United States – 1984
Director – Richard Tuggle
Following a decade of race-riots, hippies and touchy-feely progressive politics, 1971's Dirty Harry, was the reactionary tale of a white cop incensed at a justice system that cared more for so called “rights” and “due process” than it did for the “law.” The film was a huge hit spawning several sequels and its own genre of reactionary angry-white-male films. (Reasserting masculinity after the ‘emasculating’ loss in Vietnam.) Poor guys.
At the same time the Feminist movement and yes, rape revenge films are forcing the previously taboo subject of sexual violence into the public discourse in low-budget films like Ms. 45 and I Spit on Your Grave. In 1983 just a few years after I Spit on Your Grave, the fourth installment of Dirty Harry, Sudden Impact is released. The main character is also named Jennifer and also a rape victim out for revenge. But instead of encouraging us to sympathize with her, this Jennifer is painted as a criminal for operating outside the confines of legality. She is after all a she and thus not allowed to engage in the same extralegal punitive justice as our hero Harry.
Thus, facing criticism for yet another reactionary plot in which a rugged man of action saves everyone else in the service of the status quo, Eastwood decides to get behind a clone script engineered to explicitly address the issue of his stone-age out-of-touchness.
But Tightrope's message is more than simple retrenchment, it is an attempt to work out the dimensions of the "New Man" predicated by feminism's demands and successes. The film intentionally draws a parallel between Wes and the killer by confusing their psychology, by making them sides of the same coin.
The clearest indicator to my mind is the use of handcuffs as a motif of power and submission. Used for domination in both sex games and the law, their repeated appearance in the film (and promotional materials) highlights the way that public and private power are often intertwined and mutually justifying. Struggling with these conflicting notions of morality, Wes suffers from nightmares in which he is the killer misogynist strangling the "liberated" Beryl. “I’m gonna get you motherfucker!” Wes yells after the killer violates his home. Sure, he’s yelling at the absent killer (an ex-cop no less), but Wes is looking at himself in the mirror, implying that his hypothetical good side is determined to catch and contain his bad side.
Although it makes a strong case for the possibility of shared power, that is, over none-but-ones-self, Tightrope is bound by the conventions of genre and its star's image. The struggle is a private one, and on the surface Wes must play the same old Harry. When he visits Beryl's self-defense class and she knees a practice dummy in the balls, it mechanically groans and sticks its tongue out while Wes grins bemusedly. And as if to demonstrate the one-sidedness of this whole paradigm shift, Beryl is attacked but fails to employ any of her own training, instead feebly stabbing the killer with a pair of sewing scissors before Wes comes to her aid. Woman it would seem, is still bound by the traditional rules of conduct even if man isn't.