Clint Eastwood was already on his way to becoming an action star for a new generation with The Man With No Name trilogy in the '60s. The first Dirty Harry movie from 1971 accelerated that rise and crowned the 41-year-old San Francisco native the biggest new movie star of the young decade.

It's hard to picture anyone else in the role today, so closely tied are perpetual hard-ass Eastwood and Harry Callahan, the steely San Francisco Police Department inspector who doesn't let little things like laws get in the way of his singular way of dispensing justice.

From the start, Harry was all about breaking rules to cut through the web of bureaucratic paperwork that got in the way of his job. In the first movie, he famously quipped to a bank robber while pointing a .44 Magnum at him, "You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do you, punk?" The line instantly became a movie classic and posited Harry Callahan as a new breed of street cop.

Dirty Harry's success spawned four more movies through the late '80s, each more violent than the one that came before it. There have been tons of controversies along the way -- the movies have been called racist, misogynist and fascist, and have inspired more than one real-life copycat killing. And some of them seem way out of step with the times, even in their own eras.

But there's no denying the cultural pull Dirty Harry -- the character and the movies -- has had on crime and action films over the past half-century, for better or worse. An entire subgenre has been formed and influenced by them. Here's how those five industry-shaking movies rank.

5. The Dead Pool (1988)

The final Dirty Harry movie is the least engaging, even if the plot isn't all that terrible: Celebrities are being knocked off in an office-style "dead pool" game. Harry investigates and soon finds himself on the list. The action scenes are about par for the series, but Eastwood, who hands over directing duties to old pal Buddy Van Horn, seems tired of the character. Notable for an early appearance by Jim Carrey, who plays a soon-to-be-dead rock star who lip syncs to Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle."

 

4. Sudden Impact (1983)

Eastwood's only time behind the camera on a Dirty Harry movie is best known for the "Go ahead, make my day" line his character snarls while facing down a bad guy with a hostage. Otherwise, Sudden Impact is a pretty typical action film. Eastwood's real-life girlfriend at the time, Sondra Locke, plays a gang-rape victim hunting down her attackers; Harry's snooping around leads to a relationship with the woman. The star was still about a decade away from his directorial triumph, Unforgiven.

 

3. The Enforcer (1976)

The third Dirty Harry movie is the most misogynistic and violent of the series ... which is saying something. This time Harry is partnered with a female rookie to stop a terrorist organization, and he's less than thrilled to have a pre-Cagney & Lacey Tyne Daly tagging along (probably because she out-acts everyone else onscreen). The Enforcer pretty much goes through the motions: Harry takes care of a hostage situation with his gun, Harry is reprimanded by his superiors, etc. It would be another seven years before Harry picked up his Magnum again.

 

2. Magnum Force (1973)

The second Dirty Harry movie is the best-written -- Michael Cimino and John Milius worked on the screenplay. But who watches Dirty Harry movies for stuff like dialogue and character development? The story is good if routine -- some cops even dirtier than Harry are leaving bodies all over town -- but the action scenes are among the best in the series: tense without ever going too far overboard. Hal Holbrook, as a lieutenant with a dark secret, rises above the mostly other wooden performances. But, again, whose watching these movies for the acting?

 

1. Dirty Harry (1971)

The original Dirty Harry remains the benchmark for rogue-cop-takes-care-of-business-his-way action movies. Even though the film is occasionally racist, can be excessively violent and spawned dozens of appalling imitators, it's a thrilling 100 minutes of action delivered in no-nonsense style by director Don Siegel (who helmed the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers 15 years earlier). But it's the equally no-nonsense Eastwood who turned the movie into a hit. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly made him a star; Dirty Harry took him to a whole new level.