An alternative journey through SAN FRANCISCO seen from the perspective of DIRTY HARRY filming locations

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Directed by Don Siegel in 1971 and shot almost entirely on location in San Francisco, DIRTY HARRY – starring Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson, Harry Guardino, Reni Santoni and John Vernon – has been universally recognized as one of the greatest crime thrillers of all time.

555 California Street – scene of Scorpio`s opening gambit.

The film continues to enjoy worldwide cult status to this day and its leading character, Harold “Dirty Harry” Callahan, has emerged as a cinematic legend and Hollywood icon. It is arguably Eastwood’s signature role.

DIRTY HARRY is essentially the story of a maverick police officer (Harry Callahan) and his obsessive determination to take out – at any cost – a psychotic killer (Scorpio) who is terrorizing the population of San Francisco and holding city officials to ransom to the sum of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Noted for its “anti-establishment” edge and unconventional attitudes towards law enforcement, the film is said to be, with Eastwood’s approval, a tacit protest at the overtly liberal political atmosphere of the time (which was) fuelling a justice system seemingly more intent on protecting the rights of suspects and criminals than helping the victims of violent crime.

The first time I saw DIRTY HARRY something struck home. The moment Inspector Callahan drew his .44 Magnum to pick off that trio of bank robbers while still chewing a hotdog I knew instantly this was unlike any character I’d ever seen before on screen.

Callahan is contemptuous towards authority and despises petty bureaucracy which he blames for stifling the law and denying true justice. Heis thus compelled to serve up his own vision of justice, which is highly effective, but violates established procedure and triggers conflict with the powers that be.

Yet, despite his firebrand methods and disdain for the establishment he works for, Harry Callahan is dedicated to his profession and is a staunch upholder of law and order; he simply disagrees with his superiors on the best way of administering it.

Callahan would argue that his morality is higher than that of the law-makers because he is doing exactly what people want: removing, by whatever means, dangerous elements from the streets. He both protects the law while opposing flaws in the system; a paradox central to the character and film.

A propensity to question the established order of things, as well as having the courage to stand by his convictions and act upon them, are two of Callahan’s most endearing characteristics. He is the champion of a suppressed righteousness. In this day and age, as western society slides even deeper into a quagmire of blind subservience, politically-correct madness, and nanny-state apathy, Harry Callahan is, despite his fictitious nature, a beacon of light.

At the same time, I also harbour, disturbingly, a modicum of deference for the second big personality of the film – psycho-killer Scorpio. Not for his murderous acts of course, but purely for his cunning and the sheer audacity of his deluded schemes. The scale of Scorpio’s psychological malfunction is impressive. Calm, collected, and softly-spoken one moment, deranged and insanely volatile the next, heis the quintessential down-on-his-luck lunatic in the advanced stages of psychotic meltdown.

Condor Club, Roaring 20’s, Big Al’s, Hungry i Club – Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133.

Andy Robinson’s performance as Scorpio is magnificent. Director Don Siegel apparently cast Robinson in the role because he wanted the killer to possess “the face of a choirboy”. Almost breaking down on camera at times, Robinson’s portrayal was so convincing he reportedly received several death threats long after the film’s release. As Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel noted, it was “terrific nut-job acting”.

Thus we have two highly compelling characters facing off in a war of attrition that keeps you gripped from start to finish. Combine this powerful undercurrent with a riveting overall plot, superb setting (San Francisco), a magnificent soundtrack courtesy of composing legend Lalo Schifrin, and we have at our disposal a cinematic tour de force.

The film just seemed to have it all, a perfect combination. This feeling of completeness is rare and inexplicable. You just know when a film pushes all the right buttons. It penetrates the senses, permeates the core, seeps into your bones. There it stays for life.

Personal interest in the film soon turned into fascination. Fascination became obsession, which manifested in a vow I made to myself and to others: that one day I would walk the streets of San Francisco and hunt down some of the film’s principle shooting locations. A strong desire to pay homage to this great film was matched by an equally compelling urge to explore a city which had so brazenly grabbed my attention.

One of Eastwood’s stipulations for accepting the role of Harry Callahan was that the film be shot in San Francisco as opposed to New York or Seattle. It was a wise choice; the city provides the perfect backdrop for the panoramic shots for which the film has become critically acclaimed.

Replica Arch – a reminder of the former glory of Kezar Stadium.

The concept of this blog is therefore the fulfilment of that vow. In 2010, during a round-the-world backpacking trip, I landed in San Francisco with only one thing in mind – DIRTY HARRY. Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower and the myriad of other attractions San Francisco has to offer are certainly compelling, but they weren’t the reasons I’d come.

My priorities had already been established long before. My thoughts were elsewhere, way beyond “traditional” San Francisco. I wanted to see the city from the perspective of DIRTY HARRY, not merely to tread the well-beaten tourist track.

No sooner had my backpack been dumped in the nearest cheap hotel, I headed straight to the first destination – the Cross in Mount Davidson Park, this unsung San Francisco landmark that featured in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes. Even though I’d never before set foot in the city, approaching the 30-metre-high concrete Cross for the first time felt like a massive dose of déjà vu. A double-dipped religious experience.

For the next four days, map in hand, I criss-crossed the city of San Francisco in a frenzied hunt, tracking down another thirteen locations and accumulating enough material to assemble a blog.

And as expected this was a great way to experience the “real” San Francisco away from the tourist trails. From the gritty streets of the Tenderloin neighbourhood (the city’s skid row) to the affluence of North Beach and the hilly suburbs; from the hustle and bustle of Chinatown and Broadway to the architectural splendour of the Civic Center and the mega-structures of downtown’s Financial District, an improvised DIRTY HARRY tour will take you to all four corners of San Francisco and provide a detailed cross-section of the city’s fabric.

Plaque to Fallen San Francisco Police Officers, HALL OF JUSTICE

San Francisco is a diverse, sophisticated and uniquely beautiful city which must surely rank as one of the world’s great urban centres.

While the blog may seem targeted at hardcore DIRTY HARRY enthusiasts who will fully understand the rationale behind this venture, I hope also that it will serve as a suitable introduction to those with no or little prior knowledge of the film. Everyone has their individual taste, that is fact, but it’s definitely a film worthy of attention not least because of its legendary status and prominence in the annals of cinematic history.

But don’t merely take my word for it. Gorillaz, a band of contemporary genius, released two tracks – “Clint Eastwood” (2001) and “Dirty Harry” (2005) – in honour of the man and film. 

Welcome to the cult of Clint. May name is Malcolm Czopinski. I currently live in north-east England. Email: mczopinski@hotmail.com

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