By Paul-John Ramos
There has clearly been no love lost between Harry Callahan and his superiors in the San Francisco Police Department three years after turning over a band of vigilante cops in Magnum Force. Inspector Callahan (Clint Eastwood) remains dedicated to his style of playing rough with criminals, which repeatedly gets him transferred or suspended from the homicide division but just as quickly reinstated whenever the city is in crisis.
This time, he is in hot water for ending a hostage situation by driving his patrol car through a storefront and gunning down all of the perpetrators. Captain McKay (Bradford Dillman), a snarky bureaucrat with ambition, has Callahan transferred to Personnel, where he is kept off the streets and sits on a panel that evaluates officers for promotion. Joining the panel when San Francisco is looking to advance women in the police force, he takes issue with inexperienced officers being made detectives solely on the basis of their gender.
In the meantime, a terrorist group called the People’s Revolutionary Strike Force is hatching a plot to steal arms from a warehouse, kidnap the mayor, and demand a huge ransom. The group drives off with machine guns, tasers, and handheld rocket launchers besides taking out Callahan’s partner Frank DiGeorgio (John Mitchum), who answers the call while on night duty. After the mayor (John Crawford) is taken hostage in a bloody standoff, Callahan is returned to his investigative role and finds himself with none other than Kate Moore (Tyne Daly), whom he interviewed and found had little to no experience in detective work.
A third installment of Warner Brothers’ Dirty Harry series, The Enforcer was originally meant to complete a trilogy that began with Don Siegel’s ground-breaking film Dirty Harry in 1971 and Magnum Force, a response to outcry at Harry Callahan’s perceived fascism, in 1973. We now know, of course, that Clint Eastwood would be lured back into making Sudden Impact (1983) and The Dead Pool (1988) after the series had become part of 1970s folklore and somewhat more acceptable to critics. In 1976, however, this was still some time off and The Enforcer continued to stir the waters of controversy between action fans and opponents of film violence.
After sitting through Magnum Force, a film that bathes itself in grime and is almost devoid of the wry humor that helped to make Dirty Harry special, The Enforcer largely returns to the original film’s spirit and is much better for it. James Fargo, who was an assistant director for Eastwood on several earlier films, has put together a solid drama that crackles with tension and is well-paced. If things went as planned, The Enforcer would have been a downbeat yet satisfying end to the series, with the Dirty Harry character already secure in imaginations and a benchmark for 1970s police films.
While there are several good performances to be had, the screen chemistry of Eastwood and Tyne Daly is what truly drives this film. The screenplay, a combination of work by Gail Morgan Hickman, S.W. Schurr, Stirling Silliphant, and Dean Riesner, seems to have found its engine in the growing trust between Callahan and Moore at a time when American police forces were seeing women enter more significant roles. Their brief evolution as partners is nicely woven into a mid-1970s setting where terrorist groups and militants are looking to wreak havoc.
In his directorial debut, James Fargo enjoys a cast with several Dirty Harry veterans. Harry Guardino, absent from Magnum Force, is back as Lieutenant Bressler, Callahan’s immediate supervisor who gets driven up the wall by his methods but recognizes how important he is to the force. Bradford Dillman gives a very appropriate turn as Captain McKay, the irritating empty suit whose priorities (sucking up to the Mayor’s Office) are polar opposites of Callahan’s. Albert Popwell, whose bank robber was on the receiving end of Callahan’s “Do you feel lucky?” speech, charms as Big Ed Mustapha, the leader of a Black militant organization that is incorrectly blamed for the Revolutionary Strike Force’s trouble. TV veteran John Crawford gives an interesting portrayal as the mayor, who seems more of a clueless drip than inherently corrupt. Nick Pellegrino appears as Martin, his chief of staff.
A common complaint about this film is underdevelopment of the Strike Force. This motley crew is led by Bobby Maxwell (Shakespearean actor DeVeren Bookwalter), a vicious psychopath who looks more interested in killing than building a movement. While their portrayals work very well, the film’s 97 minutes have no room to show their ideology, what their motivations are, or who they are as people. We only know that they’re willing to kill, have taken hold of a small arsenal, and are a threat to peaceful society. I don’t know anything about the film’s screenplay but wonder if there was a fleshing out of these characters that didn’t reach the end product.
Even with this flaw and a few annoying gaps in plot – such as the question of why there isn’t a police escort travelling with the mayor when he’s kidnapped – The Enforcer is an above-average police film with very good performances, tight direction, and efficient technical work that includes photography by Charles Short (later for TV’s Seinfeld), editing by Joel Cox and Ferris Webster, and stunt coordination by Buddy Van Horn. Unfortunately, Lalo Schifrin was not available to write his third Dirty Harry soundtrack but Eastwood did hire Jerry Fielding, whose jazz style suits the city environment well.
I would not have minded The Enforcer being longer so that we could get a better feel for the revolutionaries who are looking to grab San Francisco by its throat. But overall, this is a satisfying film in what would, and perhaps should, have been the swan song of Dirty Harry’s time on the big screen. Sudden Impact and The Dead Pool followed, which series fans often consider as parodies of what came before.
It will be interesting to see how The Enforcer and its sister films will be viewed by the general public in this era of conflict with law enforcement; but that is for another day. Amongst action and police film fans, it can be appreciated for keeping true to the original film’s spirit of grittiness, nerve, humor, and tragedy.