There are clear parallels between Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and 1971’s Clint Eastwood thriller, Dirty Harry. Here’s why both are absolute classics.
NB: The following contains spoilers for The Dark Knight.
Between them, Christopher Nolan and the late Heath Ledger created one of the great screen villains in The Dark Knight’s Joker. A terrifying, magnetic moral blank, Ledger’s incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime is driven by an eerie kind of self-destructive nihilism. All yellow teeth and lank hair, Ledger’s performance goes to emotional places seldom seen in comic book movies before 2008 – but then again, The Dark Knight as a whole is patterned more like a noir detective thriller than the kind of knowing, pop art fluff of, say, Joel Schumacher’s earlier Batman films.
When conceiving The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan clearly drew on the work of other directors for his film’s plot and tone. Comparisons are often made between The Dark Knight and Michael Mann’s seminal Heat (1995), for example, with the former’s heists taking inspiration from those in the latter.
Another film that The Dark Knight echoes, though, is Don Siegel’s classic thriller, Dirty Harry.
Released in 1971, Dirty Harry starred Clint Eastwood as San Francisco detective Harry Callahan, a solitary, trigger-happy cop on the trail of a crazed serial killer calling himself Scorpio. Like The Dark Knight, Dirty Harry is about an antihero who works on the periphery of the law, and whose own moral boundaries are pushed to the limits by an antagonist with no morals at all.
Also like The Dark Knight, Dirty Harry contains one of the greatest screen villains of all time in Scorpio, brought thrillingly to life by Andy Robinson. A largely unknown theatre actor before Siegel (and Eastwood) cast him, Robinson should, by rights, have become a huge star after the release of Dirty Harry. Instead, Robinson’s wild-eyed, febrile performance proved to be so effective that it hung over him like a black cloud for several years after. Robinson later recalled receiving death threats in the months after Dirty Harry came out; one casting agent at Warner Bros was so disturbed to see Robinson walk up the path to her office that she asked her secretary to cancel their appointment.
“It scared a lot of people,” Robinson told Rue Morgue about his performance. “And scared people to the point where they weren’t interested in hiring me. I didn’t work for a year.”
Robinson eventually found it so hard to get work that he left Los Angeles entirely and spent several years living in a remote “mountain town”.
With his darting eyes and shock of unkempt hair, there’s a clear line to be drawn between Scorpio and Heath Ledger’s Joker. Both are anarchists with mysterious pasts (Robinson said he imagined his character as a damaged Vietnam war veteran), and both lack an obvious long-term goal beyond spreading fear and chaos. Both directly taunt the police, and both are caught and beaten by the protagonist at one point in their respective stories, only to escape justice.
Scorpio was consciously (and it could be said cynically) based on the Zodiac, a serial killer who murdered or seriously injured several people in Northern California around the end of the 1960s. The Zodiac – or at any rate, someone claiming responsibility for the crimes – wrote several taunting letters to police, and in one of them, threatened to attack a school bus. It’s something Dirty Harry appears to directly reference in one scene, where Scorpio holds a bus full of terrified school children hostage.
It may have partly been this ripped-from-the-headlines approach – along with the film’s unusually explicit violence – that made Dirty Harry so controversial in 1971. Feminists picketed the film; critics described it as reactionary or even ‘fascist’; Pauline Kael, in a particularly stinging review, called it a “deeply immoral movie”.
In reality, the politics of Dirty Harry aren’t necessarily so clear cut. Although Clint Eastwood was and is on the right of the political spectrum, Don Siegel was a self-described leftist; it was, perhaps, this tension between those two poles that gave the film its crackling energy. As Siegel later told The New York Times, “I enjoy the controversy, because if you make a film that’s safe, you’re in trouble. I’m a liberal; I lean to the left… I was telling the story of a hard‐nosed cop and a dangerous killer. What my liberal friends did not grasp was that the cop is just as evil, in his way, as [Scorpio].”
A similar tension simmers at the heart of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. In 2005’s Batman Begins, the scene that first teases the Joker also implies that the Dark Knight himself could be inadvertently responsible for the villain’s rise. Talking to Christian Bale’s Batman on a Gotham rooftop, Gordon asks him, almost casually, about “escalation” – the concern that arming police with more powerful weapons simply encourages criminals to buy heavier artillery themselves. Gordon then implies that a new villain stalking Gotham might be inspired by Batman’s larger-than-life antics. “You’re wearing a mask, jumping off rooftops. Now take this guy [the Joker]… armed robbery, double homicide, has a taste for the theatrical, like you…”
The same ambivalence towards Batman runs into The Dark Knight. Gotham’s lowlifes are cowed by Batman’s aggressive push back against crime; as a result, the Joker’s able to sidle his way into the space left behind, terrorising the city with increasingly violent and unpredictable acts far beyond those of the metropolis’ rank-and-file hoodlums. The Dark Knight also takes the time to point out that copycat vigilantes have begun patrolling Gotham, dressed like budget versions of Batman; one of them is eventually captured and killed by the Joker. By attempting to rid Gotham of crime, Batman inadvertently causes an awful lot of collateral damage.
Interestingly, Christopher Nolan hasn’t discussed Dirty Harry’s impact on The Dark Knight all that much in interviews, even though critics have long since spotted similarities between the two. Some have been complimentary – Screen Comment described Nolan’s film as a “modern update of Dirty Harry”; critic Dave Kehr, on the other hand, called it “Dirty Harry stripped of Don Siegel’s ambivalence and ambiguity.”
Whether Nolan intended The Dark Knight to be an update of Dirty Harry or not – the Joker’s use of a school bus as an escape vehicle certainly feels like a nod to Siegel’s film – it’s still fascinating to compare and contrast the two. Dirty Harry was made as the swinging 60s gave way to the savage 70s; as the summer of love era of hippies gave way to the Manson murders and the grim events at the Altamont Music Festival. The Dark Knight films, meanwhile were made in the fearful, post-9/11 climate of George W Bush and Guantanamo Bay. Both feature villains that tap into the fears of their respective eras, whether it’s the long-haired hippy gone rogue in Dirty Harry, or the makeup-smeared terrorist of The Dark Knight.
As the director Matt Reeves once told me, in praise of The Dark Knight, “I thought that the Joker, and the exploration of anarchy, the nihilistic terror of that film, was so singular and palpable.”
The words ‘nihilistic terror’ could equally apply to Dirty Harry and its anarchic villain; it’s perhaps telling that Reeves went on to direct The Batman, which contains its own nods to Dirty Harry and other, similarly dark 1970s films.
Over 50 years on, Dirty Harry has an unvarnished, disturbing impact that still lands today. Superbly directed by Siegel, featuring an unforgettable score by Lalo Schiffrin, and containing some of the most quoted (and misquoted) dialogue in cinema history, it remains a milestone in the thriller genre.
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