Before Dirty Harry, There Was Ronald Reagan

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>I didn't watch the long-lost Ronald Reagan-James Dean clip from General Electric Theater that was posted in this space yesterday until after it went up, and--like many first-time viewers, I suspect--I was fascinated by what I saw.

It was not merely the sight of the youngish Reagan and oh-so-young Dean squaring off, nor even the fact that the two men represented so clearly the conflicting archetypes they would later come to embody: the keeper of order vs. the disruptor, the leader of a cause vs. the rebel without one, ironclad certainty vs. confusion and remorse. (Yes, the moral deck is heavily stacked.) It wasn't even the vivid example of a peculiar, frozen-in-amber cinematic type, notable in such films as The Wild One and Touch of Evil: the bebop outlaw, prone to interrupting his violent home invasions for an interlude of toe-tapping, finger-snapping jazz.

No, what struck me was more particular still, and gave the entire segment the feel of an unremembered but inevitable snippet of Americana, a Rosetta Stone of American political culture post-1970. It's commonplace (and, I think, entirely accurate) to describe the "Dirty" Harry Callahan persona that Clint Eastwood wore to such effect beginning in 1971 as a harbinger of the Reagan Revolution. But who could possibly have imagined that, nearly two decades before Harry uttered his iconic, "Do you feel lucky, punk?" monologue--yes, I know the quote's not exact, but it's the accepted shorthand--Reagan himself would have uttered lines so uncannily alike? As Dean points his pistol at Reagan, the latter replies (shortly before the four-minute mark in the clip):

It's only a .32. It's not a very big bullet....You gotta be lucky, and if you're lucky--very lucky--then you've killed another man.... If you're not lucky, that bullet isn't gonna stop me.

Sure, the direction of the gun barrel is reversed and, with it, the precise nature of the threat. Nonetheless, the aggressive invocation of weapon caliber (this time to belittle, not boast), the repeated demand that his opponent surrender either to him or to a potentially lethal luck--I, for one, found the confluence at once creepy and oddly unsurprising: the missing piece of a long-abandoned puzzle, the belated drop of the other shoe. As remarkable as I found this forgotten clip, on some level I feel we knew it was out there all along.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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