From Bullitt to Dirty Harry via the Supreme Court

The scene arrives unexpectedly after an hour and ten minutes of screen time. Inspector Callahan, a street-hardened plainclothes cop nicknamed “Dirty Harry” by his colleagues, has caught Scorpio, a sadistic killer picking off innocent San Franciscans. Only hours earlier Callahan was beaten up by Scorpio, who then shot Gonzalez, the detective’s offsider. Gonzalez is now in hospital, while the naked body of a kidnapped fourteen-year-old girl, who Callahan hoped to rescue, has been found. Scorpio buried her alive. But the cop has arrested the killer after a nocturnal pursuit through the menacing dark city.

This essay appears in March’s Quadrant.
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Summoned to a meeting at City Hall later that morning, Callahan walks into the District Attorney’s office. When he enters the door, the harassed-looking legal expert looks up from reams of paperwork and snaps:

DA: Where the hell does it say you’ve got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Or Miranda? I mean, you must’ve heard of the Fourth Amendment. [Lifts hands in a gesture of frustration, then sighs.] What I’m saying is that man had rights.

Callahan: Well, I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.

DA: You should be! I’ve got news for you, Callahan. As soon as he’s well enough to leave the hospital, he walks … I can’t try him.

On those few lines of dialogue, two thirds of the way through a movie which reinvented the cowboy actor Clint Eastwood as a cynical modern policeman, the weight of American history was meant to settle.

Released by Warner Brothers, Dirty Harry was the third in a cluster of gritty urban crime films—including MGM’s Get Carter and Twentieth Century Fox’s The French Connection—which burst into cinemas during 1971. If made independently of each other, there were uncanny similarities across the trio. Besides unorthodox production methods including extensive location work, the movies shared a pessimistic outlook. Only four years after the idealistic “Summer of Love”, they portrayed a dangerous, inherently corrupt world where serious crime was escalating.

Stylistically, the films were responding to another Warner Brothers release, Bullitt of 1968. Adapted from a police-procedural crime novel, Bullitt was the personal project of the Hollywood star Steve McQueen. He had the lead role crafted for himself, sinking his own finances into the production, and recruiting Peter Yates, a rising British director, to make the film.

Yates had moved into feature films after working on the formula television series Danger Man and The Saint. He was now among a wave of younger British directors who spurned the polished escapism of the Rank and Ealing studios. Film for them should be closer to an earthy docu-drama shot on the fly among real people in their rough environment, ideals that peaked in Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (Yates worked in the crew), Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home and Peter Watkins’s The War Game. Yates applied this approach in his English heist film Robbery (1967), loosely based on Britain’s Great Train Robbery of 1963, which had caught McQueen’s eye.

After flying to the United States and meeting the producers, Yates was left under no illusions about what was expected of him—“They really wanted a kind of Western,” he recalled.[1] Yates signed on for the project provided he could handle it his way:

Bullitt could have been another police story. It could have been another episode of a good police television series. I was determined it would not be, that it would have the feeling, the atmosphere of a European film, a French film or Italian film, where you really get a feeling of dirt, that this is actually happening.

Yates shot Bullitt between February and April 1968 entirely on location. Not a single scene was handled on a set. Even a short atmospheric sequence in a bistro was shot at night in the venue. Yates pulled this off because he brought in William Fraker, a cameraman from advertising who was flexible, visually inventive and experienced in location work. Where possible he also used real people instead of actors, as when showing surgery in hospital. Medical staff performed precisely as they would handle a genuine emergency.

Yates’s other critical decision was to shift the locality to San Francisco. He advised the producers that Los Angeles, where the script was set, had been used in too many television shows and crime movies. Everywhere he was taken around LA for potential settings was already over-exposed and familiar to his eye, whereas San Francisco was a tabula rasa.

Upon release, Bullitt hit the American movie industry like ice water flung in the face, although in its plot it was an orthodox film. The dialogue, in accordance with a new trend prompted by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies where the master swordsman was a patient man of few words, was heavily minimised.[2] This was why detective Frank Bullitt spent much of the film calmly observing those around him in what progressive audiences construed as a Zen-like silence.

The shock was visual. Yates’s production values had a forceful immediacy. There was an uncannily visceral quality to his pictorial sense, the way he conveyed tenderness and intimacy in emotional scenes, then alarm and heightened urgency in action sequences.

Film professionals—and audiences—were astounded by a car chase where all stops were pulled out. Yates joked that he adapted it from cowboy films, hence the initial close-up shot of a seatbelt being buckled with an audible metallic click by the dark-suited hitman: “The gunfighter strapping on his belt, and you’re off,” Yates explained. If this pursuit begins in thickly built-up residential streets, there is the quick transition to a bare rural setting. The allusion to a horseback chase in westerns was conscious. And, besides McQueen doing his own driving, a competitive edge was added by using high-performance automobiles produced by rival manufacturers: the police detective drove a Ford Mustang GT, while the mafia killers had a Dodge Charger R/T. (The detective’s architect girlfriend drives a Porsche 356 convertible, which underscores her cosmopolitan sophistication.)

The two cars sprint along a country highway where, as in a western, one of the mobsters shoots at the cop from his dark vehicle. “I loved the black Charger,” Yates recalled, “because it had an evil, sharkie look.” Not only was this a gripping, adrenalin-intense race, the very names Mustang and Charger carried associations of stallions from the Wild West. The chase peaks when McQueen forces the hitmen’s sinister car off the road, whereupon it explodes in a fireball.

In the usual scheme of movies Bullitt would have passed unnoticed. It was a middle-of-the-road production with undistinguished plot and script, if solid cast. But it became a hit through its clever camerawork, unorthodox use of location, and the talented editing which took an Oscar. Yates’s film made an instant impact on television, strong influencing Emmy-winning syndicated crime dramas, NBC’s Ironside then Quinn-Martin’s The Streets of San Francisco. Bullitt sparked enthusiasm in the motion picture industry. It set a benchmark that crime movie directors aspired to surpass.

Mike Hodges made his first feature film, Get Carter, in an intense rush: “From getting the book, doing the deal, writing the script, final location, making the film, editing—it was 36 weeks,” he recalled.[3] The shoot, which took place largely on location in gritty Newcastle-on-Tyne from July to mid-September 1970, was completed in forty days.

His film was the final British-based project approved by MGM, which, having decided to pull out of Europe, was closing its facilities at Borehamwood on the north-west edge of London. (The historic Elstree Studios had been nearby.) Approving a modest budget of £750,000, the production company was betting on Hodges delivering a location-flavoured feature in the vein of Peter Yates’s crime movies.

The rapidly assembled cast was strong. It included John Osborne as a crime lord and Ian Hendry as a repugnant hoodlum, with Michael Caine starring as the ruthless Jack Carter. Caine himself leapt at the role. He was impatient with playing cheeky cockneys, and this cold killer seemed ideal. Not only that. Hodges wanted to break that spurious convention of English cinema where, as Caine explains, “British gangsters were stupid, silly or funny.” Having grown up alongside assorted South London villains in the impoverished community around the Elephant and Castle, Caine was eager to portray authentic criminal culture: “A lot of British gangster films have been made by bourgeois middle-class people, but they have no idea.”

Within weeks of signing up for the film Caine was unofficial co-producer. He and Hodges used a relaxation of screen regulations to suggest real underworld behaviour. The violence, for instance, was not extravagant in the usual vein of crime movies. “We were realistically violent,” Caine explains:

so that it shocked when it happened … I picked up a stick in the woods and just ran at a guy and whacked him in the head once, and he went down. You show people it takes one blow. You often see actors smashed in the face, getting up, smashed in the face, getting up, then coming in to work the next day with a sticking plaster on their forehead. This always annoys me. We thought we’ll show it only takes one blow or one stab.

And they did away with the clichéd spiv in a trilby. In keeping with the Mayfair tastes of 1960s mobsters, Jack Carter was attired in a bespoke suit, silk shirts and tie, and gold cufflinks. Actors playing London muscle likewise wore posh apparel from Jermyn Street tailors, and, like the real crime boss Charlie Richardson, they drove a smart red S-type Jaguar. The feedback later received was glowing. “It was right on the nose with the new kind of criminals,” Hodges recalled. “A lot of real villains came up and they were really pleased with this film.”

Hodges did resist when the MGM people wanted a Bullitt-style chase. It would be seen as derivative. Besides, adverse comparisons were sure to be made with a recent spoof of the Bullitt chase in The Italian Job. That comedy-caper had Michael Caine lead a gang of British thieves in Mini Coopers, painted a patriotic red, white and blue, who were hotly pursued by Italian police in Alfa Romeo Giulias. Another car chase with Caine was asking for trouble. (A supporting actor, Tony Beckley, played gangsters in both Get Carter and The Italian Job.)

The only serious issue when making the film involved Ian Hendry, who played Carter’s nemesis, the repugnant Eric Paice. It emerged that Hendry had a drink problem. He was a wreck physically, and was on the verge of collapse over the final days of shooting. Hendry envied Caine’s success, getting roles he coveted. Alcohol caused Hendry’s bitterness to surface when he acted opposite Caine. This affected their screen performances. Mike Hodges has clear memories of the build-up to first scene together:

We went to rehearse the scene. Ian arrived in Michael’s suite in the hotel and he was pretty drunk, and there was just chaos. He was so vitriolic. I said forget it, and we cancelled. Next day when they played the scene it was perfect. The clash between them really had an edge—and it was meant.

This was seen when, on camera, Carter/Caine abruptly reached forward and, removing Paice/Hendry’s sunglasses, called his eyes “piss holes in the snow”. Caine admitted: “That tension was because it’s a threatening insult to take someone’s glasses off. What I was saying is let’s look at your real eyes and see your real soul.” Hendry stares back humiliated.

Get Carter follows a London hoodlum, Jack Carter, who returns to his home town for his brother Frank’s funeral. The authorities are satisfied the death was accidental. Carter scents a rat and quickly turns avenging angel, ruthlessly murdering five people as well as framing a local crime boss for drug dealing. The plot was taken from the hard-boiled novel Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis, although Mike Hodges—who had a background in television current affairs programs—made substantial revisions which turned a middling crime story into an attempt to expose social ills. “The film is not just about the villain,” he said to one journalist. “It’s about observing the social structures and the deprivation of the country from which this character comes.”[4]

It was for this purpose events were shifted to Newcastle, the director playing on audience awareness of the recent “One-armed bandit murder” in Tyneside. The killing had brought to national attention underworld turf wars over the supply of lucrative slot machines to clubs, and police feared that the rivalry between London’s notorious Richardson and Kray gangs was spreading up through the industrial north. Adding a touch of authenticity to Get Carter, Hodges arranged to film scenes at Dryderdale Hall, the still furnished home of Vince Landa, the real crime boss targeted in the “One-armed bandit murder” who had fled overseas.[5]

Having introduced menacing overtones with an opening segment which uses Kray-lookalike actors, the film moves on to the British fixation with gambling. Carter encounters Newcastle hoodlums at a race meeting, then he visits a high-stakes card game privately run by the crime boss Cyril Kinnear, and later he meets a rival gang leader, Cliff Brumby, who boasts of controlling amusement arcades across the north. Women close to Carter’s deceased brother vegetate in an enormous bingo hall, while Carter learns the truth of his brother’s murder at a seedy betting shop. Prostitution, drugs and pornography enter the story’s frame along the way, but everything in this lean community seems circumscribed by gaming. Even the tacky boarding house where Carter stays overnight is named “The Las Vegas”.

Hodges used as his cinematographer Wolf Suschitzky, a veteran documentary cameraman, who breezed through scenes in swarming beery clubs and squalid dank alleys. He relished the challenge of filming in difficult interiors including a compact modern flat, a cramped postal agency, and the dark, poky rooms of a workingman’s house replete with peeling wallpaper and rising damp. Influenced by Bullitt, Hodges wanted long lenses to create evocative emphases. Suschitzky obliged, also using hand-held cameras in tight spaces to get a realistic edginess, and occasionally suggesting telling images be added, like showing screws tightened on a coffin lid. Passing figures and glimpsed faces were likewise important, Hodges having spent much time trawling for extras at workingmen’s clubs. “The details are what made the film,” he insisted.

This craftsmanship saw Tyneside visualised as a hard, deprived community where corruption is endemic. The only gardens and woods shown surround the homes of gangsters. Otherwise a grey smog perpetually hangs low over a crumbling urban environment of claustrophobic red-brick streets, the sad remains of industry in rusting decline, and—as a symbol of harsh progress—the multi-storey Trinity Square carpark, a brutalist tower in bare concrete rising over the town centre. Midway through the film Cliff Brumby, who has leased space at the top of this ugly structure, stands at its windows and tells Jack Carter he intends to profit from all they survey. Later Carter begins his rampage against the town’s corruption by throwing the smug gangster from that uninviting tower.

Hodges propels Get Carter to a shock end on a bleak beach used for dumping waste. A hitman with a high-powered rifle, hidden among dunes, picks off Jack with a single shot. Organised crime has suffered a setback, but it has not been purged.

William Friedkin had a couple of credible documentaries and modest films under his directing belt. Most accomplished was The Birthday Party of 1968, where, shooting in a claustrophobic English terrace house, the American transcribed Harold Pinter’s play into an unnerving film. If this low-budget risk-taking movie sank commercially, The Birthday Party did earn the thirty-five-year-old director professional respect. It remains the yardstick for how the theatre of the absurd can be adapted to cinema.

Casting about for another project Friedkin found himself talking with Philip D’Antoni, who was after a director. This television producer had jumped across to movies when Steve McQueen employed him to handle Bullitt. D’Antoni was eager to prove himself on his own account. He had just purchased the option on The French Connection, the best-selling investigative book about a sensational drug bust.[6] It told how the astute detective work of two New York cops, Eddie “Popeye” Egan and Salvator “Cloudy” Grosso, had led to 110 pounds of heroin being seized and an organised crime ring being caught in 1961. Late in the decade this was still America’s biggest narcotics bust.

The film would be adapted from Robin Moore’s book; although the way Friedkin tells it, he didn’t read a single page. Instead he talked with police who worked the case, which led to a projected re-enactment of the investigation metamorphosing into a taut drama about serious police work. Friedkin and D’Antoni commissioned a crime screenwriter to flesh out a script, then the pair set to selling the project. “We schlepped The French Connection around for two years,” Friedkin admits in his memoirs. “We took it to every studio and were rejected by all. We took it to the head of MGM … He was cordial, but had no interest.”[7] So the pair reluctantly agreed to drop the movie and go their separate ways.

Then D’Antoni sent Friedkin galleys for Shaft, a detective novel soon to be published. It was penned by Ernest Tidyman, a foreign news editor at the New York Times. Was there a movie in this? Friedkin agreed the story “had a feel for the mean streets of New York”.[8] Friedkin proposed that instead they pass the script for The French Connection, and Moore’s book, to Tidyman for a rewrite. They offered him $5000. A month later Tidyman delivered a virile fresh treatment, and six weeks after that Twentieth Century Fox took on the film.

When shooting of The French Connection began there was no screenplay or scripted dialogue, just Tidyman’s storyline, which supplied a plot structure, plus copious notes Friedkin had been making for over two years. The director prepared his lead actors, Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, by having them separately spend a fortnight accompanying the real detectives on the job. The then little-known actors were even taken on raids to learn how to operate in sleazy dives, joining Egan and Grosso as they rowdily barged in, frisked, questioned, insulted and unsettled petty crooks.

Friedkin had in mind a tightly paced work in the manner of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959) and Vive Sa Vie (1962), as well as Costa Gavras’s Z (1969). He was enthralled with cinema verité, how sometimes hidden cameras were used in noisy streets and tatty bars among unknowing passers by. So his cinematographer, Owen Roizman, found a news cameraman, Enrique Bravo, to handle some of the outdoor work. Bravo was instructed to deliver news-like footage that brought the viewer right into the action.

Setting much store in visual style, Friedkin valued spontaneity. He had the actors briefly run through a scene without the crew being present. When they were agreed on the performance, the director called in the camera crew and gave the order to film. “But the camera operator didn’t know where the actors were going to go,” he later said. He would have to simply follow the people and frame the shot as best he could. And that’s what gives the film its documentary flavour. The camera crew doesn’t know where people will be or where they’ll go. They have to follow them around.[9]

What Friedkin wanted was, in his own words, “induced documentary”. So it was two takes throughout. On several occasions he allowed a third take, although sometimes he left it at one. A lighting man prepared interiors, adding minimal illumination where needed, but otherwise the camera crew used only ambient lighting.

In his assigned shots Bravo met expectations by holding his camera and moving about. “You can see the shakiness sometimes,” Friedkin explained, “but it has a verisimilitude as if the camera has just happened upon the scene.” The former newsman told Roizman there was no need to set a cinecamera on the customary dolly and tracks when shooting along Madison Avenue and in the subway under Grand Central Station. Instead, Bravo sat in a wheelchair holding his camera as an assistant pushed him between pedestrians.

Having overseen Bullitt, Phil D’Antoni was relaxed about this unorthodox approach to location filming. He trusted in the professionalism of the crew. So there were no tensions between producer and director.

Egan and Grosso were a constant off-camera presence. The pair were given minor roles as a police lieutenant and a detective tailing the French drug smuggler. They weren’t the only real police to appear. In the scene portraying the raid on a rough bar, a hub for the illicit drug trade, off-duty narcotics cops played everyone in the room to ensure veracity. Even the mechanic at the police garage who dismantles the imported car used to smuggle drugs was played by the real mechanic who had found the stashed heroin.

Due to this informal police participation, the film crew didn’t bother over permission for traffic scenes. When the detectives are caught in a jam on the Brooklyn Bridge, several off-duty cops had just stopped their own cars and clogged the exit. Then, after the take, everyone started up their cars and the bridge cleared again. As for Popeye chasing the French killer, the film crew did it—in real traffic—without notifying anyone. On the sly, a cohort of willing policemen were all along Brooklyn’s 86th Street to ensure Popeye’s frantic drive beneath the elevated railway occurred without incident. They also fitted flashing lights to the roof of the car, leading bystanders and drivers to think a real police pursuit was under way.

While Friedkin set much store in visual style, there were still serious decisions about content—beginning with how New York was presented. The positive ambience of crime stories on 1960s television and film was shed: it was common to use manicured settings and pleasant sunny weather to reassure audiences, conveying the fundamental cleanness and honesty of American cities. Bullitt had been shot on tidy San Francisco streets during cloudless spring days. In comparison, The French Connection suggests from the opening scenes that all is futile: the city is shown throughout as dirty, dishevelled and decayed.

Friedkin admits his intention was “to give a different view of New York, all of the aspects, high and low … this was to be a crude poem to the city”. Shooting on the Lower East Side in Little Italy and the Bowery, as well as in mid-town Manhattan, Columbia Heights and Bushwick over in Brooklyn, and Ridgewood in Queens, this was far from a picture-postcard impression of New York. Even when using well-known streets, such as Broadway, Delancey Street, and Madison, Fifth and Park Avenues, Friedkin would not clean and primp the setting. Filming was scheduled for November 1970 to February 1971, when the wintry weather made locales look even worse. Most days were overcast, with a weak bleary light evident. It was also bitterly cold—at times you see the actors’ breath in the chill air.

The film trades heavily in social contrasts. This is pressed from the opening with an implied contrast between the black street dealers and the white mobsters high up the narcotics chain: the former are gathered in a scungy Brooklyn bar, whereas the latter feast at a glamorous nightclub. More telling still, detective Doyle’s meal consists of donuts as he waits for the mafioso and their wives to emerge from the club.

A contrast of high and low is constantly evident with the policemen and their criminal targets. This prompted the choice of Gene Hackman for the lead role, a solid performer from the theatre with a few bit parts in recent films. The producer had suggested Hollywood faces, but Friedkin considered a handsome star inappropriate for Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. He wanted someone in the mould of Jackie Gleeson, an actor who would project the sense of an average working guy, a rather vulgar, blinkered, at times irritating person—as Friedkin said:

The cop who has the badge is basically an obsessive, brutalising racist. The narcotics smuggler is a gourmet; he dresses well, he loves his wife, he’s in every imaginable way a charming human being. So I was constantly throughout the film playing that contrast.

Hence the audience is briefly shown Popeye Doyle, who has emerged half-drunk from a squalid waterfront speakeasy, returning home to bachelor’s clutter in Brooklyn’s Marlboro residential project. He lives in social housing. Meanwhile, we already know the international smuggler Charnier has a harbourside mansion near Marseilles, and then in New York he takes a suite at the plush Westbury Hotel on Manhattan’s East 69th Street.

The contrast between drug lord and cop is direct when Charnier dines in a mid-town restaurant. Through the window beside him we see Doyle on stake-out, watching from across First Avenue. Rugged up in winter clothing and stamping his cold feet as vapour puffs from his mouth, the policeman munches a slice of pizza from a paper bag. Then, as the Frenchman selects gateaux from a dessert trolley, the camera zooms from the restaurant meal to show Doyle outside tipping tepid coffee from a disposable cup onto the pavement in disgust.

The chief narrative challenges of making the film arose from the length of time, and sheer tedium, of a complex police investigation. The original case had taken over two years of surveillance with dozens of cops on shifts. Besides condensing this to an impression of long stake-outs, energetic sequences had to be devised to keep the cinema audience entertained.

The first is the table-of-suspects segment. It conveys a real dramatic energy, drawing the audience straight into the investigation. Set in the noisy Copacabana club on 60th Street, as the flamboyant trio The Three Degrees sings “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon”, the scene warrants close viewing.

Not only is Hackman’s acting perfect, but tight editing, measured camerawork, and the calculated use of sound is a demonstration piece in the craft of film. Popeye Doyle happily breezes into the club, flings off his porkpie hat, fools with a cigarette girl, pecks a quick kiss on her lips as his eyes automatically scope the room, then he’s drumming on the bar as drinks are poured, grinning from ear to ear. The camera jumps tightly between close-ups and mid-field shots of the glittery Motown singers, the off-duty cop, a table thick with laughing Italians, cash being splashed, their gaudy girlfriends. Next thing Popeye is telling Cloudy something is plain wrong about that group, and the decision to investigate occurs.

Much savoured by audiences and film professionals was a car racing across Brooklyn to catch a gunman fleeing aboard a train. Friedkin was cagy about why he inserted the frenzied chase, laughing off hints that D’Antoni, who produced Bullitt, had pushed him into it. However, when talking with the biographer of the Hollywood director Howard Hawks, Friedkin revealed his reasons. Friedkin was living with Hawks’s daughter Kitty when he made The French Connection, and there was friction between old and young directors. Then the studio veteran remarked that a chase sequence as in Bullitt would earn his respect: “Make a good chase. Make one better than anyone’s done.”[10]

Friedkin set to crafting a veristic pursuit which would leave McQueen’s efforts looking staged. Extended car chases didn’t occur in New York. Traffic was too heavy, but street cops told of catching criminals who boarded trains by racing ahead to the next station. So the pursuit beneath the elevated railway along 86th Street came about.

The French Connection finished with a striking gesture not used before in an American feature film. Stills of the criminal characters appeared on the screen with text listing their supposed sentences after trial. The intention was to unsettle audiences with a dose of hard reality by exposing the flawed justice system; because, despite conclusive evidence, the real mobsters in 1961 escaped conviction for drug trafficking. Most received fines or token sentences on only minor offences, and some got clean off without any charges upheld. Underworld rumours claimed the cashed-up heroin smugglers had bribed officials, even judges.

If Bullitt injected into American crime movies what audiences and critics considered a striking pictorial realism, in historical terms this frankly commercial film has significant contextual omissions. It was shot in spring 1968, seven months after San Francisco’s famed “Summer of Love”, although the movie is devoid of hippies. Members of this youth counter-culture were causing a visible inner-city residential problem, while Washington Square, featured in one scene, was a mecca for America’s flower children. Where are they?

The other manifest absence is signs of public distress over the assassination in Memphis of Martin Luther King. This had occurred during the third-last week of filming. Placards, posters and graffiti mourning the Civil Rights leader and protesting against racism spontaneously appeared across San Francisco. They were unmissable. As a cautionary move in case of rioting, extra uniformed police were put on the streets, and were highly visible. None of this affects Bullitt, a film insulated from current events.

It’s also worth noting how, aside from one doctor at the hospital, all the characters in Bullitt are white. This is significant as the years from 1968 to 1970 saw Hollywood shift towards more racially mixed casts in feature films set in the present day. Caused chiefly by three 1967 movies dealing with race relations and starring Sidney Poitier—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, To Sir With Love and In the Heat of the Night—the industry was being buffeted by the Civil Rights movement. The last film in this trio, a whodunit where an African-American detective from Philadelphia must solve a baffling murder for the racist sheriff of a backwoods Mississippi town, was technically not a crime film. Yet In the Heat of the Night did suggest that crime might establish the scene for a movie delving into changing values and social attitudes. In so doing it inadvertently highlighted how studio crime movies followed tired, repetitive formulas disconnected from life.

In their distinct ways, Get Carter and The French Connection directly met this challenge. Like In the Heat of the Night, both were feature films which used crime to touch on moral issues, although they did not compromise their value as entertainment: they had serious points to make, and the broader public did want to see them.

The 1960s were times of stress and transformation for American policing—the decade is especially remembered for police being used as a coercive force. This bridged political divides, as when Chicago’s mayor Richard Daley notoriously deployed 23,000 police and national guardsmen against 10,000 anti-war protesters wanting to rally outside the 1968 Democratic Party National Convention. When not active participants in volatile confrontations, police formed a pictorial frame for civil unrest during the period—newsroom editors could rely on photo-journalists to show uniformed officers in press photographs and television footage of public protests and marches.

Even as this attention heightened, law enforcement was feeling the pressures of reform. Historians dealing with change in America necessarily focus on the president, Lyndon Johnson, and his efforts to implement social change via the “Great Society”, his plan for the nation that he unveiled in 1964. Less attention falls upon Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the United States, whose reforms thoroughly reshaped American values. Having abandoned a promising political career to sit on the Supreme Court (he had been a certainty for vice-president), Warren was an old-style Republican, always protective of those moral liberties enshrined in the Constitution. His subsequent judgments earned enemies on high. Richard Nixon grew to loathe Earl Warren, and the feeling was mutual.

Warren had taken office as the Supreme Court was considering the controversial Brown v Board of Education of Topeka (1954). Eisenhower, who levered him into the court in late 1953, told this new Chief Justice to support the status quo. Disregarding all pressure, Warren’s court brought racial segregation in schools to a clamorous end. In the following two decades, Warren became renowned for numerous rulings in support of Civil Rights. Much to the enduring annoyance of public prosecutors and the police, between 1961 and 1967 the Warren court also carefully tightened the administration of criminal justice. Leading these rulings:

Mapp v Ohio (1961) forbade “unreasonable” searches and seizures by police.

Gideon v Wainwright (1963) required legal counsel to be provided for those who cannot afford it.

Brady v Maryland (1963) ruled the prosecution must provide to the defence all evidence that may exonerate the accused.

Massiah v United States (1964) ruled that police may not elicit from a suspect statements about him or herself.

Escobedo v Illinois (1964) forbade police from denying or obstructing a suspect’s access to legal counsel.

Schmerber v California (1966) forbade the use as evidence of blood samples obtained from the accused without their consent.

Miranda v Arizona (1966), which was consolidated with Westover v United States, Vignera v New York and California v Stewart, ruled that statements made by a defendant in police custody can be admissible at trial only if the defendant was informed of their right to consult with legal counsel, and of their right against self-incrimination, and that the defendant both understood these rights, and had voluntarily exercised or waived them. (Hence the phrase “reading the Miranda”.)

Katz v United States (1967) required judicial authorisation for police to use phone taps.

Through these eight rulings alone, each steeped in a prudent interpretation of the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court exerted an immediate and lasting influence upon police conduct across the United States. Whenever a suspect was henceforth read their rights by police, or allowed to consult legal counsel, it was due to Earl Warren.

On paper the premise for the Clint Eastwood film was straightforward. Take a street smart cop, a mature figure having difficulty adapting to reforms in criminal justice. Have this community guardian assigned to catch a crazed serial killer. Then have the cop need to break regulations so as to stop the psychopath on his violent spree. Raise in the film a conflict between public safety and a suspect’s rights, but also set the audience wondering whether a killer and a driven cop share the same behaviour. The French Connection and Get Carter would become qualitatively better films, but already at concept stage this parallel project reveals what might be called the moral form and pressure of its time.

Harry and Rita Fink, a husband-and-wife screenwriting duo, worked up a treatment for the proposed movie in 1968, intending to sell it on spec. Their fictitious New York detective was named Harry Callahan, and they gave their treatment the title Dead Right.

The script was purchased by a producer, Jennings Lang, who ran it by assorted actors. Not getting bites, he sold it on to the ABC television network, which, judging the violent plot too excessive for a broadcast movie, sold it on in turn to Warner Brothers. The company ran the treatment by Frank Sinatra, who had been wanting to star in a tough cop movie. He pounced, so Warner Brothers lined up Irwin Kershner as his director.

Then Sinatra insisted on script changes, substantial ones, and using other writers, too. Four complete rewrites and twelve months later, Sinatra walked away from the project, no explanation given. Kershner followed, but the studio was now committed to the film. It was urgent they find a new lead actor. The Callahan role was offered to Steve McQueen then Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster and Paul Newman among others. All felt it too violent, although Newman suggested Clint Eastwood, who was broadening his screen persona. The cowboy actor had recently taken roles in a Second World War action thriller Where Eagles Dare, then Play Misty for Me where, in one of his best performances, Eastwood played a disc jockey stalked by an unbalanced fan.

Warner Brothers announced in mid-December 1970 that Eastwood had taken over the role, with his own company producing the film and Don Siegel as director. The multiple rewrites made for Sinatra were binned. Eastwood returned to the original treatment and developed from that, stepping up violence while downplaying the reflections on morality, social change and the law. It moved quickly into production, and filming began in April 1971. The movie’s setting was moved to San Francisco, and the title was altered to Dirty Harry.

Unlike Bullitt, Get Carter and The French Connection, which each involved gang activity and the fallout from organised crime, Eastwood’s movie focused on a solitary psychotic killer. In this choice Dirty Harry alluded to the then current “Zodiac” investigation, a San Francisco police hunt for a serial killer who was preying upon young women and courting couples. The film was excessive in its portrayal of violence, earning a justified “R” classification when released; although nowadays it is broadcast without cuts on Australian television.

Contrasts with the pleasant metropolis depicted in Bullitt were conspicuous. San Francisco was now portrayed with the boozy neon-lit strip clubs of Broadway, dingy alleyways in which urban hobos and Hispanic prostitutes linger, and parks where gays cruise by night. There was also a sinister variant of the chase sequence, where, following instructions from a killer-kidnapper, Eastwood must run through the labyrinthine inner city late at night to deliver a ransom. This led him to a violent encounter with the heavily armed criminal.

Apart from some office scenes and a bank robbery, which were handled in studios at Hollywood, all was shot on location. Get Carter and The French Connection may have been more inventive in their camerawork, although Dirty Harry excelled in sequences filmed on location at night. A much-admired moment was when a cameraman in a helicopter hovering over a sports field used his zoom lens to draw back from detective confronting criminal, reducing these figures into blackness within the sprawling nocturnal city.

Dirty Harry starts with the shooting of a young bikini blonde using the rooftop swimming pool of a swish hotel. Police find a rifle shell casing on the roof of an adjacent skyscraper, and a note from someone calling himself “Scorpio”, threatening to kill either an African-American or a priest unless he is paid $100,000. The investigation begins.

Where Get Carter and The French Connection modelled criminals on real underworld figures, taking care to be accurate, Scorpio is invented. And it shows. Wearing a prominent peace sign as his belt buckle, this seemingly average youth in his early twenties in a twisted way shares the anti-authority values of the counter-culture.[11] Behind hip clothing and a cheery smile Scorpio is an unlikable, calculating racist who revels in violence and chaos.[12] This may play well in a commercial movie, although he is a fictional menace, an updated version of the rakish villain from melodrama.

There are recurring patterns to the attacks of serial killers, although the script makes Scorpio a threat to society as a whole. Embracing both high and low, shootings occur at a luxury hotel and among social housing. Turning against the counter-culture, Scorpio also makes failed attempts to target people in Washington Square, the park celebrated in Richard Brautigan’s 1967 novel Trout Fishing in America, the hippie bible. Later he buries alive a teenager in the Golden Gate Park, site of the “Summer of Love” festival four years earlier.

And unlike real serial killers who keep picking one type of victim, as if using a template, Scorpio’s targets are varied. After shooting a Caucasian girl of about twenty, he unsuccessfully targets a young gay African-American couple, then kills a ten-year-old African-American boy, followed by a fourteen-year-old Caucasian girl, takes hostage seven ethnically diverse youngsters (including Asian and Hispanic children) with their female driver in a primary school bus, before finishing with a Caucasian boy fishing by a pond. In keeping with the conventions of stage villainy—and in traditional folk tales of witches and demons—these are vulnerable and innocent victims.

The impetus for Dirty Harry’s script may have been the mounting difficulties in police work. The Warren reforms were highlighted in that exchange between Callahan and the District Attorney, where the detective is pulled up for breaking Escobedo, Miranda and the Fourth Amendment. Another short scene has a policeman’s wife speak of stress within their marriage due to growing animosity towards authority:

Whatever it takes to be a cop’s wife, I’m not sure I’m making it. He really tries, and these bastards, y’know, it’s “Pig this” and “Pig that”. The thing is when I watch him walk out that door at night, I think “What if this is the last time I see him?”

Elsewhere in the film a point is well made about media double standards. The press are too willing to believe false accusations levelled at decent cops doing their job; a killer is treated as innocent until shown otherwise, although police are considered guilty until proven innocent.

Nevertheless, Inspector Callahan is hardly the character to build a moral case on. Eastwood’s fans defend Dirty Harry as portraying a man of principle struggling to uphold decency in a morally conflicted society. This is to overlook Callahan’s appalling behaviour. The detective mocks to his face a man about to commit suicide. Callahan also habitually taunts armed criminals he has cornered, aiming his gun and daring them fire the first shot. And we watch him torture Scorpio in one of those stomach-turning violent scenes which earned the film its “R” rating. Callahan may claim he is called “Dirty Harry” due to his getting the “dirty” police jobs, but it looks as if the moniker refers to his brutality.

Much about Harry Callahan is conveyed by his attire—after all, clothes do make the man in Eastwood’s films. Who can forget those Spaghetti westerns where he played a cheroot-smoking drifter wearing a dark, straight-brimmed Spanish sombrero and patterned Mexican poncho? It became an instant signature style.

Detective Inspector Callahan is conservatively—and unexcitingly—dressed on the job. Not for him the suede casual jacket, polo-neck jumper and hush puppies of Frank Bullitt. His appearance is almost ascetic.[13] Most scenes have Callahan in tweed or herringbone jackets with slacks and carefully knotted tie, in fact, he is displeased after foiling a hold-up because a bandit fired at him with a shotgun, causing his neat grey trousers to be speckled with blood. Then there is the final foot chase and shootout through a cement works, where Eastwood memorably wears a three-piece coffee-brown suit.

A man with an attitude problem, Harry Callahan is not a warm person. Tenderness, sorrow and sentiment are anathema to what openly is a synthetic character. When someone offers sympathy, his wife having been killed by a drunk driver, the detective brushes aside kind words with fatal resignation. Callahan is gruff on the job, and contemptuous with superiors. The city mayor refers to his previous rough treatment of suspects, telling him to exercise restraint this time, although Callahan is argumentative. No wonder he is disliked on high.

Before being allowed to hunt for Scorpio, Callaghan is given a fresh partner, Chico Gonzalez, a graduate on the fast track. (“Just what I needed. A college boy.”) He is to ensure the seasoned cop adheres to correct legal procedure. However, Harry leads his young guide astray, resulting in a reckless shootout from which Gonzalez barely escapes with his life.

Callahan is simply incapable of adapting to change, much being conveyed in a symbolic shot late in the movie. The camera pans over a paddock of bison, remnants of an animal which once ruled the country, yet now borders on extinction. A connection with the disgruntled detective is unmistakable. Sure enough, having chased down and shot Scorpio dead, Callaghan realises at the film’s end that he cannot cope with the new order. As a last gesture he flings his police badge into a pond of murky effluent. He is leaving the force.

Get Carter proved a resounding hit with the British public. Attendances were so strong that cinema screening schedules were increased. In central London, the film was actually shifted out of Leicester Square to a Shaftesbury Avenue venue with much higher seating capacity. Across the midlands and throughout the north people flocked to see Get Carter. There hadn’t been a turnout like this since before television. In industrial Tyneside, where the film was set, ticket sales suggested every adult viewed it at least once.

This performance did not impress MGM, which was fixated with box office returns in the United States, where Get Carter bombed. The film was mismanaged by the distributors, who only released the film on drive-in circuits as a support feature to Dirty Dingus Magee, the lacklustre western credited with finishing Frank Sinatra’s movie career. Failure was guaranteed. This sidelining of Get Carter was probably linked with MGM’s plans for the storyline—the company had already decided to use the plot for a quickie Blaxploitation film. So, as the original British movie was completing its dismal American run, Hit Man, a funky Afro-rejig produced by Gene Corman (younger brother of Roger), was being shot in Los Angeles.

The French Connection soared upon release. Produced on a lean budget of $1.8 million, it pulled $51.7 million at the box office. This made it the third-highest grossing film of 1971, exceeded only by the musical Fiddler on the Roof, and the latest James Bond romp Diamonds are Forever. The film went on to take the Academy Awards for Best Director (Friedkin), Best Actor (Hackman), Best Film Editing, as well as the coveted award for Best Picture. Ernest Tidyman, who had whipped up the treatment that got the film funding, even hooked an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Critics across America delivered mixed judgments on Dirty Harry. The younger ones thought it thrilling entertainment, although mature reviewers condemned the screen violence and deplored its moral values. They were not alone. While the crew and cast of The French Connection were accepting their Oscars, a small rally was staged outside the venue by hippies and college students. Dirty Harry was the target of their ire. Waving banners calling Clint Eastwood’s fictional detective a “rotten pig”, the protesters chanted for his film to be banned. There was awkwardness with uniformed police assigned to crowd control, not to mention people milling around the hall wanting to catch sight of movie stars, although a whoop went up when it emerged that the disputed crime movie had taken no Oscars.

Still, Eastwood’s effort was profitable. So there was talk of taking Inspector Callahan out of his retirement and doing a sequel. Beginning with Magnum Force in 1973, four of them would be made. Meanwhile production started of similar themed vengeance films.[14] Taxi Driver would be the most critically renowned, although audiences flocked to the Death Wish films starring Charles Bronson. In each case, legal red tape obstructed police from dealing with dangerous thugs, so a frustrated citizen—invariably a solitary male—begins secretly stalking the criminals.

That this succession of vengeance films gave voice to distrust of the reformed legal system was not missed. Contrasting the new genre with earlier cowboy movies, the leading critic and movie historian Joan Mellen pointed out:

Violence in Westerns was usually presented as necessary because the system of justice, the judges and juries, the lawyers and the law, had been appropriated by evil, greedy men, and this was supposedly possible only because the community was not yet civilised. Today the hero takes the law into his own hands because the community is too civilised, the law too compassionate and understanding of criminals … With cities disintegrating, police forces are not enough to keep order.[15]

The formulaic nature of these productions was obvious. Reviewers pointed to how the Dirty Harry sequels reused aspects of the initial film. Callahan would pursue a group of killer hippies, or hunt down renegade police. Even scene ideas were repeated. Blondes in bikinis again were shot as they cavorted in a swimming pool; and, like Gonzalez in the first movie, Callahan has another young partner shot by a would-be hippie with a machine gun. What changed was the escalating violence, which was theatrically exaggerated. In the climax of the third film Callahan aims a bazooka at a young criminal and blows him to pieces.

Of course, what had been lost sight of was the initial impulse which caused crime films to change in 1968–70, that driving ideal of cinema verite, an urgent wish for truth: to show real locations as they were, depict real criminals as they behaved, present real crimes that were affecting society deeply, portray real detectives coping with genuine difficulties in current police work, putting the audience in a cinematic situation which so overwhelms with seeming reality that it jars viewers, and sets them thinking.


[1] All quotes by Peter Yates are from the director’s audio commentary, Bullitt (DVD), Warner Bros, 2005.

[2] American films looked to the characters Kyozo in Seven Samurai and Sanjuro in Yojimbo. See Joan Mellen, Big Bad Wolves: Masculinty in the American Film, Elm Tree, London, 1978, pp.267-68.

[3] Unless indicated, all quotes by Mike Hodges, Michael Caine and Wolf Suschitsky are from the audio commentary, Get Carter (DVD), Warner Bros, 2009. If the film was initially produced and distributed by MGM, ownership of the video and DVD versions has been passed to Warner Brothers.

[4] Stephen Chibnall, Get Carter, I.B.Tauris, London, 2003, p.7.

[5] Chibnall, Get Carter, op.cit., p.57.

[6] William Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir, 2014, pp.142-43.

[7] Friedkin, Friedkin Connection, op.cit., pp.149.

[8] Friedkin, Friedkin Connection, op.cit., pp.149.

[9] Unless indicated, all remaining quotes by William Friedkin and Gene Hackman are from the audio commentary, The French Connection (DVD), Twentieth Century Fox, 2003.

[10] Todd McCarthy, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Grove Press, New York, 2000, p.625.

[11] Joan Mellen suggests this new personification of evil typifies American film of the late 1960s onward. Mellen, Big Bad Wolves, op.cit., pp.24-5.

[12] Mellen, Big Bad Wolves, op.cit., p.24.

[13] Mellen, Big Bad Wolves, op.cit., p.295.

[14] Mellen, Big Bad Wolves, op.cit., pp.24-5, 294-310.

[15] Mellen, Big Bad Wolves, op.cit., p.12.

4 thoughts on “From Bullitt to Dirty Harry via the Supreme Court

  • en passant says:

    We need a Dirty Harry in Melbourne these days

  • Jody says:

    You have one: Julian Burnside. He’s about as close to that description as a lawyer as it’s possible to get.

  • pgang says:

    Bullitt – the pinnacle of Hollywood’s achievements in my opinion.

  • Edward Carson says:

    An enjoyable and educational read including a lot of interesting trivia.
    I suppose you didn’t want to clutter it too much with irrelevant information, but in mentioning Steve McQueen doing his own driving of the Mustang in Bullitt, I was expecting you to mention that his antagonist driving the Charger, actor Bill Hickman, also did his own driving. Hickman was also in The French Connection playing the Federal agent Popeye (Hackman) argues with and later accidental shoots and kills in the final scene.

    Speaking of police brutality, I respectfully submit you may have gone over the top in referring to the Eastwood character’s “appalling behaviour” in Dirty Harry. The detective “mocking” a potential jumper was only a method to get close without appearing as someone who would try to stop him jumping. Taunting an armed bank robber would hardly be on the high end of the immorality scale, especially when it included the warning of the almost guarantee of death if Harry’s gun was loaded in the felon’s further resistance.
    However, I was really surprised that you took the ‘bleeding heart -civil libertarian’ side with regards to the torture scene. True, if you were writing for The Conversation you would get little negative feedback for such a comment, but otherwise this has been a point of debate lasting for many years after the films release. When undertaking the subject Legal Philosophy at Monash around 1999, I remember our law professor introducing the subject of the film, which he apparently only recently seen for the first time, and declaring that the ethical ramifications of the torture scene was something he could not easily be sure of.
    Just to reiterate Christopher: girl kidnapped, kidnapper positively identified and in police custody, kidnapper refuses to divulge location of girl, girl slowly dying. What do police do: torture a felon to hopefully save an innocent person’s life, or respect the felon’s civil rights to remain silent because we now are a more compassionate, civilised community learning to understand criminals.

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