Eighties Action Movies I've Never Seen: “Sudden Impact,” the Fourth of the Dirty Harry Films – The New Yorker


This month, Richard Brody reviews classic action movies from the nineteen-eighties that he’s never seen before.

For the second film in my series about nineteen-eighties action movies
that I’d missed the first time around, I picked Clint Eastwood’s “Sudden
Impact,” from 1983, the fourth of the five Dirty Harry films, the one
that launched the iconic line “Make my day,” and the only one of the
five that Eastwood himself directed. In choosing this film, I had a
slight ulterior motive: because I think highly of many of Eastwood’s
films, I wanted to find out if it stood up alongside the best of his
work, and, if so, what distinguishes it from last week’s film, “Die Hard,” not merely in subject but in artistry. And I think that the film
offers an answer or two—but they’re not at all of the sort that I’d
anticipated.

Watching “Die Hard,” I was struck by the drama’s contempt for
conventional authority, for administration, bureaucracy, and, for that
matter, for government at large. But nothing in its satire of
police-procedure-as-usual matches Eastwood’s rage at the system, his
view of a judicial order that exists to defend violent criminals from
the law rather than to bring them to justice. The movie begins with a
courtroom scene in which a judge (Lois De Banzie) reproaches the
uninhibited San Francisco police inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood) for
conducting an illegal search on an accused criminal (or, rather, on
someone whom Callahan knows to be a criminal). She throws out the
evidence, reproaches Harry for his record of taking the law into his own
hands, and sends the defendant back to the streets—and, first, to the
elevator, where he and his cronies taunt Harry, who grabs him by the
throat and promises to catch him and deal with him as he deserves.

That’s just the prelude to the incident that sparks the main plot. In a
secluded spot beside the bay, a man and a woman grapple romantically in
the front seat of a car—until the woman takes out a gun, shoots the man
in the genitals and in the head, and flees. Flashbacks reveal that the
woman, Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke), and her sister Elizabeth (Lisa
Britt), had, a decade earlier, been gang-raped in another secluded spot,
near a small-town carnival. Elizabeth was left catatonic and is living
in a mental institution; Jennifer has become a successful artist. None
of the rapists was ever caught or punished, even though Jennifer knows
exactly who they are. (For that matter, the drama ultimately reveals the
complicity of local law enforcement in protecting the culprits.) That’s
why she’s putting into action a plot for revenge, systematically
tracking down the men who raped her and her sister (and the one woman
who helped plan the attack). And when Harry is sent to investigate the
killing of the first rapist, additional victims, killed in the same way,
start turning up; thus, Harry will ultimately find himself in the
position of turning up evidence against, and having to arrest, Jennifer.

Speaking to a fellow-officer, Harry vociferously decries the state of
society in a rant that sounds like the cinema according to Archie
Bunker: “The shootings, the knifings, the beatings. Old ladies being
bashed in the head for their Social Security checks. Teachers thrown
from fourth-floor windows because they don’t give A’s.” He complains
that their job involves “having to wade through the scum of this city.
Being swept away by bigger and bigger waves of corruption, apathy, and
red tape. . . . Having our fingers in the holes while the entire dike
crumbles around us.” But Harry has a problem, which the movie presents
as society’s problem: he himself seems to be something of a magnet for
it. As his captain tells him, “You are a walking frigging combat zone.
People have a nasty habit of getting dead around you.”

That’s where “Make my day” comes in. Harry drops into a diner for a cup
of coffee and discovers that there’s a robbery in progress: four black
men, pretending to be ordinary customers, pull guns on the patrons and
demand their valuables. Harry comes in the back way and calls the gunmen
“you boys” while ordering them to put their weapons down. I was ready to
vomit when I heard the slur, and was just as disgusted by Eastwood’s
depiction of an integrated clientele as a Trojan horse for black
predators. (The fact that Harry’s best friend and fellow-officer,
Horace, played by Albert Popwell, is black does little to mitigate the
stereotype that the diner scene embodies and perpetuates.) When three of
the robbers turn their guns at him, Harry shoots them down with a line
of sick, cheesy bravado; when the fourth grabs a woman and puts a gun to
her head to hold her hostage, that’s when Harry tells him, “Go
ahead—make my day.” What surprised me about the moment is the utter lack
of conviction with which Harry utters it. The line falls with far
more—or, rather, far less—than the usual laconic Eastwood
plainspokenness. Rather, it drops, spoken as if under a sort of
constraint—an odd thing for a director-star with his own production
company to evoke. To put it plainly, Eastwood seems embarrassed.

The course of the action as it continues from that scene suggests the
contradictions and self-contradictions that make the film an absorbing
experience—that make “Sudden Impact” far better than the repellent
premises on which it’s based. In watching the movie and being drawn into
Eastwood’s view of a society rendered dysfunctional by its misplaced
sympathies, I found myself seeing something else at the same time: a
view of a society and the very idea of what society means. Even though
Eastwood sketches an us-against-them struggle between those who defend
that idea of society and those who turn that idea against itself, he
also draws together, with a brisk and light touch, tight bonds of
interconnection, of community, that define a place and a time.

Eastwood takes painfully seriously the theme of rape ignored by the law
and unpunished. Later in the movie, when Harry travels to the small town
of San Paulo, where the rapes of Jennifer and her sister occurred, his
disgust for the muck of its daily deceptions and benighted clannishness
is reflected in his view of its casual smirking rapists circulating in
plain sight and continuously protected by what passes in that town for
grandees. Eastwood has no sympathy for the male code of silence any more
than for the street harassment that male louts are seen subjecting women
to; the rapists may have been young when they committed their crime, but
Eastwood has no truck with the idea of mere youthful indiscretions. His
sense of the social bonds that hold a community together overlap with
his vision of the code of silence that protects monsters from facing the
consequences of their crimes.

Eastwood’s vision of social bonds is essentially tragic, and he infuses
the movie with a harrowing, hectically subjective tone to match. The
movie’s frenzies of jagged light and of murky darkness, the streams of
blood and the tight closeups—as well as Jennifer’s own harrowing,
fragmented recollections of the attack—suggest a world out of whack.
Eastwood may not be the most overtly cinephilic, homage-bound director,
but “Sudden Impact” resounds with some conspicuously Hitchcockian
elements (specifically, hints of “Vertigo,” “Marnie,” “The Birds,” and
“Strangers on a Train”). I think that the allusions are no
accidents—that there’s an essential element of Hitchcockian guilt woven
into the fabric of “Sudden Impact.” In Eastwood’s film, all sympathies
are potentially misguided; all actions, even ones done in pursuit of his
own clear sense of justice, risk devastating results. (For instance,
Harry ultimately, if indirectly, gets his best friend killed.) The
ending of the film—featuring a return of the “make my day” line—offers
mighty ambiguities in the guise of Harry’s decisive heroism. It’s a
virtually deus-ex-machina-like ending, when men are again holding a
woman, this time Jennifer, hostage—and this time, Harry shows up after
having virtually come back from the dead and morphed into a living myth,
in a return that’s more symbolic than it is dramatic. This time he says
the line with force and conviction.

President Ronald Reagan, in March, 1985—a little more than a year after
the release of “Sudden Impact”—used the line “Go ahead—make my
day
” in a political speech
about taxes. I have a little theory: I’ll bet that Eastwood didn’t like
it. He may have admired Reagan, but he saw his own bravado of violence
tossed about as more than a meme—as a signifier of op-ed crosstalk, of
office politics as usual. He saw himself turning into a mascot for the
suits—and for Eastwood, this was a particular problem, because his very
subject, from the start of his career, with “Play Misty for Me,” was the
danger of demagogy, the abuse of a public image. The quasi-angelic,
nearly supernatural apparition of Harry at the end of “Sudden Impact”
suggests that he had already envisioned himself as his own next hero,
the one of “Pale Rider,” a ghost of himself. He’d continue with the
irony of “Heartbreak Ridge,” the tragedy of “Bird,” the self-scourging
of “White Hunter Black Heart.” In “Sudden Impact,” Eastwood seems to
have administered to himself a powerful, painful cure for self-righteous
swagger. The impressive unity of “Die Hard” is a mark of professional
craft; the frenzied disunity of “Sudden Impact” is a mark of art.

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