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1001 Overlooked Movies - SUDDEN IMPACT (1983)

An ongoing series in which we highlight movies we believe were overlooked by the popular '1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die' books.

Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)


Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Pat Hingle, Bradford Dillman


I'm not going to call Sudden Impact a classic, or even a great movie. It is however highly significant for the place it occupies in pop culture. Just as Clint Eastwood pulled from several sources, Sudden Impact has proved hugely influential itself, and for that it deserves more acknowledgment.




The phrase "Go ahead, make my day!" is often wrongly attributed to 1971's Dirty Harry, as it's arguably the most iconic line spoken by Clint Eastwood's classic maverick cop Harry Callahan. Those words aren't uttered by Clint until the fourth movie in the series, 1983's Sudden Impact, an unfairly overlooked entry in the franchise.
I'm not going to call Sudden Impact a classic, or even a great movie. In terms of the series, it's found lacking when compared to Don Siegel's Dirty Harry and its superior Ted Post directed 1973 sequel Magnum Force (the Empire Strikes Back of cop movies). It is however highly significant for the place it occupies in pop culture. 1983 is a key year in American cinema, the first real year of the '80s as we now remember the decade. The era of American '70s cinema really ran from 1968 to 1982; a year later, things began to quickly change. Sudden Impact perfectly highlights the point where the grit of the '70s morphed into the gloss of the '80s, Lalo Schifrin's score trading wah-wah guitar for slap bass.
The influence of '70s exploitation is all over Sudden Impact, the first and only installment of the series directed by Eastwood himself. This was back when Clint was a genre filmmaker par excellence, one groomed by his epic collaborations with Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, before he became obsessed with delivering bland awards bait. Eastwood had made films like Play Misty For Me, High Plains Drifter and The Gauntlet, movies that blurred the lines between the drive-in and the multiplex. Working with Eastwood here is screenwriter Charles B Pierce, better known as the director of '70s drive-in staples The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Town That Dreaded Sundown, lending the movie further grindhouse cred.
At the time of its production, the slasher genre was huge, and Eastwood mines some of its iconography in Sudden Impact, even framing himself as a backlit horror villain in the movie's fairground climax. The opening scene features a pair of 'lovers' in a secluded locale, but rather than a masked killer bumping the couple off, it's the woman, face unseen, who whips out a pistol and kills her partner, after shooting him in his crown jewels. Ouch!
The unseen killer, we quickly learn, is Jennifer (Sondra Locke), a victim, along with her younger sister, of a brutal gang rape 10 years earlier. She's bumping off, one by one, the men (and woman) responsible, most of whom reside in the small seaside town of San Paulo. Harry Callahan finds himself assigned to San Paulo when two gangs of San Fran mobsters attempt to assassinate him. This sees the Dirty Harry series invoke a trope that would dominate Hollywood cinema over the next decade - the fish out of water. A year before Axel Foley would hit Beverly Hills, Harry is throwing his weight around with the residents of San Paulo, making enemies which include the local chief of police (Pat Hingle), whose retarded son was one of the rapists. Long before Basic Instinct, we have a middle-aged, gristled cop engage in a sexually charged game of cat and mouse with an icy blonde female killer. And just as Sharon Stone was a writer of murder mysteries, here Locke's vengeful murderess is an artist, one specialising in troubling imagery. And well before Turner & Hooch, K-9 et al, we have Harry paired off with a slobbering bulldog here!
The rape-revenge plotline was likely prompted by the success of the previous year's Death Wish II, but the influence of earlier, grimier movies like Wes Craven's Last House on the Left and Meir Zarchi's I Spit On Your Grave can be found here. One of Locke's rapists is named Kruger, clearly a nod to Last House's Krug, and there's a female gang member who eggs the rapists on, just like in Craven's movie; in fact both women share practically identical hairstyles and outfits. Locke's cold performance has much in common with that of ISOYG's Camille Keaton.
The avenging rape victim is a classic character from exploitation cinema, and genre lover Quentin Tarantino lifted from Sudden Impact for his own revenge saga, Kill Bill. Those moments where the camera zooms into Uma Thurman's eyes before the screen turns red and dissolves into a flashback? Those are lifted straight from this movie. Just as Clint Eastwood pulled from several sources, Sudden Impact has proved hugely influential itself, and for that it deserves more acknowledgment.

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