If it weren’t for the crime and action films I saw over thirty years ago, I would not be a novelist today. Big-balls movies goosed my flesh and blew up my world view, stoking me to the degree that, even then, I knew that I would someday make my living telling stories. Unfortunately, the kinds of films that got me amped originally are, for the most part, no longer being produced. If I were a kid now, watching movies, I would be completely uninspired.
Filmmakers in the late 60s and early 70s consistently reached for the political subtext beneath the genre trappings, delivering the goods both viscerally and cerebrally. Point Blank (1967) and Bullitt (1968), starring the twin icons of 60’s cool, Marvin and McQueen, were more than skillfully-crafted crime films; they commented on the decade by contrasting their leading men’s physical presence and anachronistic codes of honor against a rapidly changing, desk bound, mechanized world. The Dirty Dozen (1967) was an ode to anti-authoritarianism, and radically challenged the audience to reexamine its notions of heroism and war; the film’s unsettling climax had its protagonists pouring gasoline and grenades over German officers and their women. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) was a Marxist rewrite of American history itself, its crippled and cancer-riddled industrialist a stand-in for the disease of Manifest Destiny. The Wild Bunch centered on a group of Americans trapped in a foreign land, fighting a war they neither asked for nor understood. To 1969 audiences, the similarities to Vietnam were not lost.
As the decade turned, the nominal heroes of Boorman, Yates, Aldrich, Leone, and Peckinpah gave mutant birth to Friedkin’s Popeye Doyle, Coppola’s Corleone clan, and Scorcese’s Travis Bickle. Among this group was Harry Callahan, from 1971’s Dirty Harry. Clint Eastwood, in his fourth collaboration with director Don Siegel, played the title role, a San Francisco police detective on the trail of a serial killer named Scorpio.
There are few films as shockingly violent, anarchic, and antisocial as Dirty Harry. Women are buried alive, children are murdered, and the weak and disenfranchised are threatened (Scorpio, in a letter to City Hall, promises to kill “a Catholic priest and a nigger.”) Harry shoots an unarmed Scorpio from across a football field, the .44 Mag round blowing him off his feet and flipping him like an animal. “I have a right to a lawyer,” whimpers Scorpio pathetically, just before Callahan steps on his wounded leg (Andy Robinson’s Scorpio is the picture’s secret weapon; he plays him as a retarded hippie, a giggling, twisted, Charlie Manson). Siegel presents the American City as a moral sewer where attorneys have neutered the courts and religion is useless, a joke. In the face of this, the only savior is a vigilante cop. Clearly, this film would never get the green light now.
So what do we have today? Instead of Point Blank‘s Lee Marvin, a genuine badass, we have Payback‘s more warm and friendly Mel Gibson. Or, courtesy of Tarentino and his Sons, we have films about guys who want to be Lee Marvin. Instead of The Dirty Dozen, we have The Dirty Dozen on a Highjacked Airplane (Con Air), produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, whose films typically feature characters who are, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler (who was talking about Alan Ladd at the time), a little boy’s idea of a tough guy. Instead of true noir we have movies about noir (U-Turn) and the dilettante nihilism of a David Fincher. Instead of thoughtful, exhilarating action films, we have? well, we have jack shit.
About now you’re saying, what does this guy want? Well, for one, to feel something, other than the feeling of being used, when I’m watching a genre film. Conflict is the stuff of drama, and there is no greater conflict than that of life and death. That, and how such conflicts play out against the problems of the society we live in, are what drew me to crime writing to begin with. But none of it works without character. Not type—character. Along with the hyperkinetic set pieces, I want to see real, conflicted people on the screen: Jim Brown making his mad, doomed, final dash towards freedom across the courtyard of that German chateau; Warren Oates’ scream of mortal release, his blood geysering amidst hundreds of ejecting rounds at the Battle of Bloody Porch; the stone cold murder of Scorpio by Harry Callahan. All of these moments stay with me to this day because the characters in these films, infinitely flawed, are human.
What happened? Somewhere along the line, an entire industry decided that action films shouldn’t really be about anything or have a point of view. Soaring production costs necessitate huge, opening-weekend grosses. It’s the shotgun approach: movies have to reach the widest possible audience to succeed. Don’t offend anyone with politics or controversy. Don’t turn any potential ticket buyer off with a protagonist they might not “like.” The less interesting, the less thought-provoking we make it, the safer we are.
Studio execs will tell you that pictures like Dirty Harry don’t test well, or that unsympathetic protagonists will confuse audiences. To those in the business, I’d like to offer the following: We’re smarter than you think we are, so don’t put the blame for your inferior product on us. The truth is, you haven’t got the guts.
Originally published in GQ, 2001.