Saturday, January 28, 2012

Gaze of the Gun

I just watched Don Siegel's 1971 cop drama Dirty Harry for probably the sixth of seventh time. People have written a lot about this film's politics, its violence, the wave of vigilante films that were made in its bombastic, blood-streaked wake. I won't retread old ground, but I did notice something interesting for the first time today: Siegel doesn't use a lot of close-ups, but when he does, they're calculated to evoke rage and fear.

An early close-up comes through the cross-hairs of a sniper rifle as Scorpio claims his first victim, an innocent woman swimming in a rooftop pool. Later closeups focus on Dirty Harry's sneering, barely suppressed rage or the sweaty cowering of the criminals he captures. But by far the most powerful closeups are those zeroing in on Harry's .44 magnum. The gun looms like a spectre, filling the frame, the black bore a yawning mouth eager to spit death. It takes on the aspect of some technological monster, barely restrained by the hand of its master. The visual impact is shocking and scary, bringing the violence of the film right into your lap.

The film's right-wing politics may make liberals like me a little uncomfortable, but as art, choices like this made the film an enduring classic. I'm in awe of Don Siegel and his cinematographer Bruce Surtees. Their mastery of the art of film was on full display here.

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