Photo collage: Nick Wanserski

With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

1971 was one of the all-time great years in action-movie history, but for the purposes of this column, it comes down to a two-horse race. The two frontrunners have a lot in common: They’re dark, bloody, gritty cop movies with morally compromised and noisily racist heroes, vehicular mayhem, and plenty of collateral damage. But there’s a crucial difference between Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry and William Friedkin’s The French Connection, and it’s not which coast the movie takes place on. Instead, the difference is this: One movie aims for reality, while the other one is pure fantasy. And because this column’s whole deal is to highlight which action movie turned out to be the most important of any given year, I’ve got to give the distinction to the fantasy. After all, that was the way action movies would go in the years that followed.

Now, The French Connection is a very important action movie. Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle is the model for any number of desperate, overdriven movie cops in the years that followed. The movie’s harrowing car/subway train chase was maybe the best chase ever filmed for a while, and it helped show what you could do with that sort of scene. And the movie won the Best Picture Oscar; to this day, it’s one of the few action movies ever to get serious Oscar consideration. That was an early signal that this nascent movie genre was worth attention. But The French Connection wasn’t Dirty Harry.

There are so many things about Dirty Harry that would return, over and over, in action movies. The trope where the hero happens across a robbery in progress—one that has nothing to do with the movie’s main story—and stops it is an action movie standby. It starts with Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, and then it goes on to torch-carriers like Steven Seagal in Hard To Kill or Brian Bosworth in Stone Cold. The movie’s lighting style, which constantly makes Eastwood look like an avenging god, is another starting point; it’s easy to imagine a young Michael Mann taking notes on that scene of Eastwood, on a rooftop, bathed in red from a church’s neon light. The dynamic between Eastwood’s inspector Harry Callahan and his levelheaded partner, Reni Santoni’s Chico Gonzalez, is an early version of the whole loose cannon/straight arrow chemistry that would repeat in many buddy cop movies.

But the movie’s main contribution is inspector Harry Callahan himself. Callahan wasn’t the first movie cop who plays by his own rules. Three years earlier, Steve McQueen had played a very similar guy in Bullitt, a movie that Dirty Harry ripped off indiscriminately. Both movies take place in San Francisco. Both have driving, badass Lalo Schifrin psych-funk scores. Both are loosely based on real-life figures involved in the Zodiac Killer case. Dirty Harry wasn’t even shy about biting. McQueen is even one of the many stars who turned the part down, which is weird to think about, though not as weird as the fact that Frank Sinatra almost played Callahan.

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Still, even if Callahan had his own precedents, he’s still the blueprint for so many of the ice-blooded action-movie heroes who would follow. He was rigid, morally upright, and unimpressed with any authority who would try to get in between him and his job. He’s also a sarcastic asshole. The first time we hear him deliver his “Do I feel lucky?” monologue, he’s taunting a bank robber who has no real chance to retaliate. It’s too long to be a one-liner, but the effect is the same. And most importantly, Callahan is willing to break the law completely and disobey orders if that’s what it takes to stop bad guys.

The main bad guy in question is such a nasty fuck that, by the movie’s logic, Callahan’s zealotry makes sense. Scorpio, the movie’s serial killer, shoots women and children and priests. He rapes and kidnaps. He smashes a bottle over a liquor store owner’s head for fun. He acts like he’s been morally wronged when cops try to stop him. He uses the system for all it’s worth, then pays a guy to beat him up so that he can blame it on the cops. He screams and whines and cries and cusses. By the end of the movie, he’s hijacking and terrorizing a school bus full of kids. If the movie had gone on long enough, he probably would’ve tied a woman to some train tracks.

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The movie never makes any attempt to turn Scorpio into an actual human being. We never learn why he’s out there killing. We barely learn anything about his pre-serial killing life. But we do see him, and he looks a whole lot like a floppy-haired flower child. At one point, Siegel’s camera even zooms conspicuously in on his peace-sign belt buckle. It’s no secret that Dirty Harry was a huge hit because it was playing on the tensions and the social climate of its time. The movie gets to cast Callahan as an upright enforcer because he’s got a villain as uncomplicatedly evil as any in movie history. And that stark, black-and-white division between the two characters is how we, the audience, end up booing the bleeding-heart district attorney who lets Scorpio go on a technicality, setting up the movie’s awesomely shot final showdown.

The movie’s whole political slant is a huge part of its legend. John Milius, the legendary right-wing gasbag genius of the ’70s auteur wave, had polished up the movie’s script, and his fingerprints are all over it. (Terrence Malick also wrote a draft, which is very strange.) At the time, critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert used the term “fascist” to talk about the movie, and that’s easy enough to see. The movie certainly profited on that whole culture-war mentality, and Eastwood is still pulling the same trick in his twilight years; word to American Sniper.

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But watching Dirty Harry now, none of that matters much. Some of the moments have aged awfully, like when Callahan tells his new Mexican partner how he feels about “spics.” (He winks when he says it, meaning the whole thing was supposed to play for laughs, which somehow makes it even shittier.) But after we’ve seen Jack Bauer spend years doing way, way nastier shit that Eastwood does in Dirty Harry, the movie feels relatively tame, at least from a fascism standpoint. Maybe Harry Callahan is a hero to assholes everywhere; I read someone, I forget who, making the great point that Harry Callahan is how The French Connection’s Popeye Doyle probably sees himself. But he’s also a great character, played with amazing levels of presence.

For Eastwood, Callahan is the Man With No Name, or any of the other Western heroes the actor had played, dropped suddenly into then-current San Francisco. He’s got the swagger, the thousand-yard stare, and the deeply unimpressed demeanor. When he foils that random bank robbery, he never even stops chewing his hot dog. And when he jumps down from a bridge onto that hijacked school bus—a stunt that Eastwood commendably did himself—it’s easy to see why so many action directors have spent decades ripping this movie off.

The movie’s impact was huge, undeniable, and immediate. Three years later, John Wayne, Eastwood’s fellow icon and another guy who’d turned down the Harry Callahan role, made his own transparent Dirty Harry ripoff with McQ. And Eastwood himself played variations on the role over the years. He also returned to the same role, playing Callahan in four other movies, the last of which features smacked-out rock star Jim Carrey lip-syncing “Welcome To The Jungle” and then yelling at music-video director Liam Neeson.

Other noteworthy 1971 action movies: The French Connection is obviously the first runner-up here, but there were plenty of classics that year. Vanishing Point elevated the chase movie to high art and inspired many more like it. Fist Of Fury, known elsewhere as The Big Boss, introduced the movie-star version of Bruce Lee, a ridiculous combination of fighting skills and crackling charisma. Billy Jack gave the world a left-wing answer to Harry Callahan, a bohemian pacifist who would kung-fu the shit out of redneck townies if he was absolutely forced. Get Carter gave Michael Caine a chance to show how nasty he could be. Diamonds Are Forever brought Sean Connery back to the James Bond role. Shaft was really more a detective movie than an action one, but it perfected the whole blaxploitation aesthetic, and that would have a huge effect on the decade’s action movies. And then there was Duel, a shockingly effective made-for-TV movie about a mysterious killer truck that gave Steven Spielberg his first-ever directing credit for a feature-length film and served as a dry run for Jaws. 1971 was too stacked, man. Any of those movies could’ve served as the basis for this column in a lesser year.

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Next time: Bruce Lee reaches icon status with The Way Of The Dragon, and he introduced Chuck Norris to the world in the process.