To Live Is to Die: Clint Eastwood's Dangerous Oeuvre

Promo image of Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force (1973)

These 20 films are a journey through the social and political conditions of America and a broader history of human violence that crowns no winners and knows no end.

In 2013, there’s little left to add to the Clint Eastwood mythology. For decades, he’s been thoroughly written about, documented, criticized, praised, awarded and otherwise observed. In an American film industry not known for a nurturing attitude toward most of the actors and directors who pass through it, Eastwood has sustained a career that dates back to 1955 (as an actor) and 1971 (as a director).

Though current popular opinion of the man is influenced by his vaudeville act at the 2012 Republican National Convention, his cinematic commentary on the political and social conditions of his country runs much deeper than the rare public spectacle. How best to summarize Eastwood’s contribution to American filmmaking? Perhaps it is his longtime association with the Western that brings to mind Sam Elliott’s drawling introductory narration from The Big Lebowski: "Sometimes there’s a man -- I won’t say a hero, cause what’s a hero? But sometimes there’s a man... well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there."

As a man of his time and place, Eastwood has fit right into narratives about war and peace, political corruption, familial collapse, sin and redemption, and life and death. He’s aged through cycles of individual and national histories and reflected successive versions of them on screen. Six decades of American history have been the backdrop and provided subtext for his starring roles. And as a director and producer, his chosen themes and dramatic situations have exceeded immediate circumstances, often creating timeless, universal tales of conflict between humanity and inhumanity.

Setting those qualities aside for a moment, we've also seen in Eastwood an economical filmmaker who trusts his first instinct and doesn’t overshoot. Absent are stories of wild ambition and overreach that appear in biographies of his contemporaries. He’s done quite well at the business of filmmaking, and the business has responded by passing up no opportunity to repackage his illustrious career for home video consumption.

The latest collection of his work is Clint Eastwood: 20 Film Collection, now available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video. Timed for release around Father’s Day, this set offers a version of American masculinity that honors the strong, straight-faced man of few words widely recognized as Eastwood’s onscreen persona. But even more apparent than the treatment of his developing persona is the set’s attention to the core themes of his filmography. Viewed in order, these 20 films are a journey through the social and political conditions of America and a broader history of human violence that crowns no winners and knows no end.

Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971) introduces Eastwood's signature role of San Francisco Police Department Inspector 'Dirty' Harry Callahan. In a steely performance, Eastwood embodies the lone avenger described by screenwriter John Milius in one Blu-ray featurette ("Dirty Harry: The Original") as having "no life except the hunt". In that same featurette, Eastwood frames the tension of the story as the conflict between the rights of the accused versus the rights of the victim. The actor says that at the time of the film's production, the American media was putting too much focus on the rights of the accused. Indeed, in the wake of the Miranda v. Arizona decision in 1966, much of the American public (including moviegoers) would have seen in 'Dirty Harry' a man that shared their frustrations about the attention given to suspects' rights.

Though the film was very successful, leading to four sequels and inspiring countless cop dramas, present day viewing reveals many aspects that are a bit overdone. The serial killer (played by Andrew Robinson) is too hysterical, the police officers are comically inept at pinning him down, the bureaucrats are "crazy", the nudity is gratuitous, and so forth. Yet none of these exaggerations necessarily tarnish the film's legacy, because they align with Dirty Harry's perspective of a corrupt city that appears to have gone mad. And Eastwood stares down the excesses and transgressions in a decidedly non-super-heroic fashion. As Arnold Schwarzenegger notes in "Dirty Harry: The Original", Harry Callahan is a man that will avenge vice while still eating his lunchtime hamburger. Where trouble intrudes, there he will be, .44 Magnum in hand.

Clint Eastwood: 20 Film Collection doesn't include all of the Dirty Harry installments, but the second film in the collection is Ted Post's Magnum Force (1973). It's a follow-up that reiterates (often quite literally) the iconography and indelible pieces of characterization established in the first film. For example, the opening credits play out over a dramatic image of a gun in hand against a blood-red backdrop. The camera pushes in, ever closer to the gun, until the gun is pointed almost directly at the viewer. We hear Eastwood's "Do you feel lucky?" monologue from the first film before the finger pulls the trigger. The color, composition, and soundtrack have much in common with Italian horror films of the period, but the context of the shot is ostensibly that of crime and punishment, not serial murder. While this introductory sequence serves the practical function of picking up where the first film left off, it also stealthily introduces the plot's dramatic action, which is in fact serial murder in the name of crime and punishment.

Once again, the exaggerated and/or comic elements all exist within a climate of violence. Outside of a courthouse, a protester turns subtext into text as he shouts about the attention being given to the rights of killers. Even the hamburger gets a cameo, as Dirty Harry enjoys his lunch despite witnessing a gory crime scene just minutes prior. Yet the unease in Magnum Force is one that upends and calls into question the force of vengeance that had been celebrated in Dirty Harry. Callahan's opponent is not a solitary hippie serial killer, but a death squad of young cops working from within the police force to execute the criminal element.

As a corrective against wild retribution, Magnum Force complements Dirty Harry, and it's also the best film in the series. Callahan does serve up some memorable one-liners like "Nothing wrong with shooting, as long as the right people get shot." But any celebration of vigilantism collapses when faced with the fascistic death squad and their leader, Hal Holbrook's "Lieutenant Briggs". Callahan sees in them the perils of unrestrained vengeance.

Eastwood's earliest directorial effort included in this set is The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). The Civil War/post-Civil War period of the film and Missouri-to-Texas settings offer a very different field of action, but the film's complicated questions of justice are consistent with those of Magnum Force. As the formerly peaceful farmer named Josey Wales, Eastwood contends with a murderous character (Bill McKinney's "Terrill") who has appointed himself as a sovereign hand of justice.

Terrill, a Red Leg soldier out to rid the land of Confederate guerrillas, says "Doin' right ain't got no end." His logic dictates that any number of murders, for however long, will be justified if they are carried out as righteousness. As the last of the guerrillas standing, Wales has a problem with both Terrill's moral authority and the fact that Terrill was responsible for the death of his wife and child. During Wales' journey to Texas, his reputation as an outlaw attracts the attention of bounty hunters and others out to exploit his value as a wanted man.

Shot by Bruce Surtees, The Outlaw Josey Wales looks outstanding on Blu-ray, and it leaves no visual convention of the Western unexplored as it revises the mythology of both the Civil War film and the Western genre. Another aspect of its revisionism is that Eastwood departs somewhat from the solitary figure he plays in other Westerns. Despite the bloodshed, the promise of a new family and a new start in Texas eventually plays like a picturesque dream come true.
The new family unit he assembles on his way to Santa Rio has also encountered violence at the hands of lawless Comancheros. But in order to heal the wounds of the film's many destroyed families, Wales first must restore a different kind of order common to the genre, and he can only complete this part of the journey on his own. To borrow a phrase from Jenni Calder, "there must be a lone ranger". Wales rides out to negotiate with Will Sampson's Comanche chief "Ten Bears", a legend in his own right. It is in their conversation that the primary point of the film emerges.

Earlier in the film, Wales heard the tale of Lone Watie (Chief Dan George), whose wife and sons were killed on the Trail of Tears. The foundation of their kinship is a mutual inability to trust the men responsible for their disenfranchisement and loss. Lone Watie becomes part of his new family. Later, when talking to Ten Bears, Josey makes his case for coexistence with the phrase, "Governments don't live together. People live together." Like in the earlier conversation with Lone Watie, the focus is on individuals who have become collateral damage in conflicts not of their own choosing. This is not an incidental point, as Eastwood remarks in the making-of featurette that one of the key themes of the film is the futility of war, which destroys families.

The Gauntlet (1977), also directed by Eastwood, provides a taste of the '80s action film style yet to come. Co-starring Sondra Locke from The Outlaw Josey Wales and several additional pictures made during her romantic involvement with the director, The Gauntlet is a lean plot dressed up with ridiculous amounts of artillery. Eastwood plays cop Ben Shockley who is ordered to escort a female witness (Locke's "Gus Mally") from Las Vegas to Phoenix so that she can testify in a trial involving the mob. The details about her character and involvement with the mob and police force emerge slowly, but they're secondary to the central conceit of the movie. Someone is trying with all of his or her might to stop Mally from making it to Phoenix. The cop and his passenger escape certain death several times during their road trip, and they fall in love along the way.

Mally is a prostitute and Shockley is a wayward cop. In each other they eventually see a way forward in life, if only they can live through the road trip. To a considerably greater degree than the inept bureaucrats of the Dirty Harry series, the Police Commissioner in the Gauntlet (William Prince's "Blakelock") is a force of antagonism. His moral failings and corruption are directly responsible for the mess that Mally is in, and rather than own up to his transgressions, he arranges scads of officers to extinguish her and his own officer in the process. For Shockley, who trusts in the image of the "good cop" and little else, Commissioner Blakelock shatters his remaining idealism. What's more, Blakelock reasons that his cops are "paid to shoot, not to think", and for most of the running time they fall in line with that philosophy.

The Gauntlet is difficult to take seriously, but it is noteworthy for the heaviness that sets in when the police force follows through on its command. Only a decade removed from Bonnie & Clyde's infamously bullet-riddled finalé, The Gauntlet appears to be Eastwood's attempt to evoke the specific memory of watching that scene, over and over again. Bullets thoroughly decimate a house, a police car, and a bus. Eastwood is so focused on the obliteration that can be achieved with enough firepower that any greater political message gets lost in a literal hail of bullets. Commissioner Blakelock is cartoonish in his villainy, and the final scene stretches credibility to the breaking point. The Gauntlet and Kim Jee-Woon's underrated The Last Stand (2013) might be seen as similarly themed bookends to the '80s action cycle -- films that always shoot, but less often stop to think.

James Fargo's Every Which Way but Loose (1978), another Eastwood-Locke effort, is by far the most perplexing entry in this collection. The film begins with a working class milieu and unpredictable protagonist that bring to mind Bob Rafelson's influential Five Easy Pieces (1970), but it quickly descends into an incoherent mess. Among the preposterous elements are an orangutan, one of the silliest biker gangs ever concocted for a motion picture, and poor Ruth Gordon in a character so repellent and poorly conceived that one feels sorrier for the actress with each successive line of dialogue.

There are a few good ideas buried in the mess of a film. One is to have the biker gang's bikes regularly destroyed by different characters -- a Gauntlet in miniature and played for comic effect. Another is the presence of Beverly D'Angelo as Echo, a small supporting role. An argument could be made that the madcap tone of Every Which Way but Loose, with its convergence of lawmen and lawless upon the same unstoppable central characters, preceded and influenced John Landis's The Blues Brothers (1980). However Fargo's film contains little of the creative energy, musical verve, and thrilling action of the later film.

Perhaps the lasting contribution of Every Which Way but Loose to the Eastwood canon is the subplot that pits his character Philo Beddoe against a series of opponents in fistfights. By the end, Beddoe is set to take down Tank Murdock (Walter Barnes), the much-feared hard man who has been discussed throughout the film. The internal conflict Beddoe experiences at the final showdown prompts the sorts of questions Eastwood himself might have been pondering in a post-Dirty Harry career. Namely, is it worth being known as the top dog if that status means he will forever be a target for challengers? Do people want him only to exploit his strength for money? How long could that untouchable persona last? To use the profitable parlance of American cinema's action stars in their waning years -- is he expendable?

As if responding to that existential questioning, the next film here is Firefox (1982), directed by and starring Eastwood. One of his most overlooked works, Firefox begins with Eastwood's character Mitchell Gant having left a life of combat behind. Suffering from "delayed stress syndrome" incurred in Vietnam, former U.S. Air Force Major Gant gets called back into action despite his desire to disappear into solitude. The film cleverly compares his condition with the central plot device of "Firefox", a Soviet aircraft that is invisible to radar and utilizes thought control to fire weapons. Kenneth Aubrey (Freddie Jones) describes the aircraft: “The Firefox is for all intents and purposes . . . invisible.” Gant's mission is to go to the Soviet Union under an assumed identity and steal the Firefox. He is warned that the KGB is a monster that is "slow to awaken". Facing a malady, a mission and an enemy characterized by stealth, Gant is a man beset by things that could sneak up on him at any moment. He accepts his duty.

The first half of Firefox is an excellent Cold War thriller. Like a cinematic link between television show Callan (1967-1972) and Ben Affleck's Argo (2012), the film places a normally reserved man into an espionage plot with extraordinary stakes. The screenplay, by Alex Lasker and Wendell Wellman, who adapted Craig Thomas' novel, is cleverly structured to conceal certain pieces of information from the audience. In this sense, we share Gant's nervous state. Most of the disclosures feel perfectly timed, such as Russian dissident Pyotr Baranovich (Nigel Hawthorne) explaining to Gant his reason for aiding in the plot to steal Firefox. He says his resentment of the KGB is much greater than his resentment of the men in London who are essentially ordering his death with participation in this mission. The repeated attention to switching physical/nominal identities in the first half of the film is one-upped in the film's second half by Gant's need to think in Russian in order to operate the aircraft.

The second half of Firefox, which transforms into an action picture, is considered to be the lesser half. That the initial espionage setup is so successful creates a high standard the (not so convincing) special effects strain to maintain. Overall, though, Firefox is a film that deserves more attention for Eastwood's unexpectedly adept political thriller craftsmanship. Affleck most certainly studied the film when constructing Argo.

Sudden Impact (1983) is the last of the Dirty Harry films that appears in Clint Eastwood: 20 Film Collection. Eastwood directs a script that turns Callahan into a caricature. The actor's performance is solid, yet both the plot and his direction muddle the mythology of the character. Early in the film, a wise guy says "Callahan's the one constant in an ever-changing universe." This is not an inaccurate statement, but to point it out in such a way is symptomatic of the way in which the later Dirty Harry installments rely too much on dialogue about the character as opposed to showing him in action.

Allusions to other Eastwood films lead to mixed results. There's a nice throwback to the final fight of Every Which Way but Loose, as Lieutenant Donnelly (Michael Currie) tells Callahan, "They're not gonna stop. They're gonna keep coming after you." Yet when Eastwood stages the last confrontation of this film with a nod to Josey Wales, who always knew to keep the sun at his back, the Callahan ethos falls apart. The film doesn't earn the allusion, as Callahan appears, dramatically backlit so that his face/figure falls into complete silhouette.

Whereas in The Outlaw Josey Wales he had heroically rescued Sondra Locke's innocent "Laura Lee" from violent Comancheros, here he saves the murderous "Jennifer Spencer" from a band of rapists. By recasting Callahan as a blank/black slate who rises to protect a rape-revenge murderer, Eastwood diminishes the specific version of masculinity previously embodied by the character. He replaces the decisive, certain, unabashed (anti-)hero with a general ambiguity that is aligned visually (through facelessness) and narratively (through emotional confusion) with the masked slashers of '80s American horror cinema. Sudden Impact ultimately fails because it doesn't take seriously the earlier films' probing of the ethics of seeking justice. Viewers may have long projected their own motives and agendas onto Callahan the enforcer, but Eastwood errs by turning his own character into a cipher.

Pale Rider (1985) is much more effective at casting Eastwood as a repository for the hopes and destinies of others. Again directing and acting, Eastwood plays Preacher, an enigmatic character who seems to literally materialize in response to the prayer of a teenage girl. Megan Wheeler (Sydney Penny) grieves over the death of her dog, a victim of violence visited upon a village of miners/prospectors by those loyal to the big business interests of Coy LaHood (Richard Dysart). Megan's prayer invites Preacher's protection over herself, her mother Sarah (Carrie Snodgress) and others such as Hull Barret (Michael Moriarty), who is fighting a losing battle against LaHood's company and clan.

Preacher's first up-close appearance in the film is 17 minutes into the running time -- like clockwork according to screenwriting guru Lew Hunter's concept of the ideal position for a second act to begin. And once Preacher is amongst the living, his function is to inspire those around him to a righteous form of fighting oppression. He is their salvation. Pale Rider implies that Preacher is the manifestation of Death riding a pale horse from the Book of Revelation. Preacher, like Walker in Point Blank (1967) and Grace in Dogville (2003), cannot be fully defined or defeated in a corporeal sense. Although LaHood loyalists brag about "putting a scare into" the "tin pans", they learn they are no match for Preacher, who puts the fear of God into evildoers. Pale Rider is rare among Eastwood's filmography in its portrayal/ approval of faith in things beyond the material world.

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