous subsequent viewings) was its visual aesthetic. In order to make a film which was heavy on talk into an arresting experience, Stone deftly employed various cinematic techniques that until that time had never been employed with such enthusiastic exuberance nor wild abandon in a historical epic. His approach to shooting and editing the film was considered confusing and indulgent by some and incredibly powerful and innovative by others. I personally fell into the latter camp. Jumping back and forth (sometimes in a seemingly random manner) from authentic to recreated footage, from color to black-and-white and from 35 to 16mm, JFK creates such an apparently chaotic product that people didn't know what to make of it. The more one delves deeper into it though, the more one discovers that there is indeed "method in the madness." Stone's is a stream-of-consciousness approach to examining history, a process that makes no distinction between past and present, between what has happened and what is happening and, perhaps most controversially, between theory and fact. To Stone, history is in the eye of the beholder and he presents so many different perspectives, ideas and judgments that he was essentially, as film critic Roger Ebert proposed, fighting the official establishment myth by "weaving a counter-myth." Not surprisingly, Stone's effort garnered a great deal of criticism from various esteemed news sources. It did not help their case that they were attacking the film well before it had come out and anyone, including them, had even seen it, their zeal and hostility seemingly inspired more by fear of losing their privileged authoritative status than by supposed journalistic integrity and objectivity.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) JFK's notoriety, it was very well-received upon its release in December 1991. The film grossed more than $50 million worldwide, which was impressive considering that the film was more than three hours long, and ended up receiving eight Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best director and best supporting actor for Tommy Lee Jones. It ended up winning two of those awards for the experimental cinematography and editing. It also, much to Stone's delight no doubt, incited a whole media discussion about the Kennedy assassination. Much like the media circus that surrounded the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, all you could see and hear on the news for several months was talk of what actually occurred on Nov. 22, 1963. In point of fact, we probably will never know what occurred. As Pesci's nervous David Ferrie quotes Winston Churchill in the film, "It's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Still, perhaps whether we ever know the truth (or, to be more precise, know THAT we know the truth since we may already know it) isn't as important as that we never give up looking for it. Maybe the real message behind the film is that the pursuit of truth is more important then the possession of it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Napoleons of Crime

With the release of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (the sequel to his hugely successful and surprisingly enjoyable 2009 film) only weeks away, I thought I would take a second and look back at some of the actors who have portrayed Holmes' brilliant archenemy Professor James Moriarty over the past century. Although Moriarty only appeared in one of Doyle's stories ("The Final Problem"), somehow he managed to capture the imagination of audiences. Perhaps because he seems to be the only character who, aside from Sherlock's elder brother Mycroft (who is also appearing in the new film), is Holmes' intellectual equal. Holmes referred to him as the "Napoleon of crime" and "the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city... a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order." Moriarty was clearly someone whose mind Holmes greatly admired, even while despising his moral character. Every prominent hero needs a mortal enemy and Moriarty fulfills that role admirably. He is the Joker to Holmes' Batman, The Luthor to his Superman, the Blofeld to his Bond. While Moriarty's screen career is perhaps not as eminent as that of Holmes, it is nonetheless impressive. In fact, a few of the actors who played one role would later end up playing the other (particularly Richard Roxburgh and Anthony Higgins). Naturally this list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a helpful introduction to a character who can be regarded I think as one of the great villains of fiction.

Gustav von Seyffertitz, Sherlock Holmes (1922)

Ernest Torrence, Sherlock Holmes (1932)

Lyn Harding, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935)

George Zucco, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Lionel Atwill, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Henry Daniell, The Woman in Green (1945)

Laurence Olivier, The Seven Per-Cent Solution (1976)

John Huston, Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976)

Viktor Yevgrafov, Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona, a.k.a. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (1980)

Eric Porter, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Anthony Higgins, Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Paul Freeman, Without a Clue (1988)

Daniel Davis, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1993)

Vincent D'Onofrio, Sherlock: A Case of Evil (2002)

Richard Roxburgh, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

Andrew Scott, Sherlock (2010)

Jared Harris, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)