Clint Eastwood

American Icon Collection

by Michael Barrett

4 June 2009

Again in the Eastwood oeuvre, a man who thinks he's in control, and especially around women, finds out he's not quite.
From Play Misty for Me 
cover art

Clint Eastwood: American Icon Collection

Director: Clint Eastwood, Don Siegel
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Lee J. Cobb, George Kennedy, Jessica Walter, Geraldine Page

US DVD: 10 Feb 2009

These films were produced for Universal by Malpaso Productions, the company Clint Eastwood founded in 1968 with the money he made from starring in Sergio Leone’s westerns and through which he has controlled his career for 40 years. He is best understood as the auteur behind his own films, whether he directed them or not, though he owes a great debt to director Don Siegel. Two of the films in this package are helmed by Siegel and two by Eastwood. One of each is interesting, one of each a throwaway.

More interesting than ever is Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me, a modern thriller about female rage. He plays a deejay who’s getting over a break-up with a nice girlfriend (Donna Mills). In a bar he meets Jessica Walter, a fan of his radio show who keeps requesting Errol Garner’s “Misty”. As far as he’s concerned, he’s picking her up and having some fun, no strings attached. She’s even introduced visually in front of a big red wheel that makes her look like the bull’s-eye in a target. It turns, out, however, that he’s never in control of the situation, that she has engineered the encounter, and that she has no intention of being dropped.

In other words, this is Fatal Attraction about 15 years in advance, and generally a tougher movie on its stalked male, even though he’s less culpable on the surface than that film’s straying husband. Even when crossing into the lunatic, Walter’s performance has an iron quality under petite feminine attractiveness that makes her more subtle and dangerous than Glenn Close. She has a spine-chilling moment when she finally reveals to Mills how foolishly trusting the latter has been. As the camera looks up at her shrouded by darkness, Walter half-whispers, half-spits in patronizing wonder: “God, you’re dumb!” She could be condemning the useless damsels who must be rescued in most Hollywood thrillers, like this one.

Eastwood’s directorial debut is shot around his home of Carmel, California. The majestic opening shots fly around the coast until we come upon an overhead image of Eastwood standing on the left side of the screen, looking over a cliff, while the star’s name appears to the right, labeling him. Eastwood the director is giving us a bird’s or god’s-eye-view of Eastwood’s character, and implicitly passing a judgment on this foreshortened specimen, lord of what he surveys, enjoying his environment with no notion of his fate.

His direction doesn’t let his own character off any easier than the screenplay co-written by Jo Heims, a woman who also wrote another film directed by Eastwood, the romantic Breezy. In a making-of, Eastwood says the story originated in a woman that Heims knew who stalked someone she barely knew. Of course it’s mostly women who get hurt by stalkers, but if it seems ironic that Hollywood’s first movie on the subject is already reversing reality to exploit the era’s burgeoning concerns over “women’s lib”, it must be added that contemporary audiences only saw it as an original twist on the psycho genre they’d already seen hundreds of examples of, a genre where men threaten women.

Eastwood’s love of music in general and jazz in particular is already here, not only in his character’s profession but in the candid footage of the Monterey Jazz Festival. There’s also a montage to Roberta Flack’s recording of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. The fact that that this entire sequence was conceived to pre-existing music may show an influence by Sergio Leone, who wrote, shot and edited his Eastwood trilogy around themes already composed by Ennio Morricone.

It’s also interesting that this 1971 film has perhaps the earliest example of what became a stale convention, the heroine’s Gay Best Friend (played by Duke Everts). Some viewers might wish (or might have wished at one time, when the swishy stereotype was all that was visible) that he were less “gay” in manner and speech, but he’s not extreme at all and is even surprisingly assertive and unapologetic. He’s only a figure of comic relief on his own terms rather than others’.

His main function is to be protective of Mills and correspondingly bitchy to Eastwood, and he pronounces the judgment that Mills’ character could be a good artist if she didn’t let her hormones get in the way. He finds that she’s letting romantic attachment interfere with her personal expression, and suggests that Eastwood kill himself in order to help her get over him. Frustrated, Eastwood says “Jay Jay, why don’t you go cruise some sailors, huh?” But Jay Jay gets the last word, in close-up, when he rolls his eyes and snaps “Oh please, don’t mention seafood.”

From Coogan's Bluff

From Coogan’s Bluff

We can trace this even-handed impulse back, for example, to Coogan’s Bluff (1968), the third film in this set but the earliest chronologically. The action indeed begins on a bluff in the desert, introducing Eastwood’s Deputy Coogan as a no-nonsense type who always gets his man. He strides around as though he owns the joint, while his prisoners and superiors are so much bother to him. When he’s assigned to extradite a fugitive from New York, his introduction to the place is calculated to appeal to the mid-American’s view of the city as a noisy hellhole full of criminals and weirdos. Get a load of his tour through the The Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel, a psychedelic nightclub of the type most commonly found in movies.

As part of the set decoration at the precinct house, two swish-acting but butch-looking customers are arguing with an officer that they have as much right to be on the street as anybody. Then they spot Coogan walking past in boots and ten-gallon hat like the Midnight Cowboy a couple of years ahead of time. “Get her!” says the little bald one, while the tall one in the vest asks if he works out. Coogan doesn’t respond. Later, when he throws a prostitute-cum-pickpocket out of his motel room, the incident closes when she turns to hiss, in close-up, “Texas faggot!” Actually he’s from Arizona, as he keeps reminding everybody.

Although it foreshadows Siegel’s Dirty Harry, this fish-out-of-water story is essentially about Coogan’s humbling. The bluff of the title isn’t the one in the opening scene, where he captures a humiliated Navajo who killed a woman (“only his wife”), and neither is it the bluff of that name in New York City, but rather Coogan’s attempt to circumvent the bureaucracy which is delaying his custody of the prisoner.

His bluff backfires badly, and his every attempt to track the man down gets in the way of the local investigation. Of course he inevitably gets his man, after a rather ludicrous motorcycle chase around the Cloisters, but he was only making good on a problem he created. The insufferably self-confident maverick has been at least somewhat chastened, although he remains a cocky sexist (that’s where Play Misty would come in). He has failed to show the big city cops a thing or two about how we do it out west. This is the unofficial inspiration for the Universal TV series McCloud,except that hero was very aw-shucks and hailed from New Mexico.

Anyway, this trite and disposable movie was directed by Don Siegel, Eastwood’s most important directorial mentor, who plays a brief role in Play Misty. Siegel, even more than Leone, was responsible for Eastwood’s screen image (certainly in contemporary settings) and for his usually direct, uncluttered style and even-handed presentation of characters. Siegel’s influence as much as anything encouraged Eastwood, I believe, to treat the various characters fairly enough to have their say, even if it undercuts the hero.


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