Two gas company men are lured by a scantily-clad woman to a remote spot and killed by Bobby Maxwell. Maxwell's gang, the People's Revolutionary Strike Force (PRSF), plans to use the gas men's uniforms and van as part of an ambitious series of crimes that will make them rich.
Inspector Harry Callahan and his newly-acquired partner Frank DiGeorgio arrive at a liquor store where robbers armed with shotguns and revolvers have taken hostages. The robbers demand a car and insult Callahan; the inspector provides one by driving his squad car into the store and shooting the robbers with his famed .44 Magnum revolver.
His superior Captain McKay reprimands Callahan for "excessive use of force", injuring the hostages, and causing more than $14,000 of damage to the store, and temporarily transfers him out of the Homicide Division. While assigned to Personnel Callahan participates in the interview process for promotions, and learns that three of the new Inspectors will be Female including Kate Moore, despite her very limited field experience.
The PRSF uses the gas company van to steal M72 Laws rockets, M16 Rifles and AR-18 Rifles from a warehouse, killing DiGeorgio during the robbery. To Callahan's distress, Moore is his new partner; she claims to understand the risk, noting that—besides DiGeorgio—two other partners of his have died in the line of duty. They visit the Hall of Justice for an autopsy where a bomb explodes. Callahan and Moore chase and capture the PRSF bomber and meet "Big" Ed Mustapha, leader of a black militant group the bomber formerly belonged to.
Although Callahan makes a deal with Mustapha for information, McKay arrests the militants for the PRSF's crimes. Callahan angrily refuses to participate in a televised press conference in which the publicity-seeking Mayor would commend him and Moore for solving the case, and McKay suspends him from duty. Moore supports Callahan and gains his respect.
The PRSF boldly kidnaps the Mayor after a Giants game and demands a $5 million ransom. With Mustapha's help Callahan and Moore locate the gang's headquarters at Alcatraz Island, abandoned at the time. The two arrive on the island by way of the San Fransisco's Fire Department Fireboat Phoenix, where they attack and kill numerous PRSF members with it's powerful water cannons. They then engage in a shootout with the kidnappers to rescue the mayor, who is being held in an old prison cell. Moore frees the Mayor after killing one of the kidnappers, but Maxwell kills her with an M16 as she saves Callahan's life. He avenges Moore by killing Maxwell, perched atop an abandoned tower, with a LAW rocket. The inspector is uninterested in the Mayor's gratitude, returning to his partner's corpse as McKay and others arrive by helicopter in agreement to meet the PRSF's demands, without knowledge that Callahan has already killed them all and rescued the mayor.
The first script was written in 1974 by two young San Francisco area film students, Gail Morgan Hickman and S.W. Schurr, with the title Moving Target. After seeing Dirty Harry and Magnum Force, the two fledgling writers decided to pen a screenplay of their own featuring the character of Inspector Harry Callahan. Inspired by the Patty Hearst kidnapping in 1974, the storyline had Inspector Harry Callahan going up against a violent militant group reminiscent of the Simbionese Liberation Army. In the script, the militants kidnap and ransom the mayor of San Francisco.
After the screenplay was finished Hickman visited Eastwood's Carmel restaurant, The Hog's Breath Inn, and approached Eastwood's business partner, Paul Lippman, asking if he would give their effort to Eastwood. Lippman was initially hesitant, but finally agreed. Although Eastwood thought the script needed work, he liked the concept, particularly the priest with militant leanings and the portrayal of black militants, which was based on the Black Panther Party.
Warner Brothers, meanwhile, eager to capitalize on the success of the two Dirty Harry films, had hired seasoned screenwriter Stirling Siliphant to write a new Harry Callahan story. Silliphant wrote a script called Dirty Harry and More, in which the Callahan character was teamed up with an Asian-American woman partner named More. Eastwood liked the woman partner angle, but felt the script spent too much time on character and did not have enough action. Eastwood then showed the Hickman/Schurr script to Silliphant, and Silliphant agreed to rewrite it.
Silliphant wrote the script throughout late 1975 and early 1976 and delivered his draft to Eastwood in February 1976. While Eastwood approved, he believed there was still too much emphasis on the character relationships rather than the action and was concerned the fans might not approve. He then brought in screenwriter Dean Riesner, who had worked on the scripts of Dirty Harry and Coogan's Bluff, to do revisions.
Recurring characters Lieutenant Bressler (Harry Guardino) and Frank DiGeorgio (John Mitchum) reprise their roles for the last time in a Dirty Harry film. Bressler was Callahan's boss in the first film of the series, while DiGeorgio appeared in the previous two while he dies in this film. A new character, Captain Jerome McKay (Bradford Dillman), was introduced as Callahan's superior officer. Dillman played a similar role, Captain Briggs, in Sudden Impact.
Kate Moore was originally proposed to play the part of the female cop, but in the end it went to Tyne Daly. Her casting was initially uncertain, given that she turned down the role three times. She objected to the way her character was treated in parts to the film and showed concern that two members of the police force falling in love on the job was problematic, given that they would be putting their lives in jeopardy by not reaching peak efficiency. Daly was permitted to read the drafts of the script developed by Riesner and had significant leeway in the development of her character, although after seeing the film at the premiere was horrified by the extent of the violence. Regarding Callahan's relationship with Moore, Eastwood stated:
"I didn't see Dirty Harry going for a Hollywood-type glamour girl. He's the kind of guy that when he dated somebody it was probably a secretary or receptionist somewhere, somebody he would meet along the way...Tyne Daly was perfect for the part. It starts out like great love should, it starts out...by earning respect and she earns his respect and then you think "Could be, could go another step."
When production began the working title of the film was Dirty Harry III, in keeping with other sequels of the time. Eastwood, however, felt that the film needed a title of its own, and in the middle of production came up with the title The Enforcer.
After his disputes with Ted Post on the set of the previous Dirty Harry instalment, Eastwood fully intended to direct The Enforcer himself. In a twist of irony however, Eastwood's replacement of Philip Kaufman on The Outlaw Josey Wales (and the consequent need to handle post-production on that film) left Eastwood without enough preparation time to prepare himself to direct The Enforcer. As a result, Eastwood gave the director's chair to James Fargo, his longtime assistant Director, who made his debut as a full director on this film. Eastwood had the final say on all the critical decisions, but since the two men were far more familiar with each other's working styles than Eastwood had been with Ted Post, they rarely butted heads during production.
Filming commenced in the San Francisco bay area in the summer of 1976. Eastwood was initially still dubious about the quantity of his lines and preferred a less talkative approach, something perhaps embedded in him by Sergio Leone. The film ended up considerably shorter than the previous Dirty Harry films, and was cut to 95 minutes for its final running time.
The music score for The Enforcer was written by Jerry Fielding, making The Enforcer the only Dirty Harry film without a score by Lalo Schifrin. The film was originally intended to be the last Dirty Harry film of a trilogy. A poll conducted by Warner Bros in 1983 led to the development of a fourth film, Sudden Impact and the resurrection of the film series. Eastwood never intended to make more Dirty Harry films, but private agreements with the studio allowed him to do more "personal" films in exchange for doing the subsequent sequels.
Critically, Eastwood's performance was poorly received and was named "Worst Actor of the Year" by the Harvard Lampoon and the film was criticized for its level of violence. A Variety review indicated that the film was a "worn out copy of Dirty Harry. ... The next project from this particular mold had better shape up or give up."
Eastwood's performance in the third installment was overshadowed by positive reviews given to Daly in her convincing role as the strong-minded female cop, which she would follow up with a similar and more famous role in Det. Mary Beth Lacey in the television series, Cagney & Lacey Feminist reviewers in particular gave Daly rave reviews, with Marjorie Rosen remarking that Malpaso "had invented a heroine of steel" and Jean Hoelscher of Hollywood Reporter praising Eastwood for abandoning his ego in casting such a strong female actress in his film.
Box office performance
Upon release in the fall of 1976, The Enforcer was a major commercial success and grossed a total of $100 million, $60 million in the United States and easily became Eastwood's best selling film to date, earning more than some of his previous films combined. Overall this figure made it the most profitable of the Dirty Harry series for seven years until the release of Sudden Impact.