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This paper was originally presented to London Film & Media 2011, and published in The London Film and Media Reader 1.

The Vigilante Thriller

This essay considers the condemnatory and heavily ideological critical reactions to a cycle of US vigilante thrillers from the 1970s. The cycle includes Straw Dogs (Peckinpah, 1971), The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971), Dirty Harry (Siegel, 1971), Death Wish (Winner, 1974) and Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976). A common accusation was that the films were ‘fascist’, made by ‘fascists’, or liable to encourage ‘fascism’ in the film audience. This was not a label that was necessarily rejected by all the film-makers – certainly Sam Peckinpah enjoyed baiting reviewers and interviewers with a series of abrasive, and often, contradictory statements – but the consistency of this criticism highlights an anxiety in the critical reactions about the meanings of these films and, on closer inspection, the meanings of the violence they portray.

Although the critical writings are an important reaction to the texts, discourse analysis reveals a series of inconsistencies and contradictions in their assumptions about the ways in which a film can be watched. Rather than relying on these critical responses alone to guide us in terms of spectator reaction, we should instead be analysing what Ellis terms the ‘narrative image’,

“an idea of the film [that] is widely circulated and promoted … the cinema industry’s anticipatory reply to the question ‘what is this film like?’” 1

It is important to investigate how this element of para-text fixes, or aims to fix, the spectator’s experience, since the narrative image is also essential in fixing the modality of the film text. Following Hodge and Tripp, ‘modality’ is being used here in the sense that it “concerns the reality attributed to a message.”2

This has specific implications for the reception of film violence, and it is the understanding of violence that I wish to concentrate on in this essay. These distinctions were missed by contemporary critics, who ignored the concept of modality, tended to see film violence as a singular issue, and recycled basic tropes about the effect that film violence might have on the audience. Despite the consistency of the critical reaction to these films, the narrative image of each film suggests a range of spectator positions. The desire to elide these films on the part of contemporary critics, on the other hand, signals a wish to simplify the spectator experience and ignores the shifting relationship that a spectator can have in relation to several connected but different texts.

Critical Reactions: The Politics of Violence

Even a cursory glance at the American and British popular press reaction to these films reveals two central concerns, both of which are linked to the possible effect of the films on the audience and the wider implications for society. The first concern, highlighted more by the American critics than the British, is the suggestion that these films convey and promote a fascist sensibility. The second concern, which is present on both sides of the Atlantic, concerns the portrayal of violence. This is often linked to a perceived increase in the amount of violence being portrayed in film, the explicitness of the violence, and the sense that the films in question encourage the spectator in turn to be violent.

Pauline Kael’s critical reaction to the films exemplifies the general tone of the reviews. For Kael, Straw Dogs is a “fascist work of art”3 that presents the “triumph of a superior man”. Dirty Harry is a “right wing fantasy” that attacks “liberal values” and draws out the “fascist potential” of its genre4. The French Connection, for its part, features “the latest model sadistic cop”5. Gareth Epps draws wider conclusions from Straw Dogs, The French Connection and Dirty Harry such as

“it has been obvious for a long time that American filmmakers are unable to deal with the politics of the left in any recognizable way”6 .

These films, he suggests, are symptomatic of a wider right-wing tendency in Hollywood. He adds that “recent American films have begun to show a frightening sophistication in at least one area of politics – the half-world of sadism and authoritarianism which is the breeding ground of the fascist mentality”. The accusation that the films are characterised by ‘fascist’ ideology betrays an anxiety in the reviewers towards the shifting political landscape in America through the 1960s and into the 1970s.

The effects of the Vietnam War on the collective American consciousness cannot, of course, be ignored. However the shifts in civil rights movements, crime and policing are also important here. The elements that were picked out from these films and directly linked to fascism included the representations of masculinity, race and violence. From a didactic point of view, however – and many of these reviews and reactions were written in a didactic mode – there is a recurrent flaw, namely an inability to define exactly what fascism is. Its recurrent use as a blanket term in reaction to these films shows a remarkable inconsistency in its application, and also a sense that the word is being used as a short-cut, a way of marking a text as unacceptable, with no underlying understand of the word and its political/philosophical application.

Critical Reactions: Violence and Spectatorship

If fascism is one recurrent way of condemning these films, the other anxiety that emerges is the meanings and implications of violence in the films. As has been noted elsewhere, the depiction of violence in American cinema changed radically in the 1960s and 70s. There are various reasons for this, including the influence of non-American films, and the eventual dissolution of the Hays code. More important perhaps was the shift in the representation of violence on television where, from the shooting of LeeHarvey Oswald by Jack Ruby to the reports from the front line in Vietnam, violence was being shown more often and more explicitly.

Of course this form of violence, presented in news programmes, has an inherently high modality despite its mediated nature. In this atmosphere of a shifting depiction of violence, combined with a greater perception of violence in society through rising crime rates and civil unrest, the implications of watching – and more importantly enjoying – film violence became a point of anxiety for contemporary critics. The reviews of Taxi Driver generally avoided the same ideological criticism as the other films and one wonders if this is linked to the potential audience for such a film. Kael suggests, in reviewing The French Connection, that

“Audiences for these movies in the Times Square area and the Village are highly volatile. Probably the unstable, often dazed members of the audience are particularly susceptible to the violence and tension on the screen”7.

It is clear that a strain of elitism has entered the critical reaction here.

The New York Times felt the need to send reporter Judy Klemesrud to a theatre to gauge reaction to Death Wish, asking “What do they see in ‘Death Wish’?”. Klemesrud interviewed audience members and “Three mental health professionals” in the course of her quest.8 I think it’s important here to highlight the suggested opposition in that headline – “they” are clearly not “us”, “us” referring to those sophisticated enough to read the New York Times. Across many reviews and articles on both sides of the Atlantic there is a clear fear concerning the possible impact of a text on a supposedly less sophisticated audience.

These reactions were not without their contradictions. Charles Barr, for instance, noted the differences between the British critical reaction to Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971). 9 His conclusion, that the reaction differed because of the way in which violence was presented by each film – for example, by the use of telephoto lenses in Straw Dogs compared to the use of wide angle lenses in A Clockwork Orange – signals the inconsistency in the criticism of films marked as violent.

Stylistic distinctions are then critical, Barr argues, for understanding the ways in which the films operate: Minute-for-minute, A Clockwork Orange contains more instances of violence than Straw Dogs, but Straw Dogs does not allow the spectator the luxury of remaining distant through the use of the wide-angle lens. The fear of what Straw Dogs implied for cinema and the audience nonetheless moved thirteen British critics to write to The Times to decry the film’s certification, expressing their “revulsion” at the film and its marketing.10 In other reactions we see a clear perceived link between the film text and possible audience reaction (The Guardian, for example, felt strongly enough to send a reporter to New York to examine how Death Wish was inspiring American traditions of gun ownership).

The underlying fear in many of the critical reactions was that the audience, having watched the film, would themselves become vigilantes. That the critics themselves didn’t burst out of auditoria and beat up some muggers seems to have escaped their attention. Moving away from the discourse concerning the supposed effects of film violence we also encounter an inconsistency among critics to accurately differentiate between different types of violence, an inability to recognise the difference between the nature of the act being represented, and the method of its representation.

Modality and Narrative Image

The elision that the contemporary critics made between these films ignores the importance of the narrative image in conditioning the modality of the spectator’s engagement. Even if we acknowledge the polysemic nature of film texts and their para-texts, dominant themes from the marketing of the films suggest ways in which the spectator is primed to watch and respond to a text. The narrative image tells us the frame of mind in which a spectator receives a film; this in turn suggests a level of modality in which the spectator will receive the film violence. To suggest that all film violence can be measured the same way is to ignore the differing modalities of films. In short, not all film violence is equal.

The decision the spectator makes about whether to watch a film will often rest on several factors. One of the key elements is the marketing and promotional material of the film. When examining these for each film we see that they suggest several different ways in which to receive and understand the violence of the films, something typically ignored by the critics. We may thus conceive of the spectator as having a personal and private relationship with a film that takes place within the cinema, but we should also acknowledge that the spectator’s experience of the film begins with several para-textual factors that help condition their subsequent experience.

Take, for instance, the use of violence in the poster imagery for the films. Straw Dogs, whose central image is a close-up of Dustin Hoffman with one lens of his glasses broken, signals violence, but also the effect of violence on the protagonist. The French Connection uses a still of ‘Popeye’ Doyle shooting a suspect in the back as its main image. Dirty Harry concentrates on the persona of Clint Eastwood (but also the duality between the two main characters), while Death Wish uses the image of Charles Bronson. Taxi Driver’s central image, of a lost and isolated Travis Bickle posed in front of a New York street scene locates an alienated figure in a world of degradation.

This image for Taxi Driver places the spectator in a very different relationship to the violence of the text than the other posters. By not signalling the violence but concentrating on the alienation of the protagonist (in effect hiding the violence), the poster prepares us for a film where acts of violence, when they do occur, have greater weight. The casting of De Niro (still relatively unknown at this point and thus ‘absorbed’ by his role in the film), and the setting of the film in real areas of New York, confer a high modality.

This is reinforced by the presentation of the violence in the film. This is not expected in the same way as in an Eastwood or Bronson film, where violence is an inherent part of the experience. Indeed the marketing of both Dirty Harry and Death Wish so connects the characters to their actors as to create a direct intertextual link to their other films. In these circumstances film violence becomes a ritualised part of the cinematic experience. The French Connection, however, with its concentration on reality, linked to the oft-repeated information that the film was based on real events, suggests a higher modality for the film violence which it contains.

We are watching here a reproduction of real violence, not the heightened and stylised violence of an Eastwood or Bronson film. The ritualisation in Dirty Harry and Death Wish confers a lower modality on the violence, which has become part of the expected generic formula of the text, an inevitable and unsurprising element. Through its enigmatic title and ambiguous central image, on the other hand, Straw Dogs denies the spectator a secure sense of how violence will operate in the film.

Generic Contexts

The explicitness (or lack) of generic context creates other issues here. It has been noted, for instance, that both Dirty Harry and Death Wish bear relation to the Western film, in casting (the stars of both had previously appeared in successful Westerns), iconography and structure. Perhaps the relocation of the generic elements to a modern day location, stripping away the mythic trappings of the narrative, creates this discomfort around the violence.

The recognition of Western genre conventions in the narratives of Dirty Harry and Death Wish may confer a different level of modality than a film such as Taxi Driver, which has a less clear generic definition. The ritual of genre, the procession of structural and iconic elements, reminds the audience that what they are watching is a structured creation – when it runs true to form, the text offers much reassurance but little by way of surprise. This, I would propose, effectively lowers the modality.

Too often film violence is taken out of the context of reception. Film violence occurs within several frameworks, including the textual implications of narrative and genre. The narrative image of a film is explicit in its attempts to set up these elements for the spectator. Thus the debate about film violence should be embedded in not only the referential and aesthetic components of film violence, but also in analysis of the place that violence has within the contextual, paratextual and textual experience of the film. For contemporary critics of these films however, socio-political concerns of the day outweighed the specifics of the textual/para-textual experience.

Notes and References

1 John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video, London: Routledge, 1982, p. 30.

2 Bob Hodge and David Tripp, Children and Television, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1986, p. 104.

3 Pauline Kael, Deeper into Movies: The Essential Collection, from ‘69 to ’72, London: Marion Boyars, 1975, p. 398.

4 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 385.

5 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 316

6 Gareth Epps, ‘Does Popeye Doyle Teach Us How to be Fascist?’, The New York Times, 22 May 1972, II:15, p. 1.

7 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 316.

8 Judy Klemesrud, ‘What do they see in Death Wish?’, New York Times, 1 September 1974, II:1, p. 5.

9 Charles Barr, ‘Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and the Critics’, Screen, vol. 3 no. 2, 1972, p. 23.

10 Fergus Cashin, John Coleman, N. Hibbin, Margaret Hinxman, Derek Malcom, George Melly, T. Palmer, J. Plowright, Dilys Powell, David Robinson, John Russell Taylor, Arthur Thinkell, and Alexander Walker, ‘From Mr. Fergus Cashin and Others”, The Times, 17 December 1971.

First Presented at the American New Wave: A Retrospective, Bangor University, 4 July 2017

Within the latter three months of 1971 two of the most influential American Police Thrillers were released. One was to fit naturally into the aesthetic of New Hollywood and its creation echoed the narrative of auteur cinema and innovation that would define an era “of stylistic experimentation” (Langford 2010, 134). The other was directed by an old hand who started in Hollywood in the 1940s, was based on a script that several stars had circled and starred the then “world’s favourite movie star” (Life 1971). Although both films were financial successes, the critical reactions were polarised. Of the major US critics only Jay Cocks of Time (Jan, 1972) praised Dirty Harry (Lev 1999), whereas The French Connection was widely lauded and went on to win five academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.

This paper will discuss the reactions and suggest that the critical establishment of the time misunderstood Dirty Harry due to its elements of classical form, ignoring its subversive representations and assuming a conservative spectating position, whereas they praised The French Connection for the technical proficiency, which allowed them to remain distant from the film’s narrative, observing the protagonist, rather than identifying with him.

The narrative of the Hollywood New Wave is one in which an auteur led cinema emerged from the ashes of the Studio System. Within this a new, younger, set of film-makers embraced techniques from outside of Classical Hollywood to infuse existing genres with new life. The French Connection sits happily within this. The director, William Friedkin, began his career in TV in Chicago making documentaries, moving into feature films during the 1960s with some critical, if not box-office, success. The French Connection seemed a radical departure from his two previous films, both adapted from stage plays, but his work in television and his commitment to researching the reality of Police work, by spending time on patrol with Eddie Egan (the inspiration for Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle), created a sense that The French Connection was a film rooted in reality. Indeed its story was loosely adapted from real events, chronicled in Robin Moore’s book of the same name and Friedkin worked closely with his cinematographer Owen Roizman in eschewing traditional lighting and blocking techniques to create a news-report aesthetic (Friedkin 2013, 161). The casting of relative unknowns in the main roles aided the mimetic quality of the film as did the film’s marketing. 20th Century Fox’s Press Book informed that “The French Connection… is a perfect example of the truism that reality is nearly always more dramatic and unpredictable than fiction.” The use of locations across New York (Webb 2014, 78), many of which were in poorer areas previously unseen in mainstream US film, added to this sense of reality. This was also brought to the representation of the main-character Doyle played by Gene Hackman (an actor unknown enough to be subsumed into the character), who is shown to be a racist, a boot fetishist, and an obsessive who ultimately fails to catch the chief criminal behind the film’s drug smuggling operation. If anything the film’s high modality allowed for this representation to be excused as, in the words of Life magazine’s Richard Schickel, it “comes closer to the real thing… than any other movie detective I’ve ever seen” (1971, 31). A theme that emerges when interrogating the critical reaction is that the violence and racism evident in The French Connection is excused, or justified, by its technical freshness, a freshness that connotes a high modality. By taking The French Connection as an accurate depiction of policing, the racism and brutality that Doyle displays can be justified by film-makers and spectators who can retain the critical distance of knowing that this is “how things are”.

When revisiting the opening of The French Connection one is struck by how discordant it is, both in the non-diegetic music that accompanies the titles and in the Marseille prologue which established the documentary style of the film. The prologue details a brutal assassination, a sequence to which the audience are un-aligned as the characters and action of the scene are mostly unconnected to the main plot. The victim, a Detective, is unidentified before his death, as is his killer Nicoli.  What is evident, however, is how Friedkin’s use of documentary style camera techniques keeps the spectator remote from the action. The following scene introduces us to Doyle and his partner Russo as they interrogate a black suspect – throughout point-of-view shots are avoided, with the camera taking positions distant from the action or behind windows and doorways. In this way the spectator remains distant, but also conscious of the supposed reality implied by the camera techniques.

These techniques are particularly evident during the car chase in which Doyle pursues Nicoli who has hijacked an elevated train. For many this sequence has become celebrated not only for its technical proficiency but also because some of the filming took place for “real”, unplanned and without permission (Friedkin 2013, 179). This creates a simultaneous closeness and distance; while the film maintains its high modality (although the car chase is fiction) the narrative of its filming adds to the spectating experience. In affect the effort to create a realistic film draws attention to its construction. The overall effect is of a film that appears different to Classical conventions, however I would suggest that the technical elements of the film hide what is, in many ways, a conservative narrative.

The nature of threat in The French Connection is represented as externalised and other. The very unfamiliarity of its technique and representation of New York is distancing to a mainstream audience, its locations unfamiliar and its procedural elements oblique. The film’s antagonist, Charnier, is represented as a binary opposite to Doyle – he is urbane where Doyle is uncouth and boorish; Charnier is bringing drugs into America, suggesting the threat is primarily an externalised one. The French Connection continually pushes the problems of crime away, indeed the nature of Doyle himself is alienating – so much as to make identification with him difficult – something enhanced by the lack of subjective camera techniques. During the car-chase, for example, we only once see Doyle’s point of view; mostly the camera is mounted on the car’s bumper, with reaction shots of Doyle shot from outside the car. This distance creates a safe area in which the spectator, or critic, can appreciate the technical proficiency of the film while not being asked to identify or support some of Doyle’s morally problematic actions. Due to the lack of identification an element of social critique can be assumed, allowing the spectator to see Doyle as a representation, rather than as a person with whom they can align. This is confirmed by the ending which fails to resolve the narrative in a typical way, displaying text to explain that the main narrative has remained unresolved, and that Doyle’s character’s arc is also incomplete.

Dirty Harry, on the other hand, has the look and feel of a Classical Hollywood text that attempts to hide its construction from the audience, by creating a realistic diegesis. It’s creation certainly had a more traditional narrative being a star vehicle directed by Don Siegel who had started in film-making with Warner Brothers in the 1930s (Siegel 1993, 35). A star vehicle, Eastwood’s importance was reflected in the marketing, in which his gun-toting image predominated. No doubt for some critics this was already an issue – the 1967 US release of Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was financially successful but often criticised for their perceived level of violence, “wooden” performances, cheap production values and their very validity as Westerns (Frayling 1998, 121-123).

Given that Dirty Harry was produced in a seemingly mainstream manner (despite Eastwood’s independence through his own production company Malpaso Productions) it would suggest a traditional subject position. However this ignores several important features – most particularly how it interrogates the spectatorship process and how it draws parallels between its protagonist and antagonist. Most of the reviews are based on an assumption that Callahan is a right wing figure and that the killer, Scorpio, represents the counter-culture. However several times the text queries these assumptions, and presents alternate readings that subvert surface ideas.

The opening of Dirty Harry immediately signals a desire to make the spectator conscious of their manipulation and places the film within a generic tradition by linking back to the Western. The San Francisco Police Memorial board shown as the films’ opening shot starts in 1878, during the frontier period. This ties the film to the Western (something enhanced by Eastwood’s presence) and simultaneously places the film in a mythic tradition, rather than one that reaches for realism. As the image dissolves through a Police Star to a low angle staring up at Scorpio and his rifle several associations are made; one that Scorpio is aiming at the Police (their bodies are metaphorically in the line of fire); or that the violence that Scorpio represents is deeply tied to the Police themselves. The film then cuts to Scorpio’s point of view and a voyeuristic, and indeed scopophilic, gaze is assumed. Initially the film-makers are willing to place their audience in a position that is both comfortable and uncomfortable in which the gaze is aimed towards a traditional image of desire (a young woman in a swim suit) immediately disrupted by the violence that ensues. The next scene introduces Callahan, eyes covered by sunglasses and the emphasis on point-of-view is re-iterated as he climbs to the spot where Scorpio was shooting from. This parallel continues throughout the film in which both Scorpio and Callahan are seen to be spying on the world around them, and indulging their gazes. During one pursuit of a suspect Callahan is taken to be a Peeping-Tom as he spies on “Hot Mary”; later on stake-out he spies on a naked young woman, and her guests, in her apartment commenting to himself “You owe it to yourself to live a little Harry.” That both cop and killer indulge in violent and voyeuristic behaviour is made clear suggesting a closeness between the two, which only diverges through the targets of their gaze.

The critics’ identification of Scorpio as a hippy skews the film towards one in which a figure of the establishment, Callahan, kills a figure of the counter-culture. However this ignores several details. Although Scorpio has long hair his clothing only comes to match counter-culture clichés in the final third of the film – previously he has dressed conservatively. He also shows proficiency with a sniper rifle and a submachine gun, indicative of military training (as are his highly shined military boots). This suggests to us that Scorpio, rather than a hippy, is actually a returning Vietnam veteran, a suggestion backed by director Siegel (Siegel 1993, 370). Scorpio is a mix of signifiers: Siegel cast Andy Robinson because he had the “face of a choir-boy” (Don Siegel quoted in The Dirty Harry DVD Collection (2009)) and would subvert ideas about what killers looked like. I would go further and suggest the Scorpio exists as a composite of several notorious killers from the 1970s, most obviously the San Francisco-based Zodiac killer who sent letters taunting the police, but also campus shooter Charles Whitman and Charles Manson. Also contradicting the idea that Scorpio is a counter culture figure is his desire to kill black people, young people and homosexuals – cornerstones of the civil rights movement. As Pierre Greenfield suggests,

Scorpio is the true redneck. “My next victim will be a Catholic priest or a nigger,” is the last sentence of his ransom demand. His kidnap victim is the very Catholic sounding Anne-Marie Deakin. She is fourteen” (Greenfield 1976, 36)

Parallel with this is the representation of Callahan himself and although he does demonstrate some racist behaviour, this is counterpointed in several way. We may argue that Callahan’s gaze is resolutely heteronormative (as opposed to Scorpio’s) however, the assumption that he is simply a right wing figure is undermined. He himself has long hair, and is chided about it by his superior. During the telephone chase he is propositioned by a gay-man, who identifies as Alice. Although this moment is not a particularly forward thinking representation of homosexuality, it is important as Alice sees Callahan as a reasonable target for his advances – in effect that Callahan’s heterosexuality is not obvious to everyone. Callahan’s use of violence and love of high powered guns is parodied later in the same scene as Scorpio remarks on the Magnum .44, “My, that’s a big one” which draws comparison with Scorpio’s own use of high powered weaponry and acknowledges the absurdity of the Magnum and the phallic obsession that lies behind the choice of such a weapon, and the genre itself. Callahan’s relationship to race is also discussed within the film. Many critiques seized on the race of the bank robbers that Callahan shoots after his lunch is interrupted, but they also miss the relationship that Callahan has to the black doctor in the next scene (they grew up together in a mixed race neighbourhood) or the fact that the film shows the reaction of the mother of the murdered black boy (who lived in the same neighbourhood Callahan grew up in (Street 2016, 75)). These elements do not necessarily excuse or justify racist behaviours, but they do suggest that the depiction is more complex than first discussed. Another key element is Eastwood’s position within the diegesis. During 1971 two other Eastwood films were released, Play Misty for Me and The Beguiled, the former directed by Eastwood himself, the latter by Siegel. Each film examines the Eastwood persona, both working to undermine the dominant male character that most critics took Eastwood to represent. During the bank heist Callahan strides in front of a cinema showing Play Misty, acknowledging the constructed nature of his image, as do the film’s self-reflective moments when the meanings behind Callahan’s nickname are addressed.

The choice to film at familiar landmarks of San Francisco is key, and contrasts starkly to The French Connection. Siegel chose “monumental architectural landmarks from City Hall to Kezar Stadium, preferring wide open space (in expansive 2.35:1[1] Panavision)” (Webb 2014, 140), highlighting the very public nature of American violence. Dirty Harry refuses to suggest that crime and violence are not part and parcel of the urban experience, contrasted to Friedkin’s own shock at finding he could film so much of The French Connection close to his home (Friedkin 2013, 147). Dirty Harry also allows the civic structures to exist next to crime, with them often being used as the back-drop, or juxtaposed through comparison – San Francisco is a city in which strip clubs and playgrounds co-exist. Two separate scenes play out against religious imagery; one a large neon sign that declared “Jesus Saves”, the other the giant cross atop Mount Davidson – both are part of the film’s subversion of traditional American spaces – that offer neither shelter nor safety. As Joe Street discusses in detail, the choice of San Francisco is a culturally significant one as it acts as a nexus of several, contradictory, elements of American life. San Francisco was closely associated with the counter-culture of the 1960s but earlier than this, during the 1800s, it was home to “the largest vigilante movement in American history” (Street 2016, 57). During the 1960s the city was noted for its left-leaning administration, however then Mayor Alioto was “quite prepared to allow the SFPD tactical squad to use violent tactics to quell disturbances during the 1968-69 student strike” (Street 2016, 61). It is within these contradictions that Dirty Harry is set, starkly demonstrated as the film moves between public and private space suggesting a similarity between both that is absent in The French Connection in which the criminal activity is confined to the back streets of New York. In this Dirty Harry points to the contradictions of an urban environment that seeks to be inclusive but also safe. During the scenes in Kezar Stadium the camera moves away, via helicopter, from Callahan torturing Scorpio. The arena is a place of sanctioned violence during American Football games, but is transformed to a place where the violence is tantalisingly hidden and ambiguous. Here the spectator is asked whether they want to see this and whether the actions are justified, especially as we discover that his actions fail to save Scorpio’s victim, and initiate his release from custody. The closing moments see Callahan throw his badge away, a late change to the film (Siegel 1993, 375). Several commentators suggested a similarity to the ending of High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) but failed to detail one key difference. In High Noon Will Kane leaves with his wife and the promise of a new life. Harry Callahan, a widower, leaves behind everything he knows with his badge, making the ending a bleak commentary on the possibility of solutions to America’s law and order problems.

In conclusion, this paper has explored how the contemporary critical reaction to The French Connection and Dirty Harry differed and has also posited that this is due to the differing formal aspects of the films, and that the reactions privileged form over content. Further, that the radical appearance of The French Connection, which simultaneously created a high modality and drew attention to its form, suggested to the critics that the film itself was representing something radical. In opposition the conservative formal elements of Dirty Harry and its clear genre roots masked the subversive and reflective elements in the text, which came to say something much more problematic – that the violent crime in America is rooted within itself, rather than coming from an external threat. By applying elements of intertext and acknowledging the complex relationship the spectator has to a film such as Dirty Harry, that employs Classical style knowingly, we can see how multiple readings and critiques become possible beyond those of the contemporary critics.

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Siegel, Don (1993) A Siegel Film: An Autobiography. London: Faber and Faber.

Street, Joe (2016) Dirty Harry’s America: Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan and the Conservative Backlash. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Webb, Lawrence (2014) The Cinema of Urban Crisis: Seventies Films and the Reinvention of the City. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Variety Staff (1970) Dirty Harry. Variety. 31 December [online] Available at http://variety.com/1970/film/reviews/dirty-harry-1200422518/ [accessed 03 March 2010].

The Dirty Harry DVD Collection (2009) USA: Warner Home Video

[1] As opposed to 1.85:1 for The French Connection.

One of them is a loner who gets thrown every dirty job in town. His solution: shoot his .44 Magnum and damn the consequences. The other is a blue-collar roughneck, a porkpie-hat wearing boot fetishist as likely to shoot a colleague as he is a bad-guy. Welcome to 1971. Welcome to the birth of the modern action hero. It wasn’t a smooth delivery. The critics reacted with catcalls of “fascist”. Roger Ebert wrote, “if anybody is writing a book on the rise of fascism in America, they ought to take a look at Dirty Harry”. Garrett Epps of The New York Times asked “Does Popeye Doyle Teach us to be Fascist?”, deciding no, but that The French Connection is a “celebration of authority, brutality and racism” (which sounds pretty fascist to me). Dirty Harry on the other hand “is a simply told story of the Nietzschean superman and his sado-masochistic pleasures”. Pauline Kael, never a fan of Eastwood, described Dirty Harry as a “right wing fantasy” and The French Connection as featuring “the latest model sadistic cop”. Vincent Canby, also in The New York Times, decried Dirty Harry with the criticism, “I doubt even the genius of Leni Riefenstahl could make it artistically acceptable”. Something about these films got up the nose of American critics. Perhaps this was only made worse by their popularity with audiences. But how did early 70s cinema come to embrace these men, and the McClanes, Riggs and Cobrettis to follow?

Looking back over the history of cinema two types of film dominated action before 1971; the western and the war film. It all changed, in the 1960s as the cops began to take over. They brought the action into the city, finding a new wilderness among the streets and the neon lights. Cities became the new frontier, dark, shadowy and fuelled by drugs. It reflected the changes in American society; the huge rises in crime, particularly mugging, had Americans scared to walk city streets. This was a different America and it needed different heroes. The French Connection and Dirty Harry redefined how America’s heroes would look and act, casting a shadow over action cinema for a generation to come. The story goes that 1960s cinema ended in counter-culture revolution. Led by Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1968) the audience found themselves on the side of the law-breakers, railing against society, whether it be the cops, the banks or the politicians. Take a closer look and another, parallel, story comes clear. The success of films like The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967) and Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, alongside the earlier, harsher Bond films, showed that there was an audience for tough heroes. What was different about them was how they abandoned the codes of the past – these guys were selfish, in it for themselves, often only doing the right thing incidentally. These weren’t the classic heroes of the past, the sort that Joseph Campbell wrote about. They were anti-heroes, the dark shadows of heroism. Ever since WW2 heroes had been getting darker, as if the horror of human behaviour exposed in Europe and the Far East had leached out the possibility of anybody being truly good. Even John Wayne got in on the act in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956). It’s difficult to imagine now because, by and large, today all movie heroes are anti-heroes. Go back to the 1940s and watch Errol Flynn or James Stewart and see men who do right because it’s right to do it. As American life got more complicated, with conflict at home and abroad, it became harder and harder to find purity in anyone’s motives. It would get worse before the 60s was out.

Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas in Huston in August 1966 and started shooting. He killed 14 and wounded 31 before the Police shot him. The shadow of the Zodiac killer settled over San Francisco in the late 1960s as he taunted Police with his letters. He was never found. And in 1969 Charles Manson’s ‘family’ broke into 10050 Cielo Drive murdering, among four others, Sharon Tate, pregnant actress and girlfriend of Roman Polanski: all three helped signal a change. Nobody was safe anymore, not even Hollywood stars. It was the final nail in the coffin of 60s optimism. All the leaders, Kennedy and King, were dead. The movie heroes of old didn’t cut it (just watch Wayne’s self-directed Green Berets (1968) or Brannigan (Douglas Hickcox, 1975) for evidence). America needed new symbols to help it feel safe at night. Cue Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle and ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan, although in many ways The French Connection and Dirty Harry couldn’t be more different. The former was directed by a precocious young director from TV noted for several art-house style films, the latter made by one of Hollywood’s old hands, who could trace his career back to Hollywood at its peak in the 1930s and 40s. But what both William Friedkin and Don Siegel understood was that the time was ripe for a new, tougher, more cynical hero.

Friedkin had been circulating for several years in Hollywood and had been tipped as a hot director. He mastered his craft making documentaries on the streets of his home town Chicago, working areas other film-makers wouldn’t touch like the black South-Side. He was an abrasive young man, supremely talented, directing for TV in his early twenties. Siegel began at Warner’s back when the Studio System was in its heyday. He began in the Film Library Department, moving through the company to Editorial and Insert departments. Here he contributed to some classics like The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939) and Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Anatole Litvak, 1939). He worked with such greats as Michael Curtiz (director of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942)) and Howard Hughes, eventually graduating to directing at Hughes’ RKO. The movie he will always be remembered for, other than Dirty Harry, is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1962), regularly cited as the best B-movie ever made. An efficient director, Siegel worked quickly and effectively. He shot what he needed, scouted his own locations and liked to collaborate. He was just the sort of director Clint Eastwood appreciated. By 1970 Friedkin’s career was stalling. He was making movies, dramas such as The Boys in the Band (1970), but his films weren’t making any money. That would all change after an encounter with Howard Hawks. “People don’t want stories about somebody’s problems or any of that psychological shit”, Hawks told him, “What they want is action stories. Every time I made a film like that, with a lotta good guys against bad guys, it had a lotta success, if that matters to you”. It mattered to him alright. His next film was The French Connection.

Siegel and Eastwood first met on Coogan’s Bluff (1968), an early attempt to translate Eastwood’s Spaghetti Western success to America. It worked, with Eastwood starring as an Arizona lawman relocated to New York to extradite a suspect. It featured some brutal action, including a great bar fight. Coogan’s single minded pursuit of hippy suspect Ringerman, and willingness to ignore regulations, served as a prototype for Harry. With Dirty Harry they were able to create a purer distillation of the action formula from Coogan, dumping the unnecessary love interest, turning the conflict between Harry and Scorpio into the focus. Watch Harry again and it might even seem that the sado-masochistic relationship between cop and killer is its own sort of twisted romance, camera flying away from the stadium to protect their privacy when they are finally alone. The producer of The French Connection, Philip D’Antioni, previously brought Bullitt (Peter Yates) to the screen in 1968. Inspired by real events, and the book by Robin Moore, The French Connection provided a chance to repeat the earlier success. For that purpose he demanded one thing from Friedkin, a car chase to beat the one in Bullitt. Both the chase and its filming are now legendary but are just one part of a film which constantly innovates and defies convention. Filming in a down and dirty documentary style, casting a character actor, Gene Hackman, in the lead, allowing cast to improvise (a cast which included real life “Popeye” Eddie Egan as Doyle’s boss), and taking cues from The French New Wave, The French Connection is like nothing else produced in Hollywood at the time. It’s also groundbreakingly violent. Just witness the car-crash victims; they’re nothing to do with the plot but Friedkin lets his camera linger over the mess of their bodies. Then think about that final shot. What other Hollywood film leaves the audience with such a bleak and unresolved ending, Doyle charging off into the darkness having shot one of his own colleagues?

You can see how real life events influenced Dirty Harry. Check out Scorpio and you can see the influence of Manson, the Zodiac killer and Whitman; Scorpio represented everything that was going wrong with America, and he could even have been a returning Vietnam veteran with his military boots and rifle proficiency. Those who read Callahan as an authoritarian figure taking on a hippy loner miss the point, though. Yes Scorpio is all that’s bad but Harry’s not much better. As the film plays out, a teasing parallel between Scorpio and Harry emerges, they’re both voyeurs, both loners, both killers. Their combat is a dance to the death across the streets of San Francisco. That late 60s anti-authoritarian streak runs through Callahan and Doyle and shows that these films have more in common with the Easy Riders of this world that you might think. Both are fierce individuals, outsiders who don’t fit in to society – but the difference is they’re there trying to make it work. Both films hinge on their heroes. They’re a strange pair, both loners paired with partners whose normalcy only highlights their extremes, both isolated by society. Friedkin pulls no punches in his depiction of Popeye as a slovenly, driven and violent man. Watch the scene where Frog One, Charnier, enjoys a three course meal while Popeye stands outside drinking stale coffee and eating greasy pizza. It’s a wonderful evocation of the thankless task that stands before the police; the street smart blue-collar worker living in a small apartment that resembles a prison cell versus the urbane French charmer with a house on the Riviera. Dirty Harry‘s opening shots, hovering over a memorial board to San Francisco police men points to the danger and thanklessness of the task. In some senses they’re the reincarnation of the Western hero dragged into the city, the lone gunman dealing with injustice. But in the city their actions provoke outraged responses, the cushion of myth having been removed. Just like Will Kane in High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), who like Harry throws his badge away, they’re abandoned by the townsfolk and have to do what’s best on their own.

Initial reaction to both films was fierce, many critics highlighting the violence, but Dirty Harry was by far the most kicked about. Harry’s perceived racism was a particular bone of contention, despite the fact that he has friends and enemies of different races. Both Siegel and Eastwood have been on record defending the films from such accusations. In his autobiography, A Siegel Film, the director described his approach, “If I do a film about a murderer, it doesn’t mean that I condone murder. If I do a film about a hard-nosed cop, of course it doesn’t mean I condone all his actions. I find it very difficult to explain my reasons for making a film like Dirty Harry, other than I’m a firm believer in entertainment, hoping that every picture make will be a commercial success. Not once throughout Dirty Harry did Clint and I have a political discussion.” Similarly The French Connection found its critics, suggesting the film to be racist and authoritarian, but it also registered far more supporters. It was a huge box-office success ($30million plus in the US alone) and won five Oscars, including best director. Dirty Harry won no awards, but took over $28 million and cemented Eastwood’s star status. The impact of these two films still resonates through their sequels and imitators. As Eastwood proved in Gran Torino (2008) he has never really escaped the shadow of Callahan. The lone cop, the disregard for superiors, for red tape and rules, the brutality of the violence; these can all be seen in modern action movies. Check out the rivalry between John McClane and his slick European rival, Hans Gruber, in Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988); it clearly echoes Doyle and Charnier. What is Riggs but Callahan pushed to his logical, suicidal extreme? How about that scene in Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987) with the jumper? Straight out of Dirty Harry. Come to think of it aren’t both Die Hard with a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995) and 12 Rounds (Renny Harlin, 2009) just two hour remakes of the phone chase in Dirty Harry? Look at any cop-thriller or action film from the 1980s or 90s and the influence of Doyle and Callahan is clear. Fascist Super Cops? No. Fascists aren’t free thinkers, they don’t possess the cynical edge of these men, the individuality. The critics saw the violence, but missed the point. The audience got it. And we’re still getting it today.

From its early days cinema has showcased violence.

Whether it was boxing matches or recreations of historical events violence has been infused into the very nature of the medium. If we believe the old story about the Lumière Brothers scaring their Paris audience the beginning of Cinema was a violent act in itself. With this presentation of violence came politics. Perhaps it was the accessibility of cinema that made it open to more political interference than literature or theatre (although these were also messed with), the fear that the plebs, who wouldn’t/couldn’t read or understand high culture, would be corrupted by this new form. Early on movies were being banned for their violence, but sometimes the reasons were as much politically motivated as out of a ‘duty’ to protect the masses; in the US one early boxing film was banned on racial grounds, as it showed a black boxer beating a white boxer, undermining the ‘inherent’ superiority of the white race.

The dominant discourse on violence today remains rooted in the spurious effects debate. Every so often a film is seen to be the cause of society’s ills, or it offers the potential to corrupt and degrade. A cursory glance at the history of Hollywood film offers a list of titles that have been suggested as, but never proven to be, the inspiration for real acts of violence. Films such as Rebel Without a Cause, Taxi Driver, Natural Born Killers, Scream, Child’s Play 3, not to mention the litany of 1980s Video Nasties have been implicated. But this debate fundamentally lacks an understanding of the complicated ways in which the audience experiences film violence. In this article I’ll outline some of those ways, in the hope that we can move the debate a little further from the purview of the Daily Mail.

Before, During, After

The paratext are the texts that surround and inform any individual text. Generally speaking we don’t watch movies in a vacuum, particularly now as we’re constantly bombarded with trailers, posters, websites and even trailers for trailers. These elements, also known as the Narrative Image, inform and mediate our responses to cinema, including how we understand the violence. In short our experience and understanding of film violence occurs before (paratext), during (spectating) and after the film (in the ways we remake the film in our memories, how they compare to other texts, etc). Beyond these paratextual elements are the social and political contexts that inform the text and our responses. To give a brief example most film students are forced to watch the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925). But the context of watching this in the 21st Century, in Europe, can’t match the context of post-revolutionary Russia, or interwar Britain where the film was banned. Our approach to the film is framed by these paratextual elements of expectation where a genre, title or star, can confirm or subvert.

Generic and narrative expectations are another major part of this experience, elements which are, by and large, set by the narrative image. The Western is a genre that depends on violence – the narrative is organised around the final shoot-out, the showdown between protagonist and antagonist. It would be ridiculous to watch a mainstream Western then and be surprised by the violence in the final scenes. The emotional response to such a moment is therefore conditioned by expectation. Films that muddy the generic/narrative waters generate different responses. Take the violence in Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006). The film is framed as a fairytale of sorts, in which a small girl (evoking characters like Alice), explores a world of fantastic creatures. Then a man has his face bashed in with a bottle. Nothing in the narrative/genre has suggested this event, the impact is greater.

These elements of genre/narrative and paratext also condition the modality of the films. Modality is the level of reality that we ascribe to a message. For instance the News has a higher modality than Tom and Jerry; one presents itself as a true representation of reality, the other is a cartoon in which impossible events occur. Films generally exist somewhere between these two extremes. A film that employs documentary style camera work conveys a higher modality than one that involves impossible CGI shots. Similarly the advertising of a film can stress fantastic or realistic elements. Early coverage for The Blair Witch Project presented the film as true, that the footage had been recovered. For those early audiences the film had a high modality, creating a different response to later viewers who watched is as part of the normal horror genre.

Elements of Film Violence

If our approach to film violence is conditioned before we even sit in the cinema what then of the films themselves? One cannot hope to fully elucidate the complexities of this in a short essay, but I can outline a few significant elements.

Prince (1998) breaks film violence down into three elements; the referential act, the stylistic encoding and the stylistic amplitude. The referential act is the act of violence that the film depicts. Our understanding of this is complicated in itself. Has the audience experienced this act themselves, or seen it before in other films and media? Each act of violence in a film is seen in comparison to other films and the real world. Increasingly the violence we see bears no resemblance to our life experience – our referent becomes other films. The stylistic encoding is how the referential act is depicted in the film, the shots used, the sound, etc. Take for comparison the finales of High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952) and Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971). In High Noon the hero, Will Kane, shoots the villain Frank Miller with a single bullet. It takes 5 seconds of screen time and is shown in a single shot from where Kane stands, leaving Miller in the background. When Harry shoots Scorpio over 8 single shots are shown, taking just over a minute of screen time. When Scorpio is hot we see, from multiple angles, him thrown backwards, blood spurting from his body; the same referential act, encoding in two very different styles.

The final aspect, the Stylistic Amplitude, covers ideas of graphicness and duration of the encoded act. In essence the more graphic the depiction the greater the duration. The more of the violence we see the more significant it is in the film’s running time. As a general trend in Hollywood cinema more time is given over to violence in movies.

Positioning the Audience

As a final issue we need to consider how the film positions its audience in relation to the characters that enact violence. There are two positions available, one subjective (we watch/follow/align with a character(s)), the other objective (we are not aligned with anyone, we watch separate from the action). This makes a big difference in how we relate to a film. The subjective camera, using shots like point of view, implied point of view and over shoulder, invite us to partake in the violence. Narrative techniques, such as narration, further encourage our identification with characters and violence (a good example of this is Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)). The objective camera keeps us at a distance, although we still align with a protagonist through convention, leaving our involvement as less participatory.

In Conclusion

Moving the discussion about film violence away from the tabloid headlines and towards a technical understanding of cinema and its audience is essential if we’re ever to puzzle out how and why people watch violent films. If we can do that we may be able to finally kill off the histrionic exaggerations, with or without the use of a shotgun.

Works Cited

Prince, Stephen (1998) Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies. Austin: University of Texas Press

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