When Dirty Harry was released in 1971, it reflected the paranoia and fear prevalent at that time. The real life Zodiac killer was on the loose (never to be caught), cities were becoming wastelands of crime, and vigilantism and bravado seemed like a good idea, especially when you found Clint Eastwood on the right side of the Smith and Wesson Model 29. 44 Magnum.
Today, I think most people of my generation and younger know Dirty Harry more as an icon, a few catch phrases, “Do you feel lucky punk?”, but maybe haven't seen the film itself. In some ways it may not be what you expect. While it is action-packed with violent good guys shooting violent bad guys, it lacks the blockbuster-style constant action of the films it inspired (any movie that features a cop with a dead wife who's gotta break a few rules to bring justice to the filth on the street). Andrew Robinson is genuinely unnerving as the killer, a theatrical version of the real Zodiac killer. Even as we want to watch his maniacal maniac get his, it's a more contemplative film than its successors, Eastwood's Callahan is genuinely afflicted by his need for justice and his role within a system that doesn't always protect the right people. While really of its time in some ways, (we live in a considerably more politically correct climate these days), it's not the plot or dated attitudes that detract from any enjoyment watching this film, the only problem is actually technical: way back in 1971 they just could not shoot at night and I found myself totally unable to identify what I was watching in several chase and fight scenes.
Magnum Force, a comparable, and faster paced film, is the sequel made three years later and was made in response to the outcry against the vigilante message of the first film by making it clear that Callahan does believe in the system because it's the only one we have. It was also made in response to the overwhelming popularity of the first film, becoming more of a “Dirty Harry” movie than 'Dirty Harry'. Callahan's tougher, there are more one liners, and the action is more constant and cavalier, less meditative and grave. Both are diverting entertainment and well worth watching–and a must if you haven't seen this iconic tour de force before.