Is Dirty Harry a fascist?

The Dirty Harry character first appeared in the film Dirty Harry (1972) with Clint Eastwood portraying the quietly spoken, straight talking police Inspector who is routinely handed all the ‘dirty’ (dangerous and difficult) jobs, because he gets the desired results.

‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan is essentially a lone operator, who is contemptuous of authority, departmental politics, and especially the Mayor’s office. He sees himself as fighting both the criminals on the street — who know how to use the system to their own advantage — and the flabby, bureaucratic system that’s ‘easy’ on them. The status quo: ‘the system’, the city’s liberal local government, and excessive departmental paper work are all combining to distract the police from carrying out their real work — apprehending the criminals. Dirty Harry is against what he sees as needless form-filling, which is really a method of managerial control, a way of enforcing a liberal consensus (that’s ‘soft’ on criminals), and ‘political correctness’ — all of which amounts to ‘red tape’, which is tying down the police.

Walt Coogan in Coogan's Bluff
Walt Coogan in Coogan’s Bluff

The Dirty Harry character conceptually originates from Walt Coogan, the Deputy Sherif (also played by Clint Eastwood) in Coogan’s Bluff (1968). Walt Coogan is a midpoint between Rowdy Yates, the cowboy from the television series Rawhide (1959 – 1966) and Dirty Harry. Walt Coogan, literally comes out of the empty Arizona desert (the landscape of the American Old West and Rawhide) to work in the crowded, urban environment of New York City.

Like Dirty Harry, Walt Coogan is a Law Enforcement Officer who has his own methods, and knows how to achieve results. He also confronts the daily reality of a police department that’s bogged down with needless paperwork and the legal requirement to ‘pander’ to the prevailing liberal consensus (often forced on the police by City Hall), which seems to care more about the welfare of criminals than it does about providing justice for the victims of crime. Walt Coogan is a maverick who does things his own way, cheeky and confident in his own abilities, proactively bending the rules when it suits him — much like Dirty Harry.

Politically, Dirty Harry comes across as someone straight out of the Republican playbook: pro small government, and deeply against regulation (any amount of regulation is over-regulation). Because, as the perception goes, these are the two problems that get in the way of doing business (and in Dirty Harry’s case, apprehending criminals). ‘Red tape’ creates ineffective, bloated bureaucracies.

Dirty Harry’s constant rule breaking (because he knows best) expresses a clear anti-liberalism, a paternalistic and autocratic way of handling problems. His rule-breaking clearly constitutes what in the real world would be labelled police malpractice, and would probably get him fired, and his department sued. It’s a given that, initially, Dirty Harry will be reprimanded for his dubious methods, but, later on in the story, those same methods — and only those methods — will save the day, enabling him to bring the criminal (usually a psychopath, or a criminal gang) to justice. Meanwhile, without him, the rest of the police department is ineffective, thrown into turmoil and unable to act. His appetite for circumventing bureaucratic ‘rules’ gives his otherwise conservative character, an edge (this is an important ingredient in his character’s ability to gain the audience’s empathy, along with his genuine concern for the victims of crime).

Does this make Dirty Harry a ‘fascist’?

In the casual use of the word ‘fascist’ — without actual racism or NAZI connotations — yes, he probably is. He’s definitely intolerant and authoritarian, and deeply conservative. His politics, or at least his actions, lie on the spectrum one would normally associate with ‘heavy-handed’ justice-dispensing characters, like Judge Dredd, and Paul Kersey in Death Wish (1974). In these stories, the storyteller sets up a scenario which is so dire, so unjust, that the extreme actions of an extreme character are ‘justified’. In this ‘crazy’ fictional world, we ‘need’ a hero like Dirty Harry, to sort out the mess that society has left behind, only someone like that can make the world safe again.

A teenager smoking weed on the street corner would, hypothetically, see Dirty Harry as a fascist, and, ironically, the embodiment of ‘the system’. But, like many of the labels, judgements, ethics and morality surrounding fictional heroes, our perception of him reflects the ‘pact’ between the storyteller and the audience — we understand that he is a fictional hero, that he is operating in a fictional world, and that he is fighting a fictional monster. As the hero, he is appeasing our fears of the monster, defending our world view — earning our empathy and respect. He is ‘absolved’ of the inappropriateness of his methods, because his character is acting out of our need for some form of wish fulfilment. We have already judged and sentenced the monster; Dirty Harry is dispensing that sentence on our behalf.