Monday, February 2, 2015

Reflections on law and order in 'Dirty Harry'

I saw Dirty Harry a few weeks back. It's not one of my favourites, but it caught my attention at once. The film is about a police inspector (played by Clint Eastwood in probably his best known role) who works in San Francisco. The inspector, Harry Callahan, is given a nickname: "Dirty Harry".

He's a no-nonsense officer who believes in handling tough situations hands-down. We see this in the first half of the film. Three people are robbing a bank. Callahan sees this. He walks out of a restaurant. Shoots them. In broad daylight. Without as much as a by-your-leave. Classic.

When Dirty Harry was first released, it became controversial. At a time when Hollywood's core values were changing (and changing fast), Clint Eastwood's performance proved too much. It was criticised. Heavily.

This didn't dent its popularity, of course. Eastwood became a sensation overnight, and it spawned a series. It provoked debate. Fierce debate. The conflict between law and justice is so hackneyed today that I suppose Dirty Harry's take on it has been taken up by other films. Still, the film makes us think. For me, forever confused about why law and justice are at odds with each another (when they shouldn't be), this was the film's biggest strength.

Eastwood is hard-bitten. We don't know his past, except that his wife died in a car crash some years back. He rarely gets bitter, and when he does, it's almost always because he is frustrated by routine and protocol. Which is where the story of the film takes off.

We live in a world where justice takes a slow, arduous journey. Always. This is true especially when criminals are concerned. Harry Callahan can't suffer this. He wants immediate, on-the-moment solution. This blinds him to the realities of the "system" he works for, and in his obsessive search for an eye-for-an-eye end to a case, he forgets that as much as the Establishment wants to eliminate crime, it also recognises the criminal as part of the system and hence must learn to respect him too.

The criminal in Dirty Harry is a serial killer called "Scorpio". He wants 100,000 dollars; if not, he will kill either a Catholic priest or an African-American boy. When Callahan's first attempt to catch him goes wrong, he kidnaps a girl and revises the ransom to 200,000 dollars. The rest of the story is a cat-and-mouse game between Callahan and Scorpio, and while it doesn't end on a happy note, Callahan ends his search for justice. The way he wants.

It's not easy, though. He is forced to work outside authority. The system's obsession over protocol frustrates him. He breaks into filth, and as the story goes on, we see why he has been given the nickname "Dirty Harry". In a classic encounter on top of an apartment building, he says the most unlikely thing to a would-be suicidée: "You're the one who wants to get yourself killed. Not me. Always happens with you guys. The last minute you want to grab onto somebody, take somebody with you. Down you go. Not me!" He provokes the suicidée to lash at him, and saves him.

Police officers value emotion over reason, instinct over logic. There are some who piece together facts and make out a pattern in a crime, but that type of law-dispensers is out of fashion these days. Callahan is no Sherlock Holmes. He works on instinct. Doesn't suffer mediocrity. Can get brutally indifferent. Never says "sorry". Disregards protocol. Even when it's clear that he should not take the law into his own hands.

The film also asks us questions. Hard-hitting questions. At a time when the butcher's knife is seen as a better dispenser of justice than the law, Dirty Harry asks them frankly. Too frankly. If it is the end-goal of any legal system to extract eye for eye in some way and grant compensation, why do we afford protection to those who flout laws? We ask this question when Callahan pins a wounded Scorpio to the ground and the killer cries out in pain:

I want a lawyer. I have the right for one. I have the right to a lawyer! I have rights. I want a lawyer!

Callahan doesn't care, of course. This nearly costs him his job after being told that he paid no attention to Scorpio's "Miranda rights" (the "you have the right to remain silent" warning) and denied him legal and medical counsel. The law does not tolerate rights-infringements, even if those rights belong to the criminal. Thus, in a classic volte-face, the District Attorney lets Scorpio go. "That's the law," he says. Callahan's reply? "The law's crazy!"

Yes, it is. It is "crazy" because in a world that clearly is out of balance, a balance between criminal and victim is demanded. Callahan knows this. The debate between victim and criminal has been raging on for decades now, and for the lack of a better alternative, the law has always taken the latter's side whenever his/her rights are infringed.

The premise is this: anything beyond what the law considers allowable is criminal. Questions of what the law should consider as allowable and whether there is any moral, objective law that transcends man-made notions of good and bad are peripheral here. What is important is this: even within the out-of-limits criminal world, the law must recognise protection for the criminal.

This provokes other questions. What exactly is "protection"? What are its limits? Just where should criminals be recognised for what they are and treated "differently"? Should they be treated differently at all? And does this mean we should treat them brutally, even inhumanly?

Dirty Harry doesn't ask these questions. We do. The film doesn't give us answers either. And we can't find them. In the end, we are left with Callahan and Scorpio in one final encounter. Callahan ends it with a question. He has asked it before. He asks it again when Scorpio is wounded and tries to get his pistol to kill Callahan:

I know what you're thinking, punk. You're thinking, did he fire six shots or only five? And to tell you the truth, I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and it'll blow your head clean off, you could ask yourself a question: do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

Scorpio takes his chance. Callahan fires his sixth shot. End of story.

There probably are hundreds of Harry Callahans out there. They don't come out. Not that easily. When they do, however, they are given spotlight. Sensationalised. And, eventually, discouraged. As they should be, some will say. We have to go with the law. We have no alternative. Until we do, we'll have to wait.

But if we can't wait for the law to meet up with justice, the only alternative we have is to take the law into our own hands. When we do that, as Callahan frequently does, we are acting outside the law. And let's face it: those acting outside the law are criminals. Which means that those who want to see justice, technically, are outlaws too. Outlaws can't wear police badges.

Maybe that's why, after killing Scorpio, Callahan does what he should. He throws his badge into a river. With contempt. Apt.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, January 30 2015