How does ideology work in film? Today we will think about gun violence. Just as there is the Bechdel test to judge a film's sexism as it finds out if there are any conversations in the movie between two women that aren't about men, maybe we need a Magnum test to find out if an American film can tell a story without the presence of a gun. If Chekhov famously proposed if you have a weapon hanging on the wall in the first act, be sure it goes off in the third, then what if there is no gun in the first, second or third act? Hitchcock's original 1942 film Mr and Mrs Smith was a sedate comedy about a couple who, the husband discovers, isn't actually married. There was a legal mixup. In the remake, each member of the couple discovers the other is an assassin, and they have been hired to kill each other. Bring in the guns.
We can call it the Magnum test in reference to the 44 Magnum that plays a significant role in Dirty Harry, a film whose series of posters showed Clint Eastwood wielding the gun of the title. The film also probably became the first to generate memorable dialogue around gun use. This isn't "play it, Sam", "we'll always have Paris", "frankly my dear, I don't give a damn", or "Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon, we have the stars?" No, "'this is a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?'"
What the Magnum test can do is tell us if any guns are used in any capacity in the film. When a light comedy remake of a Hitchcock movie about marital error can be turned into a shoot 'em up, then it seems no genre is safe from the encroaching presence of the firearm. Think of an innocuous little comedy like Home Alone. Here we have a Smith Wesson Model 10 Revolver; Colt 1921 AC Thompson machine gun and a Pump Action BB gun. And this is a film with McCauley Culkin. Or think too of Tom Hanks, surely unlike Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger, a figure who would have little need for weaponry in his films. But the IMFDB, the internet movie database for firearms, lists around 32 Hanks films using guns. Contrast this with Cary Grant: no more than three films. Or Fred Astaire: one film. Or Spencer Tracy: two films. Maybe we are cheating here: plenty of classic actors were known for gun use in their movies. Humphrey Bogart's count is close to Hanks's, while John Wayne films have guns in over forty of them. But the reason we can find an enormous difference between the gun count in Cary Grant films and Wayne movies is that you didn't expect to see a gun in Hollywood's earlier era unless the film was a western, a gangster film, a war movie or a noir. Now it is quite rare to assume an actor on film has never used a gun. Step forward Hugh Grant, who saw no reason to bring firearms into Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, or Love, Actually, even if he did ruin it all by holding a Winchester 1894 rifle in Did You Hear About the Morgans?
Perhaps no actor is more synonymous with the gun than Eastwood. This is partly because he is known for westerns, cop movies and war films, but it also resides in the development of firearm special effects in the late sixties and early seventies. This is when squibs became popular: condoms filled with fake blood, hidden in the actor's clothing and wired to detonate when someone shot at the actor squibbed-up. This was, Stephen Prince notes, "absent in films prior to 1967 and which helped give violence in these earlier periods an unreal and sanitized appearance" (Screening Violence). Suddenly, films like The Dirty Dozen, Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch could show blood and gore and not just expect a gunshot sound of an actor falling over to signify death. Eastwood's work was part of this evolution, even if he made his three famous spaghetti westerns before '67. What The Good, the Bad and Ugly etc. lacked in graphic bloodletting, they made up for with a general air of sadism. That early scene in Dirty Harry where Harry Callahan offers the famous line (and repeats it at the end of the film to the sniper Scorpio) carries the echo of Sergio Leone's sadistic side but with a greater sense of realism.
It isn't only that the bank robber Harry is threatening to kill is already lying in a pool of his own realistic blood, it is the general mayhem that surrounds Harry as he thinks nothing of starting a shootout on a busy San Francisco street. Watch as he crosses the road to approach the wounded man. We see people who only a minute before were going about their business, now crouching in cars, fretfully looking on, and we see too, a flower shop with its bouquets on the street, a fire hydrant knocked over and gushing water, a car slapped on its side against the pavement and, those who have exited the bank, cowering on the pavement near the wounded man. Within the context of Leone's derealised and mock Western environment, Eastwood's Man with No Name can appear self-reflexively iconic: the Western hero as a cooler, better-looking and still more laconic version of John Wayne. In Dirty Harry, Don Siegel's style is very different, part of a wave of seventies policiers that played up the difficulties of a cop's job in a busy, messy, demanding urban environment: The French Connection, The Seven-Ups, Serpico and The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three. If Pauline Kael could call the film a "fascist...right-wing fantasy" (New Yorker) it was because Harry Callahan was acting like a Western hero in a modern urban environment, and where the violence had a collateral impact.
Dirty Harry was also part of a vigilante film wave that included Joe, Billy Jack, Walking Tall and culminated in Death Wish, a Nixonite cinema where people were fed up with the promiscuity, the drug-taking, the lax liberal laws, and were willing to mete out justice themselves. Sometimes the films were well-made (like Dirty Harry), and complex in their examination of character (Joe). Others like Death Wish took their vigilantism straight and insisted on broad, crude characterisation and dramaturgy that wouldn't allow the film's message to be diluted by nuance. Kael should perhaps have waited a little longer to find a film to label Fascist: Death Wish is surely that film. When it looks like central character Charles Bronson will keep taking out the villainous, this initially mild-mannered architect seems to think this is the way of the world: you don't hang around for law and order; you sort out the disorder yourself. By the early seventies, anyone deemed idle, drug-addled or long-haired was low-hanging fruit: the Manson murders were committed in the summer of 1969 and the hippie dream had died. But more than the dream was going to be killed once Eastwood, Bronson and others were given guns. Weaponry became ideology.
However, the main reason Dirty Harry is troublesome doesn't just rest on a far-right message that can be extracted from it, but also because of the representation of the firearms within it. The film begins after the credits with a close-up of a sniper rifle and cuts to its potential victim as we see a woman in a bathing suit at a rooftop pool, viewed through the circle of the sniper's aim. The camera utilising the telephoto lens zooms back out on the girl and shows us the sniper seen from behind, a long-haired man wearing gloves whose face we have still to witness and the film cuts back and forth as if making the most of this moment of grim manipulation. The girl is obliviously swimming; the viewer, like the killer, knows she will soon be dead. That opening shot of the sniper rifle isn't too different from numerous shots where we see Harry pointing a weapon. It is there when he asks the bank robber if he feels lucky, when he tries to take out Scorpio, and when he kills Scorpio at the end. The 44 Magnum even gets shots all to itself. The gun is no longer a necessary evil but an unnecessary fetish: a phallic symbol that allows the emotionally emasculated to become the righteously avenging.
It is no accident Harry has no sex life in the film. His wife was killed in a drink-driving incident, and it is as though puritanism meets the pistol, with men no longer accessing their desires through sexual liaisons but through taking people out, and not on a date. If the hippie ethos was make love not war, Harry is more inclined to reverse the slogan.
American cinema has always been more at ease with violence than sex, keener to blast holes in people's bodies rather than expose them to the intimacy of a fellow human being. Even so benign a figure as Keanu Reeves has achieved an astonishing body count in the John Wick films. "While this information shouldn't be all that surprising given the genre and plot of the movies, it is still a bit shocking to see that the protagonist single-handedly killed 128 people in one movie, making for 299 total over the franchise so far..." (Screen Rant) Here we have yet another man whose wife is dead and the grieving process is best resolved not by booking in with a counsellor but by finding the nearest firearm store and tooling up. Reeves purchases amongst others, a Heckler and Koch P30L, a Glock 26 and 17, and a Kel-Tel KSG, 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.
The spree killer has been around for a long time, but there were more mass shootings in 2022 in the US than in the 1970s altogether. When in the late 90s 24 kids were shot dead at Columbine it became a byword for high school atrocity. Now Sandy Hook has replaced it, but who can ignore Parkland Florida or Benton Kentucky? It might seem appallingly tasteless to suggest that there is a link between spree killers in life and spree killers in film. But what they often have in common it seems is involuntary celibacy - even if the heroes in so many of the films have lost loved ones while the Incel cannot find a loved one at all, taking their misery, and often misogyny, out on others. In an excellent piece in the London Review of Books, Amia Srinivasan says, "on 23 May 2014, Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old college dropout, became the world's most famous 'incel' - involuntary celibate. The term can, in theory, be applied to both men and women, but in practice it picks out not sexless men in general, but a certain kind of sexless man: the kind who is convinced he is owed sex, and is enraged by the women who deprive him of it. Rodger stabbed to death his two housemates...", before killing others. In another essay, Megan Kelly, Alex DiBranco and Juliua R. DeCook noted "since 2014, multiple perpetrators of mass violence and attempted violence in the United States and Canada have referenced Rodger, and "been connected to misogynist incel ideology. In the first couple of years following the attack, there was one serious thwarted threat of mass violence, and one successful attack that referenced the 2014 attack: In 2015." They note Rodger "was praised in the manifesto of the Umpqua Community College shooter, who also wrote about his own lack of sexual relationships." (New America)
Let us not make so daft a claim, one that says American screen violence and identification with lonely film shooters is responsible for off-screen murder, as if class, power, poverty, greed, mental health problems, and even the easy access to guns, are all of secondary importance. But we might wonder if such violence is correlative if not causative, and this is centrally why ideology can be used in art to explore how we are shaped societally. When Alec Baldwin mortally wounded a camerawoman on set, reality had imposed itself quite horribly on film. What is harder to discern is how often film violence imposes itself on life. If the visual image and people's wishes, desires and identities weren't interlinked, there would be nobody inclined to advertise on TV, and corporations wouldn't bother to push product placement in numerous films. The visual image clearly helps shape our expectations, and maybe some of those can be met by people seeing their ego ideal on screen not in the diffident Reeves as he goes about a business he would prefer to ignore. Instead, it rests on the 299 people he is just obliged to dispose of to make the world a better place. In an important 1954 essay, "The Westerner," Robert Warshow declared that "the two most successful creations of American movies are the gangster and the Westerner: men with guns." (The Westerner) Now, the guns are everywhere.
© Tony McKibbin