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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

DVD Pick: The Dirty Harry Collection

Dirty Harry is one of the most iconic cops in the history of cinema and Warner Bros have just released a DVD box set of all five movies entitled The Dirty Harry Collection.

It is a pretty lavish affair and if you are a fan of the character or Clint Eastwood then it is well worth purchasing.

WARNING: There are spoilers in this review, so if you haven’t seen any of the films then be warned.

DIRTY HARRY (1971)

The first and best of the series saw Clint Eastwood take on the role of Harry Callahan – a no-nonsense cop in San Francisco who has to deal with a rooftop sniper named Scorpio.

The success of the film took his career to another level, establishing him as one of the major box office stars of the 1970s.

It remains a landmark cop film that influenced a generation of filmmakers with films like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and Speed all being inspired by it to some degree.

Revisiting the film is interesting experience – the craft of the film is quite striking and for director Don Siegel it was the high watermark of his long collaboration with Eastwood.

As a police procedural thriller it is is slick, absorbing and tightly plotted. There is very little narrative waste here but visually it is interesting too. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees and director Siegel make great use of the fabulous San Francisco locations.

The low lit night time sequences are also unusually dark – an interesting foretaste when you consider Eastwood’s fondness for low lighting as a director in later years.

As an actor Eastwood brings the same dry, distant quality that he brought to the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. The loner cop figure can be seen as an extension of the bounty hunter figure from those films – a violent avenger who understands the blurry differences between justice and the law.

As for the villain, Andy Robinson is remarkably creepy as Scorpio, with his childlike insults and temper tantrums. The clash between the cop and the sniper is interesting as it is Harry who behaves in a way that is deemed unacceptable in the eyes of the law.

It was this sense of moral ambiguity and the underlying rage at bureaucracy in the wake of the Miranda and  Escbedo rulings in the 60s (the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney) that gave ammunition to the films’ critics.

Most notably, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker loathed the film, denouncing it as a:

“right-wing fantasy [that is] a remarkably simple-minded attack on liberal values”

Viewing the film now, these criticisms seem a little outlandish, but there is no doubt that the film does touch on the cultural conflicts of the times. Scorpio abuses Harry as a ‘pig’, wears a CND peace sign on his belt and also knows the rights that have been given to him by the liberal 60s.

But the film and the central character are more libertarian than right wing: Harry hates the complacency and opportunism of his bosses; is perturbed by the lack of concern towards the victim’s rights; plus, there also seems to be a lingering class resentment towards his superiors, especially in the scene where he argues with the District Attorney and a Judge.

Another aspect of the film that doesn’t often get talked about is the violence. Although by today’s standards the acts depicted on screen seem relatively tame, the sadistic behaviour of Scorpio is disturbing. He shoots a young black boy in the head, leaves a 14-year old girl to suffocate to death, hijacks a school bus and revels in his own cruelty.

Although based on the Zodiac killer, he seems to represent a new kind of murderer ushered in by Charles Manson – one who was concerned with their public notoriety as much as they were with brutalizing the innocent.

But interestingly the film points out parallels between cop and killer – they both loners who hate authority and they both break the law, albeit to very different ends. It is worth noting that Harry only brings Scorpio to justice when he is on leave and effectively outside the law.

It is also fascinating to view this film after Zodiac, the film which last year explored the killings that inspired Dirty Harry.

There are a number of intriguing parallels: Don Siegel’s film contracts to a vivid resolution whilst David Fincher’s keeps expanding to an inconclusive mystery; Harry and Scorpio represent two different sides of the same violent coin whilst Dave Toschi, Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery form a triangle of characters obsessed by a lone killer who is never truly revealed; and whilst Dirty Harry is a thriller with political overtones, Zodiac is a drama with existential vibes. Both are very different but still somehow connected.

Like a lot of first films in a series, it remains the best and none of the successive Harry films could match it.

Here are some facts about it:

  • Frank Sinatra was originally meant to play Harry but had to pull out because of a hand injury. John Wayne and Paul Newman then declined the role which then went to Clint Eastwood.
  • As Harry foils the bank robbery near the beginning of the film, he walks past a theatre showing Play Misty for Me, which Eastwood directed and starred in.
  • Writer John Milius made a major contribution to the film (as well as Dirty Harry’s mystique). He wrote the lines Harry quotes to punks about “Did he fire six shots or five?” and the immortal “Do you feel lucky, punk?
  • The Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver Harry uses is not actually considered a practical weapon for police officers due to the excessive recoil which makes re-aiming at the target difficult.
  • When director Don Siegel fell ill during the shoot, Clint Eastwood took over and directed the scene where Harry rescues a would-be suicide jumper and the encounter with a homosexual in Mt. Davidson Park.
  • Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood cast Andrew Robinson for the role of Scorpio after seeing him in a production of Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s The IdiotRobinson was so convincing that he received death threats after the film was released.
  • The line where Scorpio says “My, that’s a big one” when Callahan removes his gun was an ad-lib by Andrew Robinson. The crew cracked up laughing at the double entendre but the line stayed.
  • Scorpio’s real name is never revealed through out the entire movie – the end credits simply list him as “killer”.
  • The gravel pit at the end of the film was a place Clint had gone to as a child with his parents.
  • The final scene where Harry throws his badge in the river is a homage to a similar scene from High Noon but Clint was uneasy about doing it until he was convinced otherwise by Siegel.
  • Albert Popwell who plays the ‘punk’ Harry taunts in the bank sequence would go on to appear in every “Dirty Harry” film except The Dead Pool – playing a different character in each movie.

MAGNUM FORCE (1973)

In what seemed to be a reaction to the criticisms of Dirty Harry, the plot of Magnum Force saw Harry dealing with evil inside the police force as a group of vigilante traffic cops take the law into their own hands by killing criminals who seem beyond the law.

The film was directed by Ted Post, who also directed Clint in TV’s Rawhide and Hang ‘Em High. Although it isn’t as good as the first one, it is still of some interest.

Although it was probably a coincidence, in retrospect the plot seems to tap into the distrust of authority in the early 70s with the Watergate scandal about to end the Nixon presidency.

More interestingly, the screenplay was written by John Milius (who worked uncredited on the original film) and Michael Cimino – two writers who would go on to direct war movies that some found to be conservative (The Deer Hunter) or right wing (Red Dawn).

The vigilante officers or Magnum Force of the title also feature actors who would go on to greater fame such as Tim Matheson, David Soul and Robert Urich. Hal Holbrook also turns up in a memorable role as Harry’s boss Lt Briggs.

It moves along at a fair pace although the editing and direction are not in the same class as the first film.

Here are some facts:

  • At one point when Harry is in his apartment by himself, he looks at a photo of him and his wife: the only time the audience ever gets to see the late Mrs. Callahan who was mentioned in the previous film.
  • Harry’s tagline for this film was “A man’s got to know his limitations”, or variations on this phrase. This replaced the line from the first film “Do you feel lucky?”.
  • David Soul‘s performance as one of the vigilante cops, led to his being cast as Detective Ken Hutchinson in the classic cop series Starsky and Hutch (1975).
  • According to writer John Milius, the reason the sex scene with the Asian woman is in the script is because Clint Eastwood received many fan letters from Asian women that contained sexual propositions.

THE ENFORCER (1976)

The final Dirty Harry film of the 1970s sees Callahan take on a group of left wing revolutionaries called The People’s Revolutionary Strike Force, who start to terrorise San Francisco.

It also sees Harry team up with a female partner, Insp. Kate Moore (Tyne Daly), so whilst the film was swinging back to the right politically, it also made concessions to feminism in the 70s.

Directed by James Fargo, it is a much more perfunctory film than it’s predecessors although it does have some memorable moments, especially the climax on Alcatraz prison.

Here are some facts:

  • Originally titled ‘Moving Target’, the script was left for Eastwood at his Carmel restaurant, The Hog’s Breath Inn, by two aspiring screenwriters, (Gail Morgan Hickman and S.W. Schurr).  Eastwood was interested enough to turn it over to two of his favorite script doctors, Sterling Silliphant and Dean Riesner
  • The two militant organizations depicted in the film – the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force and Uhuru – were modeled after two real-life militant groups, the Symbionese Liberation Army (which kidnapped Patty Hearst) and the Black Panthers.
  • In the 80s, Daly was cast as detective Mary Beth Lacey in the hit TV show Cagney and Lacey.
  • Father John Voss – the priest who shields the gang – is played by M.G. Kelly – in real life a noted DJ and radio personality.
  • 3 years later Eastwood was back on Alcatraz for the prison drama Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

SUDDEN IMPACT (1983)

Although the series was meant to end with The Enforcer, the popularity of the character was such that Warner Bros persuaded Clint to do a fourth film.

This one sees Harry forced to take a vacation after a run in with a local gangster. There he comes across a vigilante (Sondra Locke) who is trying to get revenge on the criminals who raped her and her sister.

Although it is a weak entry to the series it became famous for a catchphrase that people often (wrongly) attribute to the first Dirty Harry: “Go ahead , make my day“.

It proved to be so popular that even President Regan used it in a speech about taxes.

As for the film, it is watchable with the usual funny one liners but is fairly pedestrian as a thriller.  The reason for it’s commercial success would appear to be the presence of Eastwood and the public’s nostalgia for a cop like Harry in the Regan era.

Here are some facts:

  • This was the highest-grossing of the Dirty Harry film series.
  • It is the only Dirty Harry film not primarily set in San Francisco.
  • The reason the film was made at all had to do with a survey Warner Bros did for the Sean Connery Bond remake Never Say Never Again (1983). They asked movie goers to name an actor and a famous part that actor played. Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry” scored so high in the survey results, the studio told Eastwood it would be “open” to making another and Eastwood made this film as a result.
  • Although Clint Eastwood made the phrase “Go ahead, make my day” famous, it was originally used a year earlier by actor Gary Swanson in the movie Vice Squad (1982). Swanson, who played a Hollywood vice cop, said the line, “Go ahead scumbag, make my day,” to actor Wings Hauser, who played a pimp, during a bust.
  • Bradford Dillman is seen in the film as Captain Briggs; in the previous film, The Enforcer, he portrayed Captain Jerome McKay. It is unknown if McKay and Briggs are distant relatives. Hal Holbrook played Lieutenant Briggs in Magnum Force.

THE DEAD POOL (1988)

The fifth film in the series is almost a homage to the character – a film who’s enjoyable moments are guilty pleasures rather than anything especially substantial.

The plot sees Harry drawn into a murder plot as a serial killer bumps off several people connected with a death pool run by a film director (Liam Neeson).

The main motivation for this film being made would appear to be the fact that Warner Bros needed a reliable title for the summer of 1988.

It also coincided with a relative creative slump in Eastwood’s career when he was making too many average films (such as Pink Cadillac and The Rookie) before his renaissance in the 90s with Unforgiven.

The main pleasures here are seeing a 26 year old Jim Carrey play the obnoxious rocker who is the first victim and the presence of Guns N’ Roses on the soundtrack.

Welcome to the Jungle was chosen as the tie-in track for the film and by 1988 when the film was released they had become massive.

There are also early roles for Liam Neeson and Patricia Clarkson – two actors who would go on to bigger things.

Here are some facts:

DVD EXTRAS

The extras on the DVD are extensive and are spread out on each of the discs.

Dirty Harry – Special Features:

  • A fine and informative commentary by longtime Eastwood associate/biographer Richard Schickel
  • The Long Shadow of Dirty Harry: New featurette on the influence and legacy of Dirty Harry
  • Dirty Harry: The Original: with Clint Eastwood and the film’s creators looking back at the creation of the Dirty Harry character
  • Dirty Harry’s Way:  A promotional short focusing on the toughness of the movie’s main character.
  • Interview gallery: With Patricia Clarkson, Joel Cox, Clint Eastwood, Hal Holbrook, Evan Kim, John Milius, Ted Post, Andy Robinson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Urich
  • Clint Eastwood: The Man from Malpaso: A 1993 TV program on his life and career, including scenes from his work and interviews with friends, fellow actors and crew members
  • Trailer gallery: Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, The Enforcer, Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool

Magnum Force – Special Features:

  • New commentary by director and Magnum Force screenwriter John Milius (in which Milius – within the first 10 minutes – appears to call for the vigilante style execution of Enron executives – I assume he is joking!)
  • A Moral Right: The Politics of Dirty Harry: Another featurette with filmmakers, social scientists and authors on the politics and ethics of the Dirty Harry films.
  • The Hero Cop: Yesterday and Today: Another featurette

The Enforcer – Special Features:

  • New commentary by Enforcer director James Fargo
  • The Business End: Violence in Cinema: Featurette on the violence in the films
  • Harry Callahan/Clint Eastwood: Something Special in Films: Another featurette on the character.

Sudden Impact – Special Features:

  • New commentary by filmmaker and Eastwood associate/biographer Richard Schickel
  • The Evolution of Clint Eastwood: Featurette on the film in the context of Eastwood’s career as a director

The Dead Pool – Special Features:

  • New commentary by Dead Pool producer David Valdes and Dead Pool cinematographer Jack N. Green
  • The Craft of Dirty Harry: Featurette on the cinematography, editing, music, and production design of the Dirty Harry films.

The box set also contains:

  • Clint Eastwood: Out Of The Shadows – On a separate DVD this is a fine feature length documentary from 2000 about Eastwood’s career, narrated by Morgan Freeman.
  • A 44 page hardcover book on the films.
  • A Dirty Harry wallet with metal badge and removable Inspect. Harry Callahan ID card
  • Five 5″ x 7″ lobby poster reproduction cards and an exclusive Ultimate Collector’s Edition card
  • A Scorpio Map: 19″ x 27″ map of San Francisco detailing Harry’s hunt for the killer in the first film
  • A one-page personal note from Clint
  • Reproductions of telegrams from Warner Bros to Clint (and vice versa) throughout the making of the series.

Overall this is a highly impressive box set, even if the films themselves do decline in quality somewhat.

That said, Warner Bros deserve great credit for the care and attention they have put into this set of films from one of their most consistent and legendary stars.

Plus, as a studio they deserve special praise for allowing you to skip straight to the menu instead of being forced to watch godawful piracy ads or trailers of upcoming films. Why can’t other major studios be like this?

Anyway, the Dirty Harry Collection is highly recommended as a package, especially at the reasonable price of under £30.

Will Eastwood ever return to the role? Let’s leave the last word to him:

> Buy the Dirty Harry Collection on DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Dirty Harry at All Movie
> Clint Eastwood at the IMDb
> Analysis of Dirty Harry at Filmsite
> Film America with locations from the Dirty Harry movies

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DVD & Blu-ray Film of the Week

DVD Pick: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

One of the most startling and accomplished films to come out in the last year was 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

This Romanian drama set in 1987 about a woman trying to get an illegal abortion scooped the Palme D’Or at Cannes last year and it was a surprising but worthy winner.

Although the subject matter might put some viewers off it is a truly remarkable film from director Cristian Mungiu that deserves a wider audience than just the arthouse circuit.

The achievement here is that it takes what appears to be a simple situation (the difficulty of abortion in Communist Romania) and manages to wring out the intense human emotions and drama that lie below.

From the young woman who is pregnant (Laura Vasiliu), her loyal friend (Anamaria Marinca) who helps her and the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) who performs the operation, all are complicit in a highly dangerous situation.

What elevates it above many contemporary dramas is raw power of the narrative, the terrific lead performances from Marinca and Vasiliu and the clever cinematography from Oleg Mutu that utilises long takes that draws us deeper into the characters lives.

Although it is only his second film, director Mungiu has scored a major achievement and created a film that explores the terrible dilemas facing people in a particularly dark corner of Europe’s recent past.

Artificial Eye have done an excellent job with the extras, most of them interesting and insightful.

They include:

  • Featurette – The Romanian Tour: A featurette that shows the filmmaker’s taking a mobile projection unit on a 30 day tour across Romania in order to give people the chance to see the film in a country with only 50 cinemas.
  • Cristian Mungiu Interview: In two informative interviews, the director discusses the development of the script and why his desire to achieve a sense of authenticity in every scene. Some of the shots are discussed alongside alternative takes in specific scenes, the social and historical context, the locations and the reactions to the film.
  • Interview with Anamaria Marinca: The lead actress discusses her background, how she got the part and the input she had into the script.
  • Interview with Oleg Mutu: The cinematographer talks about the lighting and the effects he was trying to achieve in the film.
  • Alternative / Deleted Scenes: Two alternative endings are included, each of them going beyond where the final cut of the film. Another deleted scene with Gabita is included and they are shown in a good quality, letterbox format.

This is one of the best films of the year and an essential purchase for any discerning viewer.

Here is the trailer:

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is out now on DVD from Artificial Eye

> Buy the DVD at Amazon
> 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days at the IMDb
> Official website
> Reviews of the film at Metacritic
> Screen shots from DVD Beaver

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DVD & Blu-ray

DVD Pick: Alice in the Cities

German director Wim Wenders is perhaps best known for his acclaimed films in the 1980s such as Paris, Texas, and Wings of Desire.

Back in the early 1970s he was part of a group of directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Volker Schlöndorff, who were bracketed under the banner of the ‘New German Cinema‘.

One of his most notable earlier films is Alice in the Cities (1974), a thoughtful and poignant road movie about a journalist named Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) who ends up trying to help a little girl (Yella Rottländer) find her grandmother.

The film starts with Winter on an assignment in the US but he finds the experience dispiriting and ends up with a bout of writer’s block, only finding solace in taking polaroid photos.

When he decides to go home to Germany, a plane strike delays his flight and he meets up with a German woman and her daughter Alice (Rottlander), who are also stuck until normal service is resumed.

When Alice’s mother misses the flight and fails to appear in Amsterdam as planned, Winter finds himself responsible for the young girl and they both travel across Europe, trying to find Alice’s grandmother.

Driven by the charming chemistry between Vogler and Rottlander, it has a pleasingly meandering narrative and is free of the twee life lessons and sentimentality that could have crept in.

Shot in grainy black and white on 16mm by Wenders’s regular cinematographer Robby Muller, it is a captivating work that establishes themes which would surface in Wenders’ later films: alienation, lonlieness and a fascination with America.

The DVD has some solid extras which include:

  • An exclusive interview with Wim Wenders by Mark Cousins
  • Rare interviews with stars Rüdiger Vogler and Yella Rottländer
  • A collectors booklet and photo galleries.

Alice and the Cities is out now on DVD from Axiom Films

> Buy the DVD from Amazon UK
> IMDb entry
> Find out more about Alice and the Cities at Wim Wenders official site
> An essay on Wim Wenders at Senses of Cinema

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DVD & Blu-ray Film of the Week

DVD Pick: My Kid Could Paint That

My Kid Could Paint That is a documentary that follows a young girl named Marla Olmstead, who gains fame as a child prodigy who can seemingly paint abstract art.

By the age of four, critics were comparing Marla’s work with Jackson Pollock’s and sales of her paintings were reaching $300,000.

But after 2005 profile by ‘60 Minutes‘ suggested that Marla had help from her parents – in particular her father – the story became more complex. Was Marla a genuine child prodigy or the innocent victim of a hoax?

Directed by Amir Bar-Lev (who made 2000’s Fighter) it is a fascinating film that deals with a number of interlocking subjects such as childhood, the nature of art and the mystery of authorship.

The DVD has a number of extras that help flesh out the mysteries of this intriguing tale including:

  • Filmmaker Commentary
  • ‘Back to Binghamton’ – a mini-doc with Director Amir Bar-Lev that includes follow-up interviews, Sundance Q & A, Binghamton Q & A, deleted scenes, etc.
  • ‘Kimmelman on Art’ – a mini-doc with the New York Times art critic

The film is out now on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Watch the trailer here:

> Buy the film from Amazon UK
> Official site
> My Kid Could Paint That at the IMDB

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