In the 1970s, conservative American mythologies confronted historical realities. The Mai Lai massacre, the Kent State shootings, and police-and F.B.I.-instigated murders of Black Power leaders eroded American popular culture’s traditional notions of how and when violence should be carried out in the name of moral authority. The corrosive effects of government force were also mirrored in the encroachment of post-industrial urban decay and the fragmentation of racial identity caused by white flight. The movies’ codification of professional codes taking precedence over law, as demonstrated in High Noon’s conflation of tactical confidence (a “right way” and a “wrong way” of killing) and moral certitude (a struggle between “good” and “bad”) no longer held sway when the coercive power of the state appeared to be excessive, corrupt, and perhaps worst of all, ineffective. Despite public agreement that these issues were problematic, Nixonian and liberal posturing over civil liberties and police aggression inhibited the ability to address them across partisan lines. Dirty Harry and The French Connection integrated late-Great Society ennui into the police procedural. Their ambiguation of the town-taming narrative exemplified in the postwar Western helps explain their influence and popularity.
This pattern of mythological deconstruction operates on two levels. The first is through characterization. Specifically, these movies extended the postwar Westerns’ use of analytic concepts from neurosis to psychosis to define their protagonists’ (and antagonists’) motivations into the urban police procedural. In the two films mentioned above, both “Dirty” Harry Callahan and “Popeye” Doyle achieve a degree of professional acumen and effectiveness that instills a sense of moral superiority in the politicians and superiors who set institutional policy. The heroes’ conflict between subjecting themselves to hierarchical authority and representing the figurative “man who knows criminals” invokes patterns of neurosis and alienation that inhibit their reconciliation back into society. This idea is expressed through aesthetic terms unique to ’70s American cinema, which welded freeform Meorealist and nouvelle vague techniques (such as the use of long lenses, handheld cameras, and location photography) to the subjectivity of the classical Hollywood studio style. While these pictures privilege the position of the antinomian authority figure (best embodied, once again, by Will Kane in High Noon), they also portray them as tragic figures at odds with modern society.
Dirty Harry makes the most explicit connection between the Western hero and the contemporary police detective. Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is introduced at the film’s start by singlehandedly spotting and thwarting a bank robbery, where he discharges his .44 Magnum as a necessary means of both preserving order and asserting the virility of his clear-cut crimefighting persona. Yet as he butts heads with the I.A. and the D.A,. he accommodates his conscience to institutional rules and restraints. Harry’s moral certainty is both admired and loathed by his fellow officers (hence the nickname) and his superiors regard him as a loose cannon. His old-fashioned values also tag him as a racist. When a colleague tells a Mexican detective of Harry’s dislike of minority hires, he confirms that impression that he, “particularly” hates “spics.” More specifically, Harry comes to dislike the promotion of “college boys” up the ranks before experienced street cops. He sees them as softened with academic abstraction and burdened by familial obligations. When a sniper named Scorpio (Andy Robinson) targets members of groups (women, Blacks, gays, and Catholics) whose rising visibility have historically triggered white Protestant fears of social declension, the bosses deploy Harry to contain the situation. Ironically, his colleagues seem convinced that, as an old-fashioned authoritarian, he shares Scorpio’s prejudices and thus might be the best man to catch him. It takes one antiquated alienist to catch another.
Viewers, scholars, and critics have embraced and condemned the way the picture’s conflict between a morally unbending officer and a purely evil doppelganger evolves into a larger condemnation of a legal culture that prioritizes civil liberties of accused criminals over victims. The D.A. frees Scorpio, for example, after Harry extracts evidence under torture, and the killer subsequently manufactures a “fake” news story in which he portrays himself as a victim of police brutality. To say this is a simple translation of High Noon’s old West to the modern city dismisses how self-consciously the movie executes this move. Harry’s nickname, given to him for “taking any dirty job that comes along,” ambiguates his moral rectitude. A “dirty” cop, in the common vernacular, is associated with corruption, and Callahan’s being picked to serve as a “bag man” between Scorpio (the sniper) and the mayor’s office suggests a prior experience of handling payoffs with criminal elements. Harry’s unsavory service as a foot soldier for a morally bankrupt system is at odds with his sense of self-righteousness. How can he be a “straight arrow” despite this lurking crookedness behind his laconic persona? When does his breaking the law as a means of protecting people’s lives devolve into criminality, and does Harry have the ability to reconcile that contradiction by the picture’s finish?
Despite the comparisons in their respective psychological profiles, Dirty Harry affirms the important distinction between the cop who resorts to aggression in the name of an abstract moral authority and the psychopath who defines himself by impulsive violence. While the recrudescent defiance embodied in Gary Cooper’s “throwing down the badge” gesture achieves a degree of self-actualization for Harry, it produces no socially transformative momentum. There will be other manifestations of pure evil that society will accommodate. For the officer whose morality rests on the certitudes of the gunfighter mystique, resistance to liberal acquiescence means recusing oneself from society. While Westerns portrayed the archetypal lawman’s aggression as a necessary precondition for making America’s future, Dirty Harry evokes a nostalgia for that sense of heroism by removing the lawman’s ethos from the present. If Will Kane is the symbolic forgotten civic founder whose narrative High Noon seeks to recover, Dirty Harry’s is of a man becoming self- isolated by adhering to the rigidity of his existentially chosen persona. In essence, he becomes Bartleby the crime fighter, an archetype who chooses alienation as a consequence of doing his job in accordance with his own code, not the law.
Meanwhile, over on the other coast, another variation of the “supercop” emerged to wider critical acclaim. Based on Robin Moore’s account of what was then the largest heroin bust in U.S. history, The French Connection presents an even more aggressive deconstruction of the police procedural, evoking a paradoxical mixture of observational detachment and a heightened aesthetic of chaos. At its center is the team of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), whose actions, while as neurotic as Callahan’s, express their absorption into the chaos of their blighted environment, rather than a principled stand apart from it. Like their real-life counterparts Eddie Egan (who plays their supervisor) and Sonny Grasso, the pair hold the record for New York City drug busts. Their tally consists almost exclusively of small-time dealers and junkies, with no major players showing up on their docket. While Dirty Harry performs positive civic duties by stopping suicides and bank robberies, Doyle and Grasso harass Black drug addicts in Harlem bars and cow potential informants with beatings in back alleys and threats of frame-ups on more serious charges (for the record, that’s what the famous, “Did you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie” scene refers to). Their notoriety gives them the pull to write their own ticket, but that license, ironically, results in a reckless adrenaline addiction that has gotten cops killed and threatens to do so again.
Doyle and Grasso operate in a system where racialized policing and casual thuggery are seen as inevitable parts of the job, and the community puts up with this harassment with resigned acceptance. They also see no change in the condition of their neighborhoods as these actions produce no tangible reductions in addiction or crime. In fact, those conditions escalate. Doyle derives particular enjoyment from the job, as it gives him focus and vitality. When off the job, he’s an alcoholic womanizer who, it’s implied, relives his professional exploits in masochistic sex scenarios (deleted footage on the home video release makes this explicit). The constant rounds of cop-and-junkie shenanigans don’t so much abate addiction as foster it, with the cops being unable to withdraw from the thrill of the chase or the making of arrests.
Most of the procedural work depicted in The French Connection involves mobile surveillance on a rather hapless middle man named Sal Boca (Tony La Bianco) who is orchestrating a deal to bring in 120 pounds of heroin between a mob lawyer Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary) and a French syndicate headed by Alain Charnier (Fernando Ray), a suave developer with the elegant manners and slippery cunning of an international jewel thief. Charnier soon supersedes Boca as the cops’ main fixation, as he and the authorities play an elaborate cat and mouse game on the streets and subways of downtown New York City. The cops freeze as they loiter waiting for their quarries to emerge from hotels and restaurants, then hop to when their targets wander back in their sights. Likewise, they get noticeably agitated when given the slip. Charnier also feels rejuvenated by the chase, which leads him to make arrogantly overconfident moves (ranging from speeding up the transaction to trying to have Doyle assassinated) that endanger Boca’s enterprise. Although the drugs are captured, the ending tragically suggests that Doyle and Charnier will remain transfixed in the spiral of their competitive gamesmanship. The procedures necessitated by the dangers of the lives they live give these characters an emotional connection to the world, and they become neurotic avatars of society’s emergent pathologies.
The psychological condition of adrenaline addiction isn’t clinically discussed in The French Connection. Neither writer Ernest Tidyman nor director William Friedkin provide a solution to the problem, much less explicating a diagnosis through the musings of a police shrink. This notion is constantly dramatized in an orchestrated blizzard of techniques borrowed from the guerilla street cinema of various postwar European art-house films, most notably Rome: Open City, The Battle of Algiers, and Z. Long lenses, zoom shots, and whip pans captured on mobile cameras capture the giddiness of foot and automobile pursuits with unprecedented energy. Friedkin’s staging, however, relies heavily on classical Hollywood norms, such as prioritizing subjective camera placement following a star’s close-up and tying camera movement to the mobility of the actors. Eyeline-matching shots and the 90-degree staging rule are generally adhered to as the picture filters the action through the protagonist’s point of view. The film is rather Hitchcockian in the way it subjectively invests the film with the main character’s emotional arc through the tone set by its camera movement. The integration of cinematic traditions highlights the film’s main idea; that the nature of the obsessed policeman and the decay of social norms are intrinsically connected. By establishing the action through Doyle and Russo’s eyes, the audience also feels connected by the emotional energy produced by this style. The art of cinema itself constitutes another form of addiction that implicates the viewer.
While much of the same technique was employed in the production of Dirty Harry, this picture revives concepts from film noir to tease out the mysteries of its hero’s personality. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees harshly lights the beige and off-white exteriors of San Francisco buildings to desaturate their color, bestowing a very L.A. look to the sunlight. In contrast, he uses dark black shadows on the periphery of his widescreen compositions to lend a hard-edged unreality to the proceedings. The sharply edged enclosures of swimming pools and apartment building windows constrict the actor’s movements within circumscribed prosceniums. This effect is heightened as POV shots from the perspective of rifle scopes and binoculars further constrain the human figure at the images’ center. The manner in which the audience and characters share the experience of looking at people through claustrophobic portals establishes another similarity between Harry, Scorpio, and the viewer: all are aroused by witnessing intimate moments of people’s private lives within the narrowness of a physical frame. Destabilizing the naturalistic texture of the flat color scheme with these expressionistic flourishes underscores Harry’s affinity with his nemesis and the viewer’s voyeuristic investment with their game.
Dirty Harry and The French Connection evoked social anxieties pertaining to how mythic notions of masculine heroism wavered in the waning years of Nixon’s first term. While their plots conservatively stayed within the lines of hard-boiled genre fiction, their visual poetry stoked nervous pleasures and hidden desires pertaining to the relevance of the gunfighter hero in modern society. While most ’70s Westerns revised the historical record, making the traditional white hats wear black, these two films sought to inspire passionate, even politically reactionary, responses to changing mores on the part of the audience. Beginning the following year, bad cops and ripped-from-the-headlines narratives of institutional police corruption would take the forefront in pictures like Across 110th Street and Serpico. The subtext of the cinema of ’71 became text, with progressive handwringing replacing the psychologically complex dynamics between character and audience that these movies tried to provoke. The ’70s “supercop” became less of a figure of moral absolutism than a psychoanalytic personification of a rigid belief system buckling under the strain of multiple crises.