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