Dirty Harry (1971) was a critical and commercial success and set the style for a whole genre of police films. The film was followed by four sequels: Magnum Force in 1973, The Enforcer in 1976, Sudden Impact in 1983 (directed by Eastwood himself), and The Dead Pool in 1988.
In 2008, Dirty Harry was selected by Empire magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.
A serial killer who calls himself "Scorpio" (Andy Robinson) murders a young woman in a San Fransisco swimming pool, using a high-powered .30-06 hunting rifle from the top of 555 California Street. SFPD Police Inspector Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) finds a ransom message promising his next victims will be "a Catholic Priest or a nigger" if the city does not pay $100,000. The chief of police and the Mayor (John Vernon) assign the inspector to the case.
Callahan goes to a local diner for lunch, where a robbery is in progress. The inspector—alone with his .44 Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver—challenges one of the robbers, after shooting three others, who lies wounded near a loaded 12 gauge Winchester Model 1912 shotgun:
"I know what you're thinking: Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all of this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is the 44 Magnum, the most powerful hand gun in the world and could blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?"
The robber surrenders rather than taking the risk, then says "I gots to know". Callahan answers the question by pulling the trigger, while aiming at the criminal; the gun was, in fact, empty.
Callahan is assigned a rookie partner, Chico Gonzalez (Reni Santoni). The veteran officer notes that his partners always get injured or worse so he needs someone experienced, but has no choice. Scorpio kills a young black boy from another rooftop, and the police believes the killer will next pursue a Catholic priest. Callahan and Gonzalez wait for Scorpio near the Sts. Peter and Paul Church. A shootout ensues, but Scorpio escapes, killing an officer.
Scorpio kidnaps, rapes and buries alive a teenage girl (Debralee Scott), then demands twice his previous ransom before the girl's air runs out. The mayor decides to pay, and tells Callahan to deliver the money with no tricks, but the inspector wears a wire and brings a knife. Scorpio sends Callahan to various payphones throughout the city to separate the inspector from any backup, but his partner follows him. The chase ends at the enormous cross at Mount Davidson. Scorpio brutally beats Callahan; Gonzalez arrives and saves his partner, but is wounded. Callahan stabs Scorpio in the leg, but the killer escapes without the money. Gonzalez survives his wound, but decides to resign from the force.
The doctor who treated Scorpio tells Callahan and his new partner, Frank DiGiorgio (John Mitchum), that he has seen Scorpio in Kezar Stadium. running out of time, the officers search the killer's room without a warrant and Callahan shoots Scorpio in his wounded leg. When Scorpio refuses to reveal the location of the girl and instead asks for a lwayer, Callahan tortures the killer by standing on the leg. Scorpio confesses and the police exhume the dead girl.
Because Callahan broke into Scorpio's home and seized his rifle, the District Attorney decides that the killer cannot be charged. An outraged Callahan follows Scorpio on his own time. Scorpio pays a thug to give him a severe, but controlled beating, then claims that the inspector is responsible. Callahan is ordered to stop following Scorpio, despite his protest that he did not beat the killer. Meanwhile, Scorpio assaults a liquor store owner and steals his Walther P38 handgun.
Scorpio kidnaps a school bus load of children. He demands another ransom and a plane to leave the country. The mayor again insists on paying but Callahan instead pursues Scorpio without authorization, jumping onto the top of the bus from a railroad trestle. The killer flees into a nearby rock quarry, where he has a gun battle with Callahan. Scorpio retreats until he takes a young boy as a hostage.
The inspector pretends to be willing to surrender then wounds the killer. The boy runs away and Callahan stands over Scorpio, gun drawn. The inspector reprises his "Do I feel lucky?" speech. Scorpio tries his luck and lunges for his 9mm Walther P38 pistol. The inspector shoots him in the chest, propelling Scorpio into the water. As Callahan watches the dead body float on the surface, he takes out his inspector's badge, angrily hurls it into the water, and walks away.
Dirty Harry was well received by critics and is regarded as one of the best films of 1971. The film holds a 95% approval rating on the Review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. It was nominated at the Edgar Allen Poe Awards for Best Motion Picture. The film caused controversy when it was released, sparking debate over issues ranging from police brutality to victims' rights and the nature of law enforcement. Feminists in particular were outraged by the film and at the Oscars for 1971 protested outside holding up banners which read messages such as "Dirty Harry is a Rotten Pig".
Many critics expressed concern with what they saw as bigotry, with Newsweek describing the film as "a right-wing fantasy", Variety as "a specious, phony glorification of the police and police brutality with a superhero whose antics become almost satire" and a raging review by Pauline Kael of The New Yorker who accused Eastwood of a "single-minded attack against liberal values". Several people accused him of racism in the decision to cast four African-Americans as the bank robbers. Eastwood dismissed the political outrage, claiming that Callahan was just obeying a higher moral authority, and said, "some people are so politically oriented, when they see cornflakes in a bowl, they get some complex interpretation out of it".
Eastwood's iconic portrayal of the blunt, cynical, unorthodox detective who is seemingly in perpetual trouble with his incompetent bosses, set the style for a number of his later roles and, indeed, a whole genre of "loose-cannon" cop films. The film resonated with an American public that had become weary and frustrated with the increasing violent urban crime that was characteristic of the time. The film was released at a time when throughout 1970 and 1971 there were prevalent reports of local and federal police committing atrocities and overstepping their authority by entrapment and obstruction of justice. Author McGilligan, argued that America needed a hero, a winner at a time when the authorities were losing the battle against crime. The box-office success of Dirty Harry led to the production of four sequels.
The motif of a cop who cares more for justice than rules was one subsequently imitated by a number of other films. John Wayne, who like Eastwood was associated with the Western genre, starred in McQ and later Brannigan. Sylvester Stallone's Cobra and Judge Dredd shares many elements with Dirty Harry, a cop with an obsession for justice, a law system that is more concerned about the criminal than the victim, and a psychotic killer. The film is also an adaption of the novel Fair Game and was originally intended by Stallone to be the basis of Beverley Hills Cop while he was involved with the project. Stallone's own movie was plagiarised by Italian film producers for the Fred Williamson Blaxploitation film Black Cobra, which also mimicked the famous 'Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?' scene from Dirty Harry.