(The Dirty Harry franchise as an emblem of the moral imperative in violence)
Every boy, at some stage, has this daydream: he sits calmly while a bunch of thugs harass and bully him. But then they push his Mum / Sister / Girlfriend around. And boy becomes Man, psycho Man in fact, dealing out pain and destruction to the astonished thugs.
By extension, this feeds the vigilante film genre, which started with silent films (where the hero bested the villains and saved the heroine in the final reel), through all those westerns and cop shows, through Death Wish and on, up (or down) to fare such as Taken.
There is usually an important, significant, stress on the central figure’s struggle with defects in his character, with his regard to immutable high morality, with his desire to subjugate and impulse to extreme violence (once his moral sense has been engaged, hence the need to render the adversaries as multitudinous and loathsome as imaginable), towards his necessary apotheosis in a welter of blood.
Konrad Lorenz, in On Aggression, wrote: “If moral responsibility and unwillingness to kill have indubitably increased, the ease and emotional impunity of killing have increased at the same rate…..in one sense we are all psychopaths, for each of us suffers from the necessity of self-imposed control for the good of the community.”
Dirty Harry and its sequels are one of the more potent (and let’s admit it, satisfying) examples of this pathology. Detective Harry Callaghan (as perfectly portrayed by Clint Eastwood) destructively strides over street scum, police bureaucracy and City Hall, the U.S. Constitution and all forms of progressive thought; his shoot-the-punks-and-ask-questions-later, catch-all remedy to all social ills, is grotesque, repellent and irresistible. As he says in one entry to the series, “There’s nothing wrong with a little shooting…providing the right people get shot.”