Dirty Harry may not be Don Siegel’s masterpiece—although it is a first-rate policier featuring a career-defining performance by Clint Eastwood. No less than Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it offers a fabulous, multifarious political metaphor. (And, as with Body Snatchers, Siegel’s own liberal interpretation was trumped by a more forceful hard-right reading.)
Released in late 1971, Dirty Harry introduced the figure of the Legal Vigilante that would prove so useful to Richard Nixon in the upcoming election year. Dirty Harry was a dirty man for a dirty time—an authority figure who hated authority. More than the original anti-Miranda, anti–Great Society cop film, Dirty Harry was Easy Rider in reverse, featuring a hippie as serial killer rather than victim. In its day, the movie was critically and commercially overshadowed by The French Connection, but en route to inspiring four sequels, it became a mainstream cult film.
Fans would include the counterculture bible Rolling Stone and, it would later be known, Soviet maximum leader Leonid Brezhnev, but it was the new Republicans of America’s northern cities who most appreciated Dirty Harry. Eastwood and Siegel were invited to address police gatherings, and the movie inspired a craze for the foot-long Smith & Wesson .44 magnum—a weapon whose use value was less practical than magical.