Filmsite Movie Review
Sudden Impact (1983)
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Background

Sudden Impact (1983) is the fourth "Dirty Harry" film (and the highest grossing film of the series), and noted as the only one that was directed by star Clint Eastwood. The violence-ridden movie was another iteration of Eastwood's contemptuous, anti-heroic character of a 'wild West' vigilante-law enforcer on the loose who consistently defied authority, legal guidelines and bureaucratic policies, and his superiors in an urban setting.

The 'Dirty Harry' films (over a 17 year period) included:

  • Dirty Harry (1971), d. Don Siegel
  • Magnum Force (1973), d. Ted Post
  • The Enforcer (1976), d. James Fargo
  • Sudden Impact (1983), d. Clint Eastwood
  • The Dead Pool (1988), d. Buddy Van Horn

The R-rated, Warner Bros.' film popularized the phrase: "Go ahead, make my day" - a line that was similarly spoken first by undercover detective Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) in Vice Squad (1982) a year earlier, as the cop held a gun to the face of about-to-be arrested pimp Ramrod (Wings Hauser) ("Come on, scumbag, make your move, make my day"). The famous line was revitalized when President Ronald Reagan used it in a speech on March 13, 1985, as he threatened to veto a Congressional tax increase.

The seamy film's female vigilante plot was similar to:

  • Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (1968, Fr.)
  • Abel Ferrara's Ms .45 (1981)
  • Meir Zarchi's I Spit on Your Grave (1978) (aka Day of the Woman)

It also resembled a version of Death Wish (1974), and was paid homage by Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films from 2003-2004. The elongated barrel on Harry's powerful weapons were often a symbolic stand-in for his male potency, while the female serial-killer's weapon was a modest hand-gun..

Some reviewers questioned the meaning of the film's title - it seemed to have no relation to the content of the film. However, it became the highest grossing film of the 5-film franchise, at $67.6 million (domestic). The high body count included 20 individuals or victims, who were mostly shot and killed at point-blank range by Eastwood's character, even though the spotlight was on the murders of the film's serial killer. [Note: The dead included George Wilburn, three diner robbers, mobster Threlkis (from a heart-attack), three of Threlkis' hit-men, Hawkins and his two cronies (drowned), Kruger, a fourth Threlkis hit-man, Tyrone, the foul-mouthed Ray Parkins, Detective Horace, Officer Jannings, the two brothers: Eddie and Carl Kruger, and Mick.]

The story was highlighted by its final climactic set-piece - a suspenseful chase through a carnival amusement park, including a climb up onto an historic 1924 Giant Dipper roller coaster ride and an ornate, spinning 1911 carousel, similar to the runaway out-of-control merry-go-round set-piece in the ending of Hitchcock's Strangers On a Train (1951). Other Hitchcock references included Vertigo (1958) (the opening murder scene occurred within view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the style of the flashbacks, etc.), the Psycho-like opening (a lengthy zoom shot beginning with aerial views), and Marnie (1964) (the film's female character resembled cool blonde Hitchcock-star Tippi Hedren).

The exploitative crime thriller was enhanced by the dynamic, jazzy music score by Lalo Schifrin (often resembling Hitchcock's favorite composer Bernard Herrmann), and the ending credits theme song "This Side of Forever" by Roberta Flack.

The Story


The First Serial Killer Murder - George Wilburn:

The police thriller, set in the late spring of 1983, opened with aerial shots of San Francisco at nighttime from a helicopter. During a lover's lane tryst in the back seat of a car parked at a deserted SF Bay overlook near the Cliff House, George Wilburn (Michael Maurer) was murdered at point-blank range with two shots - one to the groin and one to the head, by an unidentified blonde female castration-killer.

The Introduction of San Francisco Homicide Detective Harry Callahan - A Believer in Vigilante Justice:

In the next scene set in a SF courtroom, charges of murder were dismissed by Honorable Judge Lundstrom (Lois De Banzie) against defendant Hawkins (Kevyn Major Howard), due to San Francisco Homicide Inspector Harry Callahan's (Clint Eastwood) procedural arrest errors (an illegal search and seizure): "(He) did not have sufficient probable cause for detaining Mr. Hawkins. The gun is inadmissible and the charges against the defendant are dismissed!" The Judge reproached and reprimanded the unorthodox Callahan for his improper disregard for police protocol.

In the elevator as they left the court, the uninhibited Callahan grabbed Hawkins' tie and threatened to deal with him later - with crude insults:

Listen, punk. To me, you're nothin' but dog shit, you understand? Many things can happen to dog shit. It can be scraped up with a shovel off the ground. It can dry up and blow away in the wind, or it can be stepped on and squashed. So take my advice: Be careful where the dog shits ya.

The Coffee Shop Robbery: "Go ahead, make my day!"

Just before one of the most famous movie lines of all time, the perturbed Callahan entered his favorite coffee shop diner, the Acorn Cafe in the city. Consumed with reading a newspaper, he didn't notice and was unaware that his regular waitress Loretta (Mara Corday) was attempting to tip him off to a robbery in progress by pouring an excessive amount of sugar into his normal large, $1 dollar black coffee order. Outside the cafe, after taking a sip, he spit out the disgusting-tasting coffee, and turned to suspiciously notice CLOSED signs being placed on the doors.

He returned through the cafe's back entrance, explaining ("I just came back to complain"), and began to threaten and taunt the armed black robbers who had taken hostages at gunpoint: ("Now you boys put those guns down...Well, we're not just gonna let you walk outta here"). The main crook asked who "we" referred to ("Who's 'we' sucka?"), as Callahan pulled out his super-sized, six-shot .44 Magnum revolver while responding: "Smith and Wesson - and me." He opened fire and shot down three of the four thieves, and then didn't flinch as he pointed his Magnum at the last surviving (but wounded) criminal who had taken Loretta as a hostage - he aggressively urged him with bravado:

Go ahead, make my day.

Police sirens were heard as the corner diner was surrounded (after being alerted by the gunfire), and a few police officers with guns drawn assisted Callahan, as the final thief dropped his gun and surrendered.

The Death of Gangster-Mobster Threlkis:

That evening at the wedding party-reception (held in a fancy hotel) of the granddaughter of local crime-lord/mobster Threlkis (Michael V. Grasso), Harry intruded and was recognized by Threlkis as "the one constant in an ever-changing universe." The cop accused Threlkis of brutally torturing and then murdering a young "expensive" hooker named Linda Doker who had allegedly reported on the wrong-doings of the "scum-bag" gangster: "She was fished out of the bay a month ago, with her breasts slashed, her feet burned, her face smashed to a pulp." Harry reached for an envelope in his coat pocket, purportedly containing written documentation of his crimes. Threlkis reacted by falling forward onto the table and suffering a fatal heart attack. Shortly later, Callahan quipped: "Somebody grabbed their chest. They must have seen the bill." He revealed that he had been bluffing - the envelope contained only blank pages.

The Opening Sequence's Murder Scene: The Identity of the Serial-Killer Revealed

The next day, Callahan was called to the murder scene of the film's opening sequence, where the male victim (with a gunshot to the groin and head) was described as suffering from "a .38-caliber vasectomy." Harry was asked about his assessment by another burly detective (Joe Bellan): "Gang hit? Screwed-up drug score? Unlucky john? Or an unhappy love affair?" He replied with his characteristic cynicism and sarcasm:

No, this stuff isn't gettin' to me. The shootings, the knifings, the beatings, old ladies bein' bashed in the head for their Social Security checks, teachers bein' thrown out of a fourth-floor window because they don't give A's. That doesn't bother me a bit.....Or this job, either, havin' to wade through the scum of this city, being swept away by bigger and bigger waves of corruption, apathy and red tape. Nah, that doesn't bother me. But you know what does bother me?...You know what makes me really sick to my stomach?... Watching you stuff your face with those hot dogs. Nobody, I mean NOBODY puts ketchup on a hot dog....I'm talkin' about havin' our fingers in the holes and the whole damn dike is crumbling around us.

The film openly revealed that the vengeful, deeply-troubled female serial killer (noted for castration murders) was a painter-artist named Jennifer Spencer (a miscast 39 year-old Sondra Locke, Eastwood's off-screen lover at the time), who was in San Francisco to showcase her morbid, gloomy, disturbing and raging artwork in a Dark Visions exhibit-show. Her artwork reflected her turbulent inner unrest. [Note: One of her paintings resembled Edvard Munch’s The Scream.] On the side, she was actively targeting a degenerate group of males to seek revenge for past wrongs against her and her sister. She knew the exact identities of all of the rapists, but none of them was ever caught or punished. (In fact, one of the rapist gang members was a female who had planned and urged the sexual assault.)

Slightly later in the story's narrative, Jennifer drove "north" to visit her sister Elizabeth "Beth" (Lisa Britt), where it was revealed that she was caring for her now-catatonic and permanently-vegetative, hospitalized sibling. She boastfully and proudly informed Elizabeth that she had now killed the first of their assailants from 10 years earlier - rapist George Wilburn (in the opening sequence).

Further Problems for Callahan - From Both His Superiors and Threlkis' Hit-Men:

Meanwhile, following his impressive performance at the diner, and his deadly confrontation with Threlkis, Callahan had been summoned to the Commissioner's office. There, although he noted how he had eliminated the crime boss, he was reprimanded and denounced for his improper police work, conduct and "transgression of authority," and for fouling up an on-going undercover investigation. He was confronted by his superiors, Captain Briggs (Bradford Dillman), Lt. Donnelly (Michael Currie), and the Chief (Bill Reddick), and accused of out-moded methods of law enforcement: ("You're a dinosaur, Callahan. Your ideas don't fit today...Often your successes are more costly to the city and to this department in terms of publicity and destruction than most failures"). The reluctant Harry was strongly urged to submit to a mandatory R & R vacation and take a few days off in order to cool off, after being chastized for his "unconventional' methods of crime-fighting. After being scolded: "It's a whole new ballgame these days," Harry quipped back: "Funny, I never thought of it as a game."

That evening, Callahan became the retaliatory target of four of Threlkis' hit-men when an armored limousine tried to run him down as he walked to his parked car from a restaurant. After the group opened fire with semi-automatic weapons, he ambushed them and killed three of the assailants before the fourth individual, the driver, sped off. Harry was summoned to speak to Lt. Donnelly and warned to back off: "I'm worried about your ass. You're gonna get it shot off or kicked out of here...These bastards are not a bunch of junkies....They are not gonna stop. They're gonna keep comin' after ya." Callahan was now officially ordered to take a "vacation." During his time off, the disgruntled Harry engaged in target practice in a woodsy area with a new rapid-fire weapon - a .44 caliber Auto-Mag semi-automatic pistol - a more powerful and accurate firearm than his oversized .44 Magnum revolver. He was joined by Detective Horace King (Albert Popwell) who strongly suggested that Harry should not quit the police force.

Serial-Killer Jennifer - Seeking More Victims in Her Hometown of San Paulo:

Jennifer found solace and peace in her hometown - the nearby seaside coastal resort town of San Paulo (actually Santa Cruz, California with its famed Beach Boardwalk area), where she was housed in a West Cliff dwelling while working and being supported by the local Historical Society and its representative (Nancy Fish). Her specific task was to paint and restore a dilapidated, antique carousel (merry-go-round). However, she would remain haunted by memories and thoughts of her traumatic rape a decade earlier. It was revealed in a brutal flashback that Jennifer and Beth had been gang-raped ten years earlier at nighttime, on the beach under a carnival boardwalk by five men and one lesbian. The degenerate rapists were eventually identified as:

  • George Wilburn
  • Ray Parkins (Audrie J. Neenan), a nasty, foul-mouthed, malicious ultra-butch lesbian, who helped to lure females to the male gang members
  • Kruger (Jack Thibeau) [Note: this was an obvious nod to a similarly-named character in Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972).]
  • Tyrone (Wendell Wellman), local hardware store owner
  • Alby Jannings (Matthew Child), the son of the local Sheriff, now paralyzed (and in a vegetative "zombie" state) after being crippled in an automobile accident following the rape incident
  • Mick (Paul Drake), the gang's psychopathic ("psycho-bastard") leader, living in Las Vegas, but summoned to San Paulo by Ray

Callahan Again Assaulted By Criminals - and Forced to Take a 'Vacation' to San Paulo:

Back in San Francisco one evening during a car chase, Callahan was attacked by Hawkins and his two thuggish cronies (Christian Phillips and Steven Kravitz) who bashed his moving car with baseball bats, and tossed two flaming Molotov cocktails through the broken car windows. Callahan pulled his car to a halt and was able to toss one fiery bottle-bomb back into Hawkins' windshield. It crashed off a dock-pier and drowned all three of the occupants. This was the last straw for Harry's superior Lt. Donnelly - he was sent to San Paulo where he was given a special assignment to help with the unsolved murder of the town's "born and raised" resident George Wilburn, by conducting a background investigation on him. He was reminded how he was a liability for the police department:

"You're a walkin', freakin' combat zone. People have a nasty habit of getting dead around you. I don't want any civilians taking the fall."

Callahan's Single-Handed Pursuit of a Bank Robber in Town:

After arriving in San Paulo and driving into town, Harry witnessed an armed bank robbery, and watched as a young police officer named Bennett was shot and wounded in the middle of the street. Singlehandedly, he pursued the suspect (John Nowak) on foot through the downtown area, where the robber stole the motorcycle of a parking enforcement officer. [Note: The area of the pursuit was the Pacific Garden Mall section of downtown Santa Cruz, CA.] Harry commandeered a San Paulo retirement home mini-bus filled with senior citizens, to pursue and capture the perpetrator after he crashed the cycle.

By recklessly taking the law into his own hands during the bank robbery, Callahan quickly alienated and antagonized the local, small-town law enforcement officer in San Paulo, Chief Lester Jannings (Pat Hingle). The Police Chief knew of Callahan's exploits in SF and was unimpressed, and deliberately ordered the outsider to keep out of local area police affairs - for reasons that were initially unclear:

So, you're the famous Harry Callahan. Harry, I'm gonna make this short and sweet, and I'm only gonna say it once. We don't need any big-city hotshot to come here and show us dumb yokels how to do our business. We know how to do our business, so you keep your nose out of it. Do you read me, Harry?

In his La Bahia Motel room, in the dark, Harry stumbled over an ugly-looking bulldog (with a red ribbon bow around its neck) named Meathead - a gift from his friend Horace. (The dog was part of the film's comic relief with its frequent peeing and flatulence.) The next day, Callahan had a chance encounter with Jennifer (who fell off her bicycle) while he was jogging with Meathead. She criticized him for being lawless: "Listen buster, if you can't control him, get a leash. There are laws."


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