Saturday, February 26, 2011

Recasting Harry Callahan: Focalization, Epistemology and Discourse in Dirty Harry (1971), Zodiac (2007) and Sudden Impact (1983)

This piece was originally delivered in an abridged version at the 2010 Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image conference in Roanoke, Virginia, under the title "Recasting Harry Callahan: Focalization, Epistemology and Discourse in Dirty Harry, Sudden Impact and Zodiac."  Please be advised that this essay contains multiple spoilers.   

Produced in the aftermath of two landmark rulings of the United States Supreme Court under chief justice Earl Warren, 1964’s Escobedo vs. the State of Illinois where in essence the court decided that the sixth amendment right to legal counsel applied not only to post-indictment questioning but to pre-indictment interrogations, and 1966’s Miranda vs. the State of Arizona, which held that statements procured through interrogation were valid only so long as it could be demonstrated that the suspect had willingly waved his or her fifth amendment right not to incriminate his or herself, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) fuses the concern raised in the dissents to both rulings that the impediments that each placed on criminal investigations would lead to greater rates of acquittal, with a fictionalization of one the United States’ most notorious series of unsolved murders, those of the so-called “Zodiac” killer.

Siegel’s film opens with the killer’s point of view, aided by a high-powered scope as he follows his bathing, soon-to-be victim. With the film’s incipient killing complete, Siegel then introduces us to detective Harry Callahan, played here as in the film’s four sequels by Clint Eastwood. Callahan rapidly establishes his investigative acumen, as he locates the source of the assassination that the introductory passage carefully mapped for its viewer. Callahan determines the shooter’s position almost immediately, which leads to his discovery of both evidence in the form of a shell-casing, and also the killer’s letter. In short, the viewer is made to feel confident from the outset that Callahan will be able to locate the still unnamed assassin. This crime will not remain unsolved, unlike its real-life model.

With the aforesaid letter signed by the Zodiac’s astrological equivalent “Scorpio,” Siegel makes explicit his San Francisco-based film’s connection to the recent Bay Area murders. Siegel, however, unlike as in the real-life, unsolved ‘Zodiac’ murders does not keep his killer’s identity hidden for long, but rather shows Scorpio’s face on-screen twenty minutes into the film’s 102-minute duration, with the police department’s want ad response to his demands in his possession and conspicuously circled in order to make his identity clear. Hence, Dirty Harry will not be about discovering the killer’s identity, but rather will focus on his apprehension by the San Francisco P.D., and of course, by 'Dirty Harry' specifically.

As the sequence in which Scorpio is identified proceeds, Siegel adopts a strategy of parallel editing, with the film alternating between Scorpio on another rooftop, following the film's cold open, preparing for a second assassination, and the police department attempting to locate the shooter by helicopter. Thus, Dirty Harry diverges from said set-piece, where the film adheres solely to Scorpio’s point-of-view (which of course follows from the fact that murder is unexpected). In the subsequent passage, with the police department now cognizant of Scorpio and his written threat, the question becomes whether the police will be able to spot and stop Scorpio before he claims another victim. As such, Siegel’s film signals the influence of D. W. Griffith, whose cross-cutting strategies in The Drive for Life (1909), The Lonely Villa (1909) and most prominently and notoriously The Birth of a Nation (1915), provide a pattern of saving victims from bodily harm and from crimes that are in the process of being perpetrated. As in these Griffith films, the victim is saved; Siegel extends this pattern to a second rooftop assassination attempt, with Harry and his partner on the lookout for Scorpio whom they suspect may be planning to kill a Catholic priest as per his written threat. Again, Scorpio’s crime is thwarted, though once again he escapes from the rooftop. Thereafter, Scorpio abducts the teenage Ann Marie Deacon. This successful crime, as is the case with a second murder that Scorpio commits immediately after his first thwarted assassination, significantly does not appear on screen.

Callahan, however, receives a tip as to the suspect’s whereabouts, prompting the officer and a police associate to set off in search of Scorpio - with Deacon's life presumably hanging in the balance. In this way, the narrative enacts a very Griffithian ‘last minute rescue’ scenario, which we as spectators understand will not wait for Callahan to secure a search warrant from the district attorney; time is indeed his most pressing obstacle. With Callahan thus scaling a locked fence, Siegel cuts to Scorpio as he watches his police adversary arriving. Consequently, Siegel not only diminishes our hope that Callahan will be able to capture Scorpio, but indeed we become worried for the officer’s safety as it is Scorpio who possesses knowledge of both of their locations. With Callahan arriving in Scorpio’s empty living quarters, however, Siegel utilizes off-camera sound to indicate that the latter is fleeing. With this, Callahan sets off in pursuit of the suspect, with our desire for the murderer’s apprehension and Ann Marie Deacon’s safe return, restored. Callahan thus chases Scorpio through a shadowy football stadium, eventually tracking him onto the turf, at which point he signals to his associate to flood the field with light.

Frozen in the spotlighting, the visibly limping Scorpio raises his hands over his heads. Harry, however, rather than continuing to chase the serial killer, who notably beat the officer severely during a prior, pre-arranged ransom-drop, exacts a bit of extra-legal revenge by discharging his firearm at the immobile Scorpio. Of course, we as viewers can find a degree of satisfaction in this personal act and understood fully that if Harry wanted to kill Scorpio, he certainly would have done so. Still, Callahan’s shot, and his subsequent coercive, on-field interrogation where he extracts Ann Marie Deacon’s location – she is dead as the viewer will see subsequently – lead to Scorpio’s release on the grounds dictated by the two Warren court rulings. While at this juncture we can certainly go along with Callahan’s assertions that Ann Marie Deacon’s rights supersede those of Scorpio’s, and that he was right to search for the abducted girl even if this meant acting beyond the law – we can agree with his sentiment that the law is "crazy" – his personal score-settling is less easy to excuse, even if we as viewers can find pleasure and even justice in his actions. Dirty Harry does introduce at least a degree of ambiguity.

From Callahan’s employment as a bagman in his first attempt to rescue the missing Deacon, Scorpio manipulates the San Francisco P.D. Harry is offered the same job after the latter hijacks a school bus, a detail that Siegel and his screenwriters take from the real-life Zodiac case, though in reality the Zodiac’s threat proved hollow. In this second instance, Harry declines the request of City Hall, asking when they are going to stop messing around with the killer. The mayor objects that he has given his word and that Scorpio will not be “molested.” Thereafter, Harry proceeds to the drop-off spot, leading to a concluding showdown that visually echoes the Western showdowns that he instantiated in the works of Sergio Leone. With the police department failing in not only protecting its citizenry, but in pursuing justice for the Scorpio’s victims, Callahan faces off with Scorpio as the latter holds a boy hostage. Again demonstrating his extraordinary aptitude with his Magnum revolver, Harry shoots Scorpio allowing the boy to escape. As he looms over Scorpio, Harry waits for his adversary to draw first in order to justify his shooting. Seeing how comprehensively he has manipulated the police force, we too want him to make this mistake, to test Harry, and for Callahan to achieve both justice for the dead and to take Scorpio off the streets permanently. We get the ending we desire, after which Harry tosses his badge in the adjacent pond upon finishing the job. With this concluding gesture, he shows his contempt for a criminal justice system that has become ineffective in achieving its primary purposes: to secure justice and keep its citizenry safe.

David Fincher’s true crime adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s treatment of the ‘Zodiac’ killings, simply entitled Zodiac (2007), declines to arrive at both the same vigilante solution as Siegel's film and also its cynical conclusion. Rather, Fincher’s film focuses on the legally undecided question of the serial killer’s identity, mooring itself to the San Francisco P.D.’s investigation of the Bay Area killings, and to cartoonist and author Graysmith’s extra-curricular investigation of the cold case. In Fincher’s hands, the ‘Zodiac’ killings speak less than they do for Siegel to a criminal’s ability to manipulate the media, politicians and law enforcement and to the impediments placed on officers to secure evidence and ultimately achieve justice following Escobedo and Miranda. Justice, in fact, proves a secondary concern at best for Fincher, who instead is more interested in deciphering the mystery of the Zodiac’s identity, and in the epistemological question of whether it is possible to know the Zodiac by sight, whether by looking into his eyes he reveals himself to be a serial killer. Zodiac is about knowing the killer’s identity; it is not about saving the public from a monster, attaining justice for those whom he has victimized or critiquing a criminal justice that has made both more difficult, which is to say those concerns that were most current during the Zodiac’s activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s – the time of Dirty Harry’s release.

In facilitating the film’s primary epistemological questions, Fincher assiduously masks the killer’s identity during three sets of murders, as well as a fourth abduction and possible attempted murder. In three of the four, the Zodiac strikes at night with Fincher and director of photography Harris Savades’s low-key cinematography concealing the killer’s identity in the enveloping shadows of their set-ups. In the fourth, the killer’s one daylight homicide, the Zodiac himself conceals his identity, wearing a suit of his own design. In each instance, the Zodiac left witnesses, whether it was the two men and the younger mother that he failed to kill, or the two young boys and two police officers who saw the Zodiac fleeing from the taxi cab killing. From their testimony, Fincher reconstructs probable scenarios for each of the murders. In this sense, all of the violent crimes perpetrated or attempted on screen are focalized through the evidence provided by the witnesses, with shots depicting the victim’s point-of-views included in the set ups. Indeed, it is for this reason that a fourth, Christmas 1968 double homicide is excluded: it is one crime that, though incontrovertibly the Zodiac’s, no witnesses were left. Even so, Fincher does conceal at least one piece of evidence, the 1991 identification of primary suspect Arthur Leigh Allen by the surviving victim of the July 4th, 1969 homicide. In this instance, Fincher does not stick solely to what we know – or think we know – about the crimes, but instead preserves the film’s primary dramatic question: who is the Zodiac? Fincher delays his film’s answer.

In so doing, Dirty Harry’s early, driving concern of capturing the Bay Area serial killer is deferred in Zodiac, inasmuch as his identity not only remains un-established, but as he remains (unlike Scorpio) unrecognizable, even to the film’s viewers. The viewer is not placed in a privileged position here, where we are able to root for the police to discover what we already know – and thus to capture the killer on the loose, which thanks to Dirty Harry’s regulation of information becomes our primary desire as viewers. Rather, until at least the film’s introduction of a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence that implicates Arthur Leigh Allen, we wait for the killer’s identity to be confirmed. Indeed, we know only as much as the Zodiac case’s investigating officers Dave Toschi, the real-life inspiration for Harry Callahan, as well as for Steve McQueen’s 'Bullit,' and his partner, William Armstrong, know. Zodiac restricts its narrative to the known evidence of the case. And even after Fincher establishes the likelihood of Allen’s guilt - though there is not enough hard evidence for an indictment - a second suspect, Rick Marshall, is introduced into the narrative. While Marshall does not remain the focus of narrative interest for long, his inclusion, so late in the narrative, emphasizes the continued unsolved nature of the Zodiac murders.

By this point, the film’s narrative has shifted from its focus on the Police Department’s investigation, to that of cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who first comes into contact with the case while working at the San Francisco Chronicle. As with Toschi years earlier, Graysmith ultimately concludes that Allen is the likely killer, thanks in part to additional pieces of circumstantial evidence that he has since uncovered, independent of the police investigation. With a reasonable degree of certainty that Allen is the Zodiac, Graysmith pursues his own desire for resolution, where he first discusses his theory with Toschi, and then tracks down Allen, into whose eyes he stares. As he has stated earlier in the film: “I need to know who he is. I need to stand there, look him in the eye.”

In Zodiac, criticisms of Dirty Harry and the police work in Siegel’s original are reserved for the 1971 picture’s real-life inspiration, Dave Toschi, who again cautions Graysmith with an “easy Dirty Harry” after his insistence that he cannot “prove” the cartoonist’s theory. In an earlier meeting again with Graysmith, and this time outside a departmental screening of the Siegel film, Toschi responds to another officer’s jab that “that Harry Callahan did a hell of a job with your case” with “no need for due process, right?” spoken almost beneath his breath. That the screening and Toschi’s response come immediately after the news that the District Attorney lacks the evidence to prosecute Allen only reinforces Toschi’s portrayal as an anti-Dirty Harry. In Fincher’s rehabilitation of the real-life officer, Toschi objects first to the suspect’s denial of rights, to which we will remember Callahan responds that he’s “all broken up,” and then to Graysmith’s claim that one can know the truth without proof, meaning without legally admissible, non-circumstantial evidence, which again led to Harry’s response that the “law’s crazy.” For Toschi, the law is paramount, as accordingly are legal rights; as such, Fincher’s film insists on the equal protection that the constitution gives to all citizens, even to those accused of crimes. Whereas for Callahan, it is natural rights, namely that of life, which is of foremost importance, and which supervene when the criminal justice system fails to adequately preserve the aforesaid right. He seeks a primordial form of justice that restores equality between the killer and the killed, though again only after he is prompted by Scorpio’s draw.

With justice reserved for the legal system in Zodiac, the narrative’s lack of non-circumstantial evidence dictates that justice does not receive serious consideration in Fincher’s film. By comparison, justice is emphasized in the director’s previous serial-killer classic Se7en (1995), albeit in the degraded form of a mass murderer’s impetus for choosing his seven victims. That is, Kevin Spacey selects his victims on the basis of their transgressions of the seven deadly sins, thereby assuming a divine authority in enacting his crimes. While there is in other words a perversity in Spacey’s enactment of justice certainly, Se7en does not emphasize the necessity that he be brought to justice, in part perhaps due to guilt of all but one of his victims. When he does break his pattern and kill Brad Pitt’s wife, the latter becomes the executioner, thus completing what Spacey insists is “masterpiece.” While it is not this precisely for Spacey’s killing of the innocent Paltrow and her unborn child, the film’s interest resides in these killings being brought to their completion, in the Seven Deadly Sins each receiving their homicidal translation. Extra-legal justice is nothing more than the killer’s alibi and Brad Pitt’s ultimate transgression - his wrath.  (Zodiac, it is worth noting in conclusion, provides a sort of revision of Se7en, as its real-crime, serial killer subject procures a form that in its very looseness separates itself from the tight, pre-determined construction of Se7en and its deadly sins.)

Dirty Harry’s third sequel and the first and only directed by Clint Eastwood, Sudden Impact (1983), manifests a similar ethos of self-revisionism. In this instance, as in the first ‘Dirty Harry’ sequel, Ted Post’s Magnum Force (1973), Callahan is not the agent of vigilante justice, but rather his or her pursuer. In Sudden ImpactSondra Locke plays the film’s vigilante, whose identity Eastwood delays until after the film’s second homicide, which like the first, results in a man shot in his groin and head in the front seat of his automobile. Eastwood shows both killings on camera, with Callahan arriving on the scene of the second.

Immediately after the second homicide, Eastwood discloses Locke’s identity as Jennifer Spencer, a modern artist whose work corresponds closely to a number of nineteenth and twentieth-century models including those of the German Expressionists, the mid-century Abstract Expressionists, and in one very distinctive instance pictured here, to Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The last of these comes after a series of similarly enacted homicides that by this point in the narrative signals her growing awareness not only of the anguish which her gallery show “Dark Visions” depicted previously, but of the darkness inside her. Spencer, the artist, is nothing if not self-aware, which stands in distinct contrast to Eastwood’s Callahan.

Between the first and the second of Spencer’s homicides, we see ‘Dirty Harry’ threaten a group of recently acquitted criminals after they taunt him on an elevator, stop a robbery by shooting and killing all but one of the assailants in the presence of a coffee shop’s innocents, and lastly accuse a mafia don in the presence of his just married daughter. The first and third of these correspondingly prompt to retaliatory acts that culminate in Harry jumping from a full automobile as it careens off the end of a peer and shooting three mob hit-men who stalk Harry across a dimly lit boardwalk. By the time Harry is reassigned to a case in rural San Paulo, Harry’s body-count is approaching double digits - to Jennifer’s two. He is, it goes without saying, far less self-aware than the murderess, with whom he is conflated throughout the remainder of the film.

To take just one example of this comparison, Eastwood presents Spencer stabbing a mirror in her home following another of her homicides. This in fact is the second consecutive mirror she destroys as she fires her handgun at the first immediately after the crime. In both instances, Eastwood suggest that Spencer cannot abide this clear, unblemished view of herself; she is, to push the metaphor, broken, which we see not only in these mirrors but in the paintings, one of which is reflected in the second of the two reflective surfaces. Callahan, on the other hand, has no such self-awareness as he tracks the killer whose identity he will only later realize; while his actions bring about more deaths than do hers, and while those people he kills are no more deserving than Spencer’s victims (as we come to learn), he seems to lack her internal struggle.

Indeed, we have by this point discovered the source of Spencer’s anguish and her impetus to kill. Jennifer and her near comatose sister were raped by a group of San Paulo townies during a party held in the recent past. At this point it is worth mentioning that Sudden Impact’s transposition to small-town America provides the film with one of its significant points of revision of the vigilante formula – not only Dirty Harry, but Michael Winner's 1973 Charles Bronson-vehicle Death Wish are paradigmatic examples of the vigilante’s response to urban social decay – as it does in its selection of a female as the agent of justice. Here we have the crime itself, followed by her final confrontation with Eastwood following a shootout that leaves that last of her attackers dead.

Thus, unlike the crimes in Dirty Harry and Zodiac which we experience as they unfold, here the precipitating crime comes in the victims past, and is filtered through her subjectivity. Then again, there is never any sense that she is misremembering, which the reactions of those she kills reinforces; it becomes clear by the film’s end that her account of events is accurate. Thus, Eastwood’s choice of subjectivizing the rape speaks again to his construction of the victim’s interiority. If Harry Callahan speaks and acts for the victims with the criminal justice system providing inadequate – in part thanks to his own actions – Jennifer Spencer, while acting on her sister’s behalf for the same reason, also is acting for herself, out of her very real need to experience satisfaction for the crimes, for there to be justice, with her assault remaining unprosecuted thanks to the fact that the chief of police’s son was one of the perpetrators.

As Spencer puts it, speaking for her director, “there is a thing called justice.” Sudden Impact in other words conforms to Dirty Harry’s insistence on the existence of natural law. In this way, Sudden Impact does not opt for what I would argue is Zodiac’s easier revision of Dirty Harry – namely it does not remove justice from the equation by making the killer unknown. While the real-life details of the Zodiac case compels this revision, what it really shows is that Dirty Harry does not adequately represent the ‘Zodiac’ killings, which it would seem was never really in question. Rather, what the appearance of that film in the midst of the homicides really spoke to was a fear that the apprehension and prosecution of criminals had been made needlessly difficult out of a fear of police misbehavior.

At the same time, in Eastwood’s film there is a price to be paid for securing justice outside the law. While Harry ultimately manages to let Jennifer walk, pinning the crimes on one of the dead criminals, the film’s insistent presentation of her interiority highlights the emotional scarring that results from her vigilante acts. The broken mirror into which both she and Harry look suggests that they share this internal state, though only Jennifer demonstrates an awareness of this, thanks again to her anguished self-portraits. In terms of the film’s focalization, Eastwood alternates between Harry and Jennifer, who again largely produce the same results, though it is only Spencer’s mind that we truly know, thanks to both her flashbacks and also her painting. It is the artist, like Eastwood himself, who is cognizant of the toll of justice.

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