No. 7: Sudden Impact

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

If you look at Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact as an attempt to tell a story, it’s a failure in every way. The plot is nowhere near cohesive or linear, the characters are so paper thin it’s hard to tell the victims from the villains (or even the heroes for that matter), even the title doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the actual content of the story. Yet in almost every other way, critically, financially and popularity-wise, the film is a success. It finished with $67.6 million at the box office (making it the highest grossing of the five Dirty Harry films) and it did relatively well with critics (positive reviews from Roger Ebert and others, though not from the notoriously crabby Vincent Canby). It gave the people exactly what they wanted in 1983, which means that while it provides us today with a perfectly preserved time capsule of the nation’s attitude in 1983, it is a movie that is far too “of the moment” to stand up well and resonate with a modern audience.

Vincent Canby’s review makes him look awfully ahead of his time, or perhaps completely out of touch with his own time. He berates the film and Eastwood calling the screenplay “ridiculous” and Eastwood’s direction “primitive” and most importantly expresses disgust at the film’s morality, which amazingly was not a popular opinion in 1983. Roger Ebert takes a more lighthearted approach to the film, almost ironically appreciating the complete and utter disregard for human life and law and order displayed in the movie. Criminals are shot in broad daylight and essentially left where they fall and never mentioned again. There are easily more people killed in the film at the hands of Eastwood’s rogue cop Harry Callahan than by any of the so-called “bad guys” and yet audiences didn’t seem to feel any moral equivocation about this in 1983. On the contrary, they couldn’t get enough of it.

Sudden Impact began its life as a screenplay designed to be a vehicle for actress Sondra Locke, a name that doesn’t register to most movie fans today but who was a fairly well-known name in 1983. Locke burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old phenom earning an Oscar nomination for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in 1968. For most of the ’70s and ’80s, Locke was perhaps most well known as the romantic partner of Clint Eastwood, starring alongside him in several of his biggest movies during that era. This screenplay, built around a controversial revenge tale of a woman hunting down and killing the group of men who raped her and her sister, would give Locke a starring role in what would be a unique take on the vigilante justice genre.

In the meantime, Warner Bros. was in the midst of conducting some research in preparation for what many believed was a pretty tricky move: the marketing of Never Say Never Again. Warner Bros. was looking to see just how popular Sean Connery still was and how strong an impression he had made on contemporary audiences. As a part of that research, Warner Bros. asked audiences about some other well-known male film characters and were shocked to discover that Dirty Harry came back with one of the strongest and most positive responses. Upon seeing these numbers, Warner Bros. approached Eastwood about the possibility of making another Dirty Harry movie, reviving a franchise that had been dormant since 1976. Warner Bros. essentially threw themselves at Eastwood, offering him an almost absurd 60% of the total profits to act and direct in a new Dirty Harry movie.

Eastwood decided to kill two professional birds with one stone and adapted Locke’s rape-revenge project into a Dirty Harry script. On the surface, it seems like a pretty good fit, as Locke fills the role of a female counterpoint, a “Dirty Harriet” if you will, that takes on the same kind of vigilante attitude that audiences loved so much about Harry Callahan.

Watching Locke blow away her victims in cold blood (and regardless of the crimes they committed, they are victims in this situation), I can’t help but think that I’m having a completely different reaction to this film than the average 1983 audience member would have had. From what I’ve seen elsewhere in the ’80s (including moments in Psycho II), there are signs that indicate a prevailing feeling that the justice system was inherently flawed, protecting criminals more than innocent citizens and victims. The Dirty Harry series was always built on that premise but Sudden Impact takes the idea to a new level and takes the solution (i.e. Callahan’s willingness to shoot criminals rather than arrest them) to new heights as well.

In the middle of what is perhaps the most violent scene in the film, a robbery that takes place early in the movie in a diner, Callahan utters the film’s most famous line and indeed one of the most famous and oft-referenced lines in all of movie history: “Go ahead, make my day.” It’s so well-known today that the line has almost no impact when 2011 ears hear it but in the context of the film, it actually sums up the film’s irresponsible attitude toward crime and punishment. The line is said to one of the robbers as a sort of dare for the robber to shoot the hostage he is holding at gunpoint, I guess with the implication being that if he shoots the hostage, Callahan will not only not care but he’ll actually be pleased because he’ll then be justified in shooting the robber. This is a horrifyingly callous approach to take for someone who is supposed to be a hero and it illustrates that Callahan is essentially a murderer who happens to work for the good guys.

Yes, I am oversimplifying and over-moralizing a movie that is not intended to be taken seriously, at least not fully. This is escapist entertainment designed to stir those ultra-conservative passions and frustrations that so drove the public’s thinking in the Reagan era. Is my view on this movie the product of political correctness seeping into the culture for the last 30 years? I’m sure it is, but I’m also pretty sure that’s not always a bad thing. Movies like this not only show violence in a positive light but they also just aren’t very good movies. Sudden Impact isn’t a mystery film that asks us to follow around a violent character who uses any means necessary to get to the bottom of the crime. It’s not a mystery because from the very beginning of the film, we always know exactly who the criminal is – and we’re asked to root for her! Instead, Sudden Impact‘s thrills come not from story revelations but from a series of loosely strung together episodes of Callahan and Locke shooting criminals in variously uncomfortable parts of their anatomy.

When I say “loosely strung together”, I mean that in between scenes of violence, we are treated to an almost innumerable list of scenes of various police authority figures (most notable Pat Hingle who played Commissioner Gordon in the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films) wagging their fingers at Callahan and stereotypically reprimanding him for all the mayhem he causes while simultaneously praising him for his results. It’s unbearably trite today and was probably unoriginal even in 1983.

If the film has any effective moments, they can be found in Locke’s storyline which at times is a truly disturbing and even horrifying subplot. Locke’s rage motivating her killings is illustrated to us in the form of quick and startling flashback shots of the terrible gang rape that she and her now-catatonic sister suffered as teenagers. I find Locke herself to even be slightly disturbing to look at in this film. Her wide and dark eyes, pale complexion and thin build make her a convincing psychotic killer, though it doesn’t help me to see her as a legitimate romantic lead for Eastwood.

Over the course of this project I’ve encountered a number of films that work extremely well in 2011, probably as well or even better than they did upon first release in 1983. Sudden Impact is unquestionably at the other end of the scale, a movie that clearly made a huge impact on audiences in 1983 but is almost incomprehensible to a modern viewer. It’s almost as if the film were made in another a language and in a way it was. It speaks to an American culture and attitude that simply doesn’t exist anymore. In this writer’s opinion, that’s a good thing.

DOWNLOAD: Back to the Movies Podcast – Sudden Impact (with guest Ben Flanagan)

Next Up: We’ve seen Sean Connery as James Bond in 1983, now it’s Roger Moore’s turn at bat in Octopussy.