After a number of high profile run-ins with people trying to kill him, Inspector Harry Callahan is sent to a small town to investigate the murder of a local man found dead in a car. More deaths occur, responsible for which is one Jennifer Spencer (Sondra Locke), who is out to avenge the gang-rape she and her sister were subjected to in the past.
This film provides examples of:
- Ain't Too Proud to Beg: One of Jennifer's rapists tries to plead with her to show mercy, and offering her money if she spares him. She doesn't.
- Amusement Park: The climax takes place in a closed amusement park, also known as the Santa Cruz pier.
- Art Reflects Personality: When Callahan sees Jennifer's bleak, haunting, almost chiaroscuro images, he sees a woman with demons in her soul.
- Asshole Victim:
- Everyone Jennifer kills.
- Threlkis as well, and his hitmen who go after Harry.
- Batman Cold Open: The film opens with Harry running into a diner robbery.
- Batman Gambit: Early in the film, Harry confronts Threlkiss, a mob boss he believes is responsible for a brutal murder he's investigating: a sex worker who knew too much. He shows Threlkiss a thick envelope and says the murder victim wrote down what she knew (later, we see that inside the envelope was nothing but a few sheets of blank paper), hoping to intimidate the mobster into a confession. The bluff causes Threlkiss to have a heart attack and die—right at the head table at his daughter's wedding, no less. The failure of the gambit sets Harry up for the main plot of the film and a few of its secondary conflicts s well.
- Big Bad: The rapists were an ensemble, but Mick is clearly the one calling the shots.
- Big Damn Heroes: Harry saving Jennifer from Mick and his Co-Dragons in the climax.
- Bloodier and Gorier: The most violent of the series.
- Bowdlerise: In the TV version, the ending dialogue of the film is changed, possibly due to S&P feeling squeamish about Harry letting Jennifer get away with murder:
- Theatrical version:Officer Bennett: Inspector, we found a .38 snub in his belt. (shows Harry an open evidence bag; inside is the revolver Mick took from Jennifer)
(beat, while Harry looks at Jennifer and she looks at him.)
Harry (to Bennett): Run it through ballistics. I think you'll find his gun there was used in all the killings.
Bennett: Then it's over?
Harry: Yeah. It's over.
(Harry escorts Jennifer away; camera zooms out; end of film)
- TV version:Harry (to Bennett): Run it through ballistics. I think you'll find this gun there was used in all the killings.
Bennett: Then it's over to the jury?
Harry: Yeah. It's over.
(Harry escorts Jennifer away; camera zooms out; end of film)
- Theatrical version:
- Breast Attack: One woman was involved in the gang-rape - Jennifer shoots her in the breast.
- But for Me, It Was Tuesday: A number of the participants in the gang rape have no memory of Jennifer or what they did to her or her sister.
- Call-Back: Harry saying that, "if properly used", the Auto Mag "can remove the fingerprints" is most certainly a reference to the first film, as he's implying that a single shot would completely destroy someone's hand.
- The Cameo: '50s film star Mara Corday (an old friend of Clint Eastwood's) appears as Loretta, the waitress who overloads Harry's coffee with sugar, alerting him that something is wrong.
- Captain Ersatz: Captain Briggs is essentially Captain McKay from The Enforcer especially given that they're played by the same actor. Why they didn't just reuse McKay is anybody's guess.
- *Click* Hello: An armed man is sneaking up on Harry who is doing target practice, because of several threats on his life. As the man almost reaches him, Harry spins around, cocking the gun, then recognizing the man and saying "Horace!" (the man is Harry's partner). For a meta-textual gag he's played by Albert Popwell, who'd appeared once per installment in an antagonistic role.
- Coitus Uninterruptus: Mick is having rough sex with a woman, and hurting her, and enjoying that it hurts her, when the phone rings. He continues to have painful (to her) sex with this woman, while on the phone, after answering the phone with an obscene response.
- Concealment Equals Cover: Averted in the film's climax, if only to show off how powerful Harry's Auto Mag is. When Mick's two buddies take cover, Harry shoots through the signs and barrels they hide behind, killing them.
- Cop Killer: Mick and his accomplices kill Horace, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and try to kill Harry. Mick later kills Chief Jannings, which was completely unnecessary.
- Cope by Creating: Callahan visits Jennifer in her studio, and sees the grim and ghoulish canvases that she has painted. Jennifer becomes his prime suspect upon viewing these works.
- Create Your Own Villain: Harry does this with Hawkins and Hawkins' pals, plus Threlkiss's mooks.
- Darker and Edgier: The film when compared to the other Dirty Harry films, due to its rape theme as well as being considered the darkest, dirtiest, and most violent of the series.
- Deception Noncompliance: The diner Harry Callahan goes into is being robbed, and the robbers force everybody to act normally while Callahan is there. Callahan has been getting coffee there for ten years and never has sugar, but this time, the waitress adds a ton of it. The robbers don't see anything unusual, but Callahan goes straight back in after his first sip.
- Description Porn: Harry on the AMC Auto Mag:"Well, this is the .44 Magnum Auto Mag and it holds a 300 grain cartridge. And if properly used, it can remove the fingerprints."
- Depraved Bisexual: Ray, the one female conspirator in the gang rape of Jennifer and her sister. She is known by all around San Paolo as a Butch Lesbian, but she makes a pass at Harry, putting her in this trope.
- Disney Villain Death: Mick, who gets shot by Harry several times with his .44 Auto Mag, sending the rapist falling off the roller coaster through a glass roof of a merry-go-round, where he is impaled on a carved unicorn horn.
- Dramatic Gun Cock: One is heard in every scene which has Harry brandishing his gun.
- Dramatic Irony: One of the rapists, Alby Jannings, had a My God, What Have I Done? moment, and tried to kill himself. As a result, he is left with brain damage and not capable of much more than staring at a wall all day, just like Jennifer's sister. Jennifer is clearly moved by the revelation, and if Mick hadn't shown up, Jennifer would have left.
- Driven to Suicide: Literally, in the case of Alby Jannings, the police chief's son. After his participation in the rape, he tried to kill himself by driving headlong into a brick wall, leaving him in a state not unlike Jennifer's sister. As a result of this, he winds up being the only one rapist to survive.
- Evil Laugh: Ray and the entire bar she's in after Harry tells them how Wilburn died.
- Expy: Jennifer in backstory and motive is essentially a female Paul Kersey.
- Chief Jannings seems very unwilling to go near the murder cases at all, and gets very annoyed when Harry continues to investigate them. Initially, it appears to be due to the cop being another difficult police superior. However, the revelation that his son is one of the rapists reveals that the reason he didn't want it investigated is because he knew exactly who these people were.
- Every conflict Harry is embroiled in throughout the film—with would-be assassins, with punks trying to fry him in his car, with his corrupt and apathetic superiors—culminates in the decision he makes at the end: given the Crapsack World both he and Jennifer have had to deal with and all they've been through, there's no point in punishing her further. Rough justice has been done.
- Fun with Acronyms: Harry's partner Horace calls him a "jamf" twice before Harry asks him "What the hell's a 'jamf'?" Horace replies: "That means you're a Jive-Ass Mother--" "Forget I asked!"
- Gender Flip: Meathead suddenly becomes a female dog in the scene where he/she alerts Harry to an intruder.
- Give Me a Reason: "Go ahead, make my day."
- Groin Attack: When Jennifer Spencer goes on her vendetta against the people who raped her and her sister, she shoots the rapists she tracks down in the groin before shooting them dead, except the one woman among them.
- Hand Cannon: Harry's .44 AutoMag because Caliber Size Marches On.
- Hospitality for Heroes: The novelization of the film mentions that Harry received his unusual .44 Automag pistol as a gift from a custom gunsmith after he had saved the man's wife... probably by killing those endangering her, knowing Harry. It's suggested that he is often offered free stuff, because the text states that the pistol is the only such gift he ever accepted.
- Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: One of the rapists gets a deliciously ironic comeuppance when he gets penetrated, by falling off the roof of the building and landing on the horn of a merry-go-round unicorn.
- Kick the Dog: A literal example—Mick and Kruger's brothers-in-law injure Harry's dog after killing his buddy Horace. It's unclear exactly what they do to the dog, but we see the poor thing limping.
- Later, Mick decides to shoot Lester when he tries to shoot them with his back turned. The first shot has Lester drop his weapon. What does Mick do? Shoot Lester point blank in the head.
- Knight of Cerebus: Due to this entry being Darker and Edgier, Mick is a more depraved and sadistic threat then the previous Big Bads and the later one in the next film.
- Let Off by the Detective: At the climax of the story, one of Jennifer's would-be victims holds her hostage with her own gun and Harry kills the man to save her. When the police show up to investigate, Harry shows them the gun in the man's hand and convinces them that he was responsible for all the killings.
- Meet Cute: Cited in the commentary when Harry and Jennifer meet for the first time
- Molotov Cocktail: Harry is being pursued by armed thugs. At one point they throw a molotov into his car, but he manages to throw it back at them.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Harry engages in a melee with Mick, Eddie, and Carl after he is ambushed by the three rapists, with Harry getting beaten and thrown into the ocean along with his .44 Magnum.Mick: Hot shot cop! Your ass is mine!
- Noodle Incident: Two, actually, relevant to two of the film's subplots: What happened between Harry Callahan and Hawkins, and the murder of Linda Doker.
- Off on a Technicality: One perp is shown getting off easy, and later rubs it in Harry's face.
- Oh, Crap!: When the man that raped Jennifer Spencer and his friends are about to repeat the "experience", one of them says "Crap". Cue Harry Callahan with a Hand Cannon, ready for the men to make his day.
- Out-of-Character Alert: When Harry gets his usual morning coffee, the café is being robbed. Everyone is being forced to act naturally, but the waitress (knowing Harry's usual is "no sugar, no milk") adds lots of sugar. Harry, distracted by some case work he's going over, just pays and leaves with the cup. Outside, he takes a sip, spits it out and turns back to the diner.... then notices "patrons" locking the doors and turning the "Open/Closed" signs around, figures out what's up, and goes around to come in through the back.
- Pre-Mortem One-LinerHarry Callahan: We're not gonna let you walk outta here.
Crook: Who's "we", sucka?
Harry Callahan: (reaching for his gun) Smith... Wesson... and me.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: In addition to Mick's gleeful enjoyment of rape, he shows himself to be both a racist (as shown by his use of a racial slur to Horace when he enters Harry's apartment), and an ableist by using slurs against Albert Jannings.
- Rage Against the Reflection: Jennifer smashes the mirror resembling the image she painted of herself.
- Rape and Revenge: This forms the plot of the film.
- Rape as Drama: The background of the film's plot.
- Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Callahan lets Jennifer off the hook with her revenge killings of her rapists when Mick is found with the murder weapon on his person.
- Rape Leads to Insanity: Jennifer's sister went catatonic when the two of them were gang-raped. Also, Albert Jannings, one of the gang-rapists, became so remorseful after having done the deed that he tried to kill himself and ended up becoming catatonic, being cared for by his father Chief Jannings and also sparing him from Jennifer's revenge.
- Rare Guns: Harry's backup gun is an AMP Auto Mag 180 (made by the designer himself from parts he had in his basement). AMP was bankrupt by the time the film was made, and very few Auto Mags were made during production.
- Rasputinian Death: Mick is first shot several times by Harry while on the Giant Dipper's catwalk, stumbles backwards through the railing, falls several stories, crashes through the roof of the moving carousel and is impaled on a unicorn.
- Real Men Take It Black: Used as a plot point. For years Cowboy Cop "Dirty" Harry Callahan has been ordering his coffee black and is tipped off of a robbery by his server pouring a bunch of sugar into it."Every day for the past ten years, Loretta there's been giving me a large black coffee, today she gives me a large black coffee only it has sugar in it, a lotta sugar. I just came back to complain. Now, you boys put those guns down."
- Reassigned to Antarctica: Harry gets sent to the main location after he kills a bunch of mobsters in self-defense.
- Revolvers Are Just Better: Downplayed: Harry's not above settling for a semi-auto Hand Cannon should he lose his trusty Model 29. (Supposedly Enforced in Real Life: It's been claimed that the Auto-Mag jammed so often that they kept a diver on set to retrieve the pistol every time Clint got pissed and threw it off the pier.)
- Single Tear: Both Jennifer and her sister shed one at different points.
- Sympathetic Murderer: This trope describes Jennifer Spencer-she's picking off the guys who raped her and her sister a long time ago, one at a time until she gets taken hostage by the few gang members who she has not targeted yet, but they get dispatched by Harry. When her revolver is found on the leader's body, Harry even lets Jennifer off the hook by pinning the murders on the rapist.
- Turn in Your Badge: Higher-ups try to do this to Harry after his harassment of an old mobster at his daughter's wedding results in a heart attack and they order him to take a vacation. While on vacation some punks try to take him down with a molotov cocktail and he forces them off a pier to their deaths. They end his vacation, but send him out of town on another case.
- Vigilante Man: Jennifer Spencer is a female version of this.
- Vigilante Execution: Spencer carries out quite a few of these.
- Would Hit a Girl: Harry. But she started it.