The films Dirty Harry and Die Hard are considered to be two of the most sensational action movies ever made. The two movies adhere to the guidelines that define the quintessential action film in that not only do they contain very strong and improvisational leading men, but they contain two very ingenious and almost neo-fascist types of villains. The level of violence within each film demonstrate the extreme measures to which the film makers go to show the both the evil of the villains and the unconventional attitudes of the protagonists. However, the two films differ in their effect on American society and in their political significance, not because they are innately different movies. Rather, these differences have stemmed from the different social climates into which these two films were born.
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Both the protagonists in Dirty Harry and Die Hard are representative of unconventionally ruthless and tough cops whose bottom line is to thwart the plans of those villains who seek to hurt people. The unselfishness and cruelty of the villains in each story is matched by the strength and ingenuity of both Harry Callahan and John MacClane. The two cops defy the odds that include incredible intellectual or ingenious villains who will stop at nothing to get their demands. Both officers try to do their part as lone actors, as they are both cut somewhat off from the aid of their police departments.
While Harry Callahan experiences this alienation as a result of his attitude, MacClane experiences this simply because no one from his department is aware that he controls such a close view of the hostage situation. However, both cops share similar personalities, and one gets the feeling that John MacClane prefers to act alone and would have done this voluntarily, much in the same as Harry Callahan orchestrates the situation in which he finds himself acting alone.
The villains found in both movies are also bases upon which they are similar to each other. The villain Hans Gruber of Die Hard and Scorpio of Dirty Harry are both semi-mad creatures who holdpeople hostage in order to gain fortunes for themselves. Hans Gruber goes about his hostage taking in a moderately conventional sense, by restricting the motion of persons within a building and denying their exit. Scorpio, on the other hand, takes hostages too but in a less conventional sense.
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Hedoes this by keeping all the residents of San Francisco in extreme danger by threatening to shoot at random if his demands were not met by the police. Both villains are also incredibly astute and make the situation very difficult for the respective police departments. Hans Gruber’s ability to conceal from the police the fact that he has even taken over the building reveals the depth to which his thoughts run in concocting his plan. Similarly, in Dirty Harry Scorpio succeeds in warding off the police so that they are unable to detect who is sending the threatening messages. This leaves them powerless to locate and stop the murderous crimes that he plans to commit daily.
Both movies also compare with each other in the extent to which spectacular stunts were utilized as well as in the cinematographic elements. The location of the hostage situation in Die Hard and the extent to which John MacClane has to go to conceal his presence in the building leads to many situations in which people are pushed to the limit regarding their physical actions. Such scenes as the ones in which persons and cars are hurled through glass windows make spectacles that thrill the audience. In Dirty Harry, Callahan finds himself perched on the trestle of a railroad, waiting to jump onto a bus in motion that is carrying Scorpion. These scenes represent major stunts being performed by the actors (or doubles), and the spectacle created by each succeeds in exciting the action movie lovers that hold the films in high esteem.
The cinematographic elements of both films are also very interesting and technical. One particular scene in Dirty Harry shows an aerial view of Callahan as he crushes the wounded leg of the villain. The angle of the camera and its motion away from Harry symbolizes the removal of the audience from the pain of the victim (villain) and the rights that they grant to Harry to perform such an act that might have been considered cruel under normal circumstances.
This motion of the camera away from Harry shows, rather, the turning of a blind eye by not just the law but by upstanding people capable of making judgments concerning the morality and legality of this action. Harry is left to his own devices, and the cinematography ends up mirroring the trust that the American people place in their law enforcement officers.
The cinematography in Die Hard is also spectacular and meaningful, and it works in synchronization with the action of the film to create the exciting effect that it has on its audience. The scene previously mentioned in which the car is driven through the window is a foreshadowing of the final action sequence in which Gruber smashes through a window and hangs there with MacClane’s wife. The angle at which this is shot allows the audience to view the perspective of MacClane who now has his hands full with his wife (whom he’s trying to prevent from falling) while having a gun pointed up at him from a villain who is about to die. The angle of this shot holds certain similarities to the previously described Dirty Harry scene.
The cinematographers allow us to view the villain from above while he is experiencing vengeance and pain brought on by the protagonist. However, this scene differs from the Dirty Harry scene in that it represents the melding of victory and the possibility of loss for Harry. It also leads to one of the aspects in which the two protagonists actually differ. While Dirty Harry represents almost the quintessential tough guy who fears very little, John MacClane shows vulnerability in his love for his wife and his fear of her death.
The two movies differ also in the socio-political contexts of their histories. Having been made at the beginning of the 1970’s when social and political conditions in the United States were at a turning point (sexual revolution and widespread aversion to war/violence), the movie Dirty Harry made a much more sensational entrance into the movie field. The movie itself was both shocking and appealing to audiences, as it features scenes and themes that were never before dealt with in a similar fashion. The attitude of the protagonist himself, Harry Callahan, had before been prefigured in such characters as had been played by John Wayne in his movies.
However, Dirty Harry Callahan added to this an ruthlessness that itself rivaled the unscrupulous attitude of the villain. This depiction of a police officer had never before been seen, and though this is similar to the way John MacLane behaves in Die Hard, the impact of Dirty Harry on American audiences proved to be more shocking in its era.
Another area in which the two films compare is in the impact of the sexuality and language on the American public. However, this comparison must be considered on different levels, as the audiences of each era were both intrigued and excited by these thematic elements for different reasons. The sexuality found in Dirty Harry represented early attempts at being overtly sexual in any form. On the other hand, the sexual exploration found in Die Hard represents early attempts at being candid concerning homosexuality. The sexually explicit language of the Dirty Harry film was (like the explicit violence) new to the American public in 1971 when Dirty Harry was released.
In one of the beginning scenes, Harry refers to a previous slaying of a rapist who was pursuing a woman with a knife and a “hard on.” This explicit reference to the state of the criminal’s arousal while chasing the woman represents an attempt to demonstrate the nature of the crime being described—and in this Harry is supremely effective.
The decision of Dirty Harry directors’ to include this detail represents a very bold attempt to redefine sexual boundaries in American mainstream film. In Die Hard, however, the sexual undertones found in the language of John MacLane represent a type of homophobia that was not new to American society but which had just started coming under fire by human and gay rights activists. Therefore, both films lost some popularity with minority activist or socio-religious groups.
Die Hard was moderately offensive to the gay community in its paronomasia references to anal sex and the effeminacy of the villain Gruber. Dirty Harry, on the other hand, was able to gain some unpopularity merely through its indelicate references to sexual themes.
The films Dirty Harry and Die Hard are films that had a lasting effect on the American public for reasons having to do with their thematic concern with violence and the criminal mind. Both movies are concerned with lone-acting police officers who take on one of the most intelligent and cruel criminal minds of their time.
These police officers prove themselves to be resourceful and fast-thinking, especially when faced with difficult situations in which innocents are being tortured. The tensions created by the meeting of each villain and protagonist allow for the inclusion of many lurid scenes, and these in turn facilitate the use of interesting and spectacular cinematographic elements. The socio-political cultures of the time in which each movie was written also provided some ways in which several were opposed to the content or undertones of the films. However, the two films differ in the methods in which their elements shocked the public.
Siegel, Don. Dirty Harry. Hollywood: Warner Brothers, 1971.
McTiernan, John. Die Hard. Hollywood: 20th Century Fox, 1988.