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Dirty Harry Damns the Miranda Rights and Makes Room for Batman and Jack Bauer


Perhaps the most memorable scene in Dirty Harry is not the oft-parodied “Do you feel lucky?” monologue, but the moment where Harry confronts the downed “Scorpio” killer in San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium. Having just shot him in the leg, Harry proceeds to step on Scorpio’s wound in order to learn the location of his young female victim. “I have rights!,” Scorpio yells to no avail. Scorpio gives up the location, and Harry’s methods get him what he wants…sort of. (The girl is already dead.) Harry Callahan’s methods inspired future
anti-heroes to do whatever needs to be done in the name of justice,
Miranda rights and Geneva Convention be damned.

Today, everyone from Batman to 24‘s Jack Bauer use violence to pry information from the bad guys. No-nonsense cops like NYPD Blue‘s Andy Sipowicz aren’t afraid to whack perps with a phone book to get confessions, while Lost‘s
Sayid employs the brutal interrogation skills he learned in the
Iraqi military ad nauseum. (At least he feels bad
about it afterwards.) Torture has extended
beyond horror films to become a plot device in countless films and TV
shows. Action films often hinge on a scene where the hero has to take
matters into their own hands, incurring the wrath of their beleaguered
superiors. (Or — sometimes those superiors turn a blind eye:
Commissioner Gordon went to get a cup of coffee while Batman put the
hurt on Joker in The Dark Knight.) 

While often
dramatically effective, the use torture as a storytelling device has
gotten a bit lazy of late. (Jack Bauer uses torture to such an absurd
degree, it has become a running joke about the character.) If TV and
film heroes are always willing to go as far, or further, than “Dirty”
Harry, where’s the tension? In fact, using torture methods is almost
expected of today’s action heroes, an easy plot hook to both move the
story forward and create a moral dilemma for the protagonist. Back in
1971, “Dirty” Harry’s methods were incendiary. It’s more than a little
concerning that they seem downright tame today.

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