On “Make My Day”
“When is he going to say ‘Make my day?’”
It’s late 1988, maybe early 1989, and I’m watching Dirty Harry for the first time, on VHS. Earlier, the trailer for The Dead Pool—the last of five Dirty Harry movies, notable mostly for an early appearance by Liam Neeson and for the sordid spectacle of an unknown Jim Carrey lip-syncing “Welcome to the Jungle” by a bunch of up-and-comers called Guns N Roses—had been playing on a loop advertising its availability on pay-per-view. It made me curious to bone up on my cinema history.
Turns out the most famous catchphrase from the 18-year, five-film Dirty Harry franchise—the one Clint Eastwood used to cap his batty, embarrassing-to-all-involved speech at the Republican National Convention last night—didn’t arrive until its fourth installment, 1983’s Sudden Impact—the only one on which Eastwood is credited as director. He’d pick up the first of his two Best Director Oscars for making Unforgiven, a seeming apologia not just for his classic Westerns but for these violent cop films, too, nine years later.
Harry first utters the line while staring down the last of a gang of perps—all African-Americans—he has otherwise dispatched with his trademark Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver, a comically large handgun. The robbers number either four or five—the editing makes it difficult to tell—but either way the staffing seems more appropriate to a bank job than a diner holdup. What’s each thief’s cut of this big score going to be? $40?
As much fun as Eastwood’s delivery of this tough-guy taunt is, the only clever thing about the scene is the way in which a waitress, whom Harry greets by name, signals to him he’s unknowingly walked into an armed robbery in progress: She dumps half a jar of sugar into Harry’s coffee to ensure he’ll return.
And lo, return he does, with a speech explaining to the slowpokes in the audience exactly What the Waitress Did: “Today she gives me a large black coffee, only it’s got sugar in it—a whole lot of sugar,” he seethes, like a decent, hardworking dentist who's been pushed too far. He waits until he’s completed filling out this verbal customer comment card—but not until the backup he’s presumably called arrives, because what is he, a pussy?—to instigate (!) a shoot-out in this crowded restaurant. He doesn’t even draw his gun until he’s finished speaking, giving any one of the four (five?) robbers about a day-and-a-half to shoot him before he makes his move.
Maybe that famous Clint squint has hypnotic powers.
Even by the hyperbolic standards of action movies, this all seems willfully, dangerously stupid. But we don’t want to watch a movie about Dirty Harry leading a hostage negotiation with the S.F.P.D. surrounding a Denny’s. The scene is just there to efficiently remind the 1983 audience what Harry is all about – it had been seven years since they'd seen him, after all.
It's debatable whether 1971's Dirty Harry created, or at least codified, the now hoary rogue-cop-who-plays-by-his-own-badass-rules genre. But it is inarguably a genre film, and like all good genre films it tapped into the zeitgeist, capturing an angry conservative backlash against the free-loving, draft-card-burning late 1960s. One early draft of its script had been titled Dead Right. Paul Newman, uncomfortable with its suggestion that due process was a hindrance that regularly let killers go free, had passed on it, recommending Eastwood for the job.
Eastwood has said he didn't pay the script's political payload much mind. He just thought is would make an exciting movie, and it did. Forty-one years later, Dirty Harry holds up as a taut, engrossing, brilliantly photographed and paced police thriller.
However inane it was for Eastwood to croak “Go ahead” from behind the podium last night, repurposing his catchphrase from the original Dirty Harry would’ve made even less sense. These movies are nothing if not formulaic. Most of them pair Harry with a partner of a different ethnicity—or Tyne Daly!—who is usually not long for this world. And they usually have a catchphrase Harry says once near the beginning of the film, and again, with extra, vengeful emphasis, at the end.
In the original film, it’s “You've got ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?'” Harry is asking the wounded perp he’s already taken down if he thinks Harry has any bullets left in his six-shooter. Harry himself claims not to remember. We infer he knows he’s out of ammo and he’s just fucking with the guy to be cruel. As with the later scene in Sudden Impact, the racial element here—a smirking white cop threatening a wounded black suspect—is, for me at least, the most uncomfortable thing about it. “Well do you, punk?”
Imagine the flustered, 82-year-old Eastwood we saw last night lobbing that one from behind the podium.
Obviously there was nothing logical or orderly about Eastwood’s rambling appearance, wherein he seemed to blame President Obama (represented by an empty chair) for everything from the war in Afghanistan (um, no) to being an attorney (Mitt Romney has a J.D., too.). But if he wanted to quote a Dirty Harry line that would sort of make sense in that context, he should’ve drawn from the first sequel, 1973’s Magnum Force. In that one, Harry twice gravely intones: “A man has got to know his limitations.” At the end of the film, he says it to the exploded remains of Hal Halbrook.
I suppose I’m making Magnum Force sound schlocky. Actually, it’s underrated. I love the way it inverts the premise of the original film, something too few sequels attempt. Seemingly inspired by film critics’ cries that Dirty Harry lionized a fascist hero, Magnum Force finds Harry facing off against a secret vigilante hit squad within the San Francisco Police Department—guys who when it comes to law and order occupy a remote outpost of the political spectrum somewhere to the right of the infamous homicide Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan. There’s a great scene wherein their leader tells Harry he expected they would have his support.
Leave it to Eastwood to make this line sound like a threat: “I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me.”
Actually, that’s another one that would’ve been more appropriate to last night than “Make my day.” But it isn’t a catchphrase. Harry only said it once.