The Search for Truth: Ambiguity in Modern Crime Films

            Hollywood's second Golden Age began in the 60s, and its themes and ideas extended well beyond that period. The new films being produced were a radical departure from the films of the studio days in that they introduced new concepts and techniques that appealed to a younger, more adept, audience. Films were not just for pure entertainment anymore, but also challenged the audience to think about what they were watching. The period of violence that came out of the late 60s - Vietnam, assassinations, riots, and Altamont - was especially effective in inspiring movies to take on this new reflexivity with a violent spin. The most violent films from the period demonstrated an understanding of the role that violence was quickly taking on in American society, and forcing the audience to realize just what was happening around them. In addition, America was losing faith in its leaders and gaining a cynical view of authority due to the war and Watergate. The crime films Dirty Harry, The French Connection, and Night Moves, all represent the conflicted thinking of modern America through exploration of crime and the people who fight it, as well as question the role of authority in an ambiguous world.
            In Dirty Harry, the theme of disillusionment is key. Harry (Clint Eastwood) is a cop who does not follow all the rules, and who does his job regardless of whether it is right or wrong. Throughout the film, he is tracking down a psychotic serial killer called Scorpio (Andy Robinson). He is absolutely resolved to catch the killer, and gets more and more irritated each time he gets away. The killer goes too far when he buries a girl alive and demands ransom for the information as to where. As Harry gets closer to the killer's scent, he is forced to break rules. When he searches the killer's house without a search warrant and eventually captures and beats Scorpio, the DA tells him that the killer will walk free because of Harry's uncouth conduct. Harry's choice to break in without a warrant to save time and a person's life seems to be the correct one. The fact that his superiors maligned him for it, as well as the killer walking free, suggest that the authorities have a more ambiguous role as defenders of society than initially suspected. If they were truly trying to help people, then it would make sense for the law to allow Harry's conduct. However, Harry's moral dilemma is not one to be considered in a subjective way when it comes to the establishment. The law is very objective, and precedes anything that would be deemed right by an actual thinking human. His intentions were commendable, but his actions were deemed inappropriate by the very rules he is supposed to uphold.
            Harry's disregard for the rules ultimately did him no good. If anything, they turned him against what he once fought for: justice. To achieve true justice, Harry ends up killing Scorpio himself, and then promptly discarding his badge. Here, the theme of justice though vengeance becomes far more important than that of justice through law. When Harry is following the rules, nothing gets accomplished. Only when he takes matters into his own hands is he able to achieve justice, which is ironic because he is breaking the law in his pursuit of the killer. This seems to suggest that the law is absolute, but that sometimes it should not be. The ambiguity between right and wrong in Dirty Harry mirrors the uncertain climate of American government, and Harry is a straightforward example of a conflicted anti-hero. The question this film raises is: If a cop has to be on the wrong side of the law to serve justice, then who is on the right?
            The French Connection poses the exact same question. "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) is a cop who is trying to track down a major French drug dealer. Doyle is no ordinary cop though, because he is dirty. He beats people and invades buildings for information. He is brutal, and like Harry, he is just trying to do his job. His boss criticizes him for bringing in nothing but small-time criminals all the time, and when Doyle is sure he has a major bust on his hands, his boss remains skeptical. Doyle's gut serves him better than his ability to adhere to rules. His tendency to do what he wants is demonstrated when he roughs people up, and verified when he races through multiple city blocks chasing a train with a criminal on it. He is slightly different from Harry in that he displays a substantial disregard for human life and property. Harry tried to protect everyone in his pursuit of justice, but even that does not stop Doyle from accomplishing his job. As Thomas Leitch says, Doyle "is a great detective but a lousy cop, a man whose obsessively honed skill in detective work has destroyed whatever social instincts he may have had" (230).
            The main objective for both cops is to eradicate a criminal that poses a serious threat to society. Harry is more prone to using outright force; he is particularly reliant on guns to uphold the law. He ends up shooting several bank robbers, and his various encounters with Scorpio always involve some sort of shootout. It is suggested that his name comes from his reputation for taking on all the dirty jobs of the police force, but as Leitch points out, "what originally seemed like Harry's personal dirt becomes, on reflection, society's dirt; he has been tarred with it only because he is forced to shovel it every day" (231). Harry's bitterness due this fact is what probably transforms him into such a go getting and sometimes blatantly violent cop. Doyle is also violent, but in a much more underhanded way. He does not follow a shoot-first-or-be-killed policy, because his line of work is subtler. Harry is in homicide, but Doyle is in narcotics. He uses manipulation and intimidation to achieve results. He is an information gatherer, while Harry is an information user. But no matter what their differences, each cop becomes obsessed with the object of their chase. Neither will rest until justice is served, and here a line of ambiguity becomes especially clear. It becomes harder and harder to tell at what point the men stop serving the law, and start serving themselves, in a quest for vengeance and truth.
            This theme is especially prevalent in Night Moves. The role of Harry (Gene Hackman) as a private eye is even more ambiguous than the cop roles of Dirty Harry and Popeye Doyle. These cops eventually become personally involved in their cases, but it is because of their persistent vision, as well as the shortcomings of the legal system, that bring about this shift. Harry is not as confined as the former cops because he is only technically operating within the law; he is not an official police officer. He does what he does predominantly for money. He is also somewhat shut out to the world, and is always working for himself and by himself. But unlike the Sam Spades of the world, he is haunted by his past, and experiences difficulties with his marriage because he is inattentive. Like Dirty Harry and Doyle, he is completely caught up in his work, blinded to everything except his want and need to solve a case. At first, he is the most detached from his case; the viewer sees him accepting money in exchange for his services. But eventually, he becomes the easiest character to sympathize with, because of his past and attachments to his work. Regardless, he ends up like Dirty Harry and Doyle because of his eventual personal attachment to his pursuit of truth.
            This is why Harry is not content with solving his final case. His only task is to find a girl and return her to her mother. It becomes drastically more complicated when he finds her, because he becomes attached to her. When the girl turns up dead after being returned, he takes it upon himself to do her justice. After all, he does not have much else going for him. His marriage is falling apart and he closes his detective agency. In the ultimate example of his work invading personal life, he sets out to solve a case when it is not even his job anymore. As he investigates, he slowly starts to work everything out in his mind and believes he has the case of her murder solved. In the end however, he comes away empty handed because he obsession with his search for truth has robbed him of everything else. Everything he works for is destroyed and everything he thought he knew is wrong. He never had to resort to violence to achieve his goals, but a violent resolution was inevitable because of his meddling in what was no longer his business.
            Dirty Harry, The French Connection, and Night Moves all revolve mainly around a singular protagonist who is a detective. He is fighting some sort of injustice, supposedly for the benefit of society. When this detective becomes too involved with the case he is on, he continues to pursue it for the benefit of himself "because his job consumes him" (Ebert par. 3). In the first two films, it becomes evident that while the detective is a "good guy," he has his own shortcomings that undermine his credibility as a straight cop. In contrast with old studio film detectives, the modern cop falls into a gray area of morality. Ironically, he uses dishonest means to achieve just results. Even in Night Moves, the private eye does not just work to serve a client; he becomes emotionally involved in the case. His pursuit becomes a question of how far he will go to satisfy his own curiosity, and not just that of his client. Harry, as well as Dirty Harry and Popeye, test the very limits between professional life and emotional involvement. What the modern crime film does is blur the lines between what is right and wrong. In the socially volatile climate of modern America, there is a sense that the powers-that-be are not always infallible. The strain this causes for the thinking person creates a tension that is both violent and ambiguous, and the movies of the time reflect this.

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. Rev. of The French Connection, dir. William Friedkin. Chicago Sun-Times
Online 1 Jan. 1971. 23 Oct. 2007 <> 2007. The Internet Movie Database. 22 Oct. 2007. <>

Leitch, Thomas M. Crime Movies. Cambridge UP, 2002.