In 1971, Clint Eastwood emerged from the shadow of “The Man with No Name”. Cineplex.com columnist Shane McNeil looks at how Dirty Harry opened a new chapter in the Hollywood icon’s career amid one of the most violent year’s in movie history.

Originally appeared on Cineplex.com, Jan. 29, 2016

“Why do they call you ‘Dirty’ Harry?”

It’s a question that courses throughout the 1971 thriller that gave birth to the Clint Eastwood character of the same name. The answer is different every time: He hates minorities, he always gets stuck with the dirty jobs, he’s a part-time pervert, he’s always getting the … um … short end of the stick… And so it goes.

Catch Dirty Harry along with another action classic, 1985’s Runaway Train, as they return to the big screen during Cineplex’s Great Digital Film Festival, which runs Feb. 5-11. Click here to read more about the Festival’s Kurt Russell and 80s action/comedy programming.

But what was it about Dirty Harry that endured to spawn four sequels and give Eastwood’s already-surprising career a big-time second act?

First there’s Eastwood himself. A bit-part actor through the ‘50s, Eastwood found his stride in westerns throughout the ‘60s, first with the TV series “Rawhide” and then the Sergio Leone Man with No Name films. By time the 1970s rolled around it was time for Eastwood to take on something new. Not that he’d abandon the saddle altogether – finding ‘70s success with westerns he himself directed, including High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales and eventually winning his first Oscar for 1992’s Unforgiven – but it was an unsustainable genre to exist in exclusively.

But there was something else about Dirty Harry beyond just a change of scene for Eastwood himself. It was the New American Cinema. Films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider had introduced U.S. audiences to a rougher, rawer way of making films and audiences were anxious for new anti-heroes and for the envelope to be pushed in terms of what they could see on the movie screen.
This all came to a head in 1971 in what is widely recognized as one of the most violent years in cinematic history. Five films released between July and the end of December set new standards for what filmmakers could show their audiences: The blaxploitation cop film Shaft, eventual Oscar-winner The French Connection, another Sam Peckinpah blowout in Straw Dogs, Stanley Kubrick’s highly controversial A Clockwork Orange and – capping them off with a Dec. 23 U.S. release – Dirty Harry.

So, Harry Callahan’s questionable ethics and means actually fed into the perfect type of hero (or anti-hero) that audiences at the time craved. A cop that shot first and asked questions later, badgered and beat witnesses and operated outside the law was not seen as a statement on police corruption, but as an admirable new brand of vigilante that got the job done with quick hands and a sharp tongue. The lasting testament to this is the fact that the film’s most memorable takeaway 45 years after the fact is not the savage killings and reign of terror brought down by the film’s arch-villain, Scorpio, but rather Callahan’s own catch-phrase: “You’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

Dirty Harry’s legacy carried well past the 1970s, of course, spawning generations of bad cops on film. Without Callahan it’s harder to imagine Harvey Keitel’s maniacal Bad Lieutenant, Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning turn as Alonzo Harris in Training Day or Hong Kong’s brilliant Infernal Affairs films that Martin Scorsese later brought to America as The Departed.

For Eastwood himself, meanwhile, it opened the door for him to play something other than a cowboy. Escape from Alcatraz, Pink Cadillac, In the Line of Fire and Million Dollar Baby don’t seem like such a stretch for the man that played Callahan, as opposed to the Man with No Name.