Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
I hope to be seeing Clint Eastwood’s new film as director and actor, The Mule, as soon as possible; the film opens this weekend but was not screened in advance for the press. This raises the odd possibility that there’s someone at Warner Bros. who thinks that critics aren’t generally pretty interested if not downright enthusiastic about what Eastwood is up to. Or maybe the Clintmeister himself decided to take a pass this time. Whatever – it’s odd.
The opening coincides with the news that Eastwood’s longtime onscreen and offscreen partner Sondra Locke died, age 74. I don’t have my copy of David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film handy, but if I’m remembering correctly that’s where Thomson writes a keen assessment of the Eastwood-Locke collaboration, which resulted in a few pretty fine movies, such as The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Gauntlet, and a few that are not so good. I reviewed one of the latter titles in my first months as the film critic for the Herald, a little number called Sudden Impact, the wildly popular Dirty Harry episode that featured a catchphrase subsequently appropriated by the President of the United States at the time. Here’s that review, from 35 years ago to the day, Dec. 14, 1983, in which I venture the argument that as a film director, Eastwood doesn’t seem entirely awful.
Clint Eastwood, who has directed eight films since 1971’s Play Misty for Me, has shown an interest in making smaller, more personal movies lately. And since he still reigns as one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, if he wants to make a small, personal movie, he can make it.
But some of his pet projects have fizzled with audiences accustomed to Eastwood’s gunslinging or his comedic partnerships with orangutans. Bronco Billy died in the summer of ’81, and Honkytonk Man disappeared last Christmas. Eastwood—who has displayed competency behind the camera—is no dummy (even though some of his critics have accused him of being as animated as the average ventriloquist’s prop). He knows his fans love to see him stalking the streets of San Francisco in the guise of Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan.
Just in time for the lucrative Christmas season, then, arrives Sudden Impact, the new “Dirty Harry” installment, the first one since
in 1977. Eastwood produced and directed this entry, as well as essaying the role of Harry Callahan once again. Clint’s hair may be a little thinner on top these days, but he still has the steely gaze and the steady walk that embody Callahan’s brutal code of justice—a code that doesn’t always sit too well with Harry’s superiors at the San Francisco Police Department.
Sudden Impact isn’t 10 minutes old before Harry’s wiped the floor with a whole bushelful of assorted Bay Area punks, psychos, and culturally backward types. But he doesn’t look for trouble, he says; it just seems to follow him around. The bloodletting gets so bad that the department sends Harry off to the sleepy coastal town of San Paulo, to check up on a lead in a murder case, and mostly just to get him out of San Francisco. He doesn’t know—although the audience does—that the murderer is in San Paulo, right under his nose. We learn early that the strange series of murders is being perpetrated by a painter (played by longtime Eastwood leading lady Sondra Locke) who is avenging the 10-year-old rape and beating of her younger sister and herself. So she’s got her code of justice, too; clearly a woman after Harry’s heart. And sure enough, the two find themselves in a tentative romantic involvement.
But there can’t be too much time devoted to the mushy stuff in an action movie such as this one, and Eastwood shrewdly piles on the gun play. He’s done a pretty good job of it, considering the fact that the script is a fairly old-hat series of showdowns. As usual, the bad guys aren’t just bad, they’re vermin, engaging in every kind of animalistic behavior. By the end of the movie, the audience was cheering each extermination.
It’s a good finale—a whirring, spinning shoot-out at a carnival. Eastwood may not be Alfred Hitchcock, but he knows how to stage a fight. And Sudden Impact may not be great cinema. But Eastwood fans are going to like it.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.