Clint Eastwood: American Icon Collection

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

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.

The Dangers of Uppity Post-Stonewall Liberated Homosexuals

This works our way back to Play Misty, and let’s not move on without noting that Heims also wrote an obscure 1962 wonder called The Devil’s Hand, which is badly done but with intriguing premises that foreshadow the Eastwood picture. It’s about a man who’s happy with his girlfriend but dreams of a blonde in the clouds. Then he walks into a doll shop and meets a girl who casually explains that she worships the evil god Gamba, who can make all things right for you, and if the guy wants to make it with her, all he has to do is join the cult. So our guy goes what the hell and signs up!

It’s like a Tiki club where pudgy white businessmen slum while black people dance and play drums. Soon our man is rolling in dough, but his ex still hurts from where that needle was stuck into her voodoo doll’s abdomen. He tries to make good without betraying his new devil mistress, but the latter just doesn’t understand. So it’s all about the danger of dominating, sexually liberated women. And nine years later — Play Misty for Me!

As for the dangers of uppity post-Stonewall liberated homosexuals, look no further than the Eastwood-directed The Eiger Sanction (1975). This action picture is dull in a particularly ‘70s way, despite its mountain-climbing set pieces. It plods in a four-square manner as a retired art-loving hitman is blackmailed back into action (don’t trust the system, man) to find out who betrayed some operation and terminate said miscreant with dispatch.

This is unthrilling stuff, but what there is of a plot is stolen by Jack Cassidy as an outrageously stereotyped, aggressively limp-wristed villain who flounces around with a dog called Faggot! (“Faggot! Come here!”) With his hunky bodyguard, he seems to be a colorful distraction from the objective (since he’s not the actual mountain-climbing traitor) but a kind of displaced object for the audience’s hostility, since somebody so defiantly deviant must receive the treatment he deserves. However, don’t trust women either, not even black chicks. In short, don’t trust anybody, just pursue your hedonistic pleasures and your superior cultivated tastes.

This is based on a novel by the pseudonymous single-named Trevanian, and the shrieking homophobia must be explained partly in terms of the era’s determination to be hip and with-it in a world in which we’re all modern, sophisticated adults who have heard of homosexuals and such, and the newly emancipated Hollywood production code which permits characters to pronounce words on screen that no one was ever allowed to say before, and refer to things openly that no was ever allowed to admit before. It was somewhat like the sound of Archie Bunker flushing the toilet on TV, seemingly gratuitous but groundbreaking such as it was. The stereotypes were the first step, and they really look no more progressive in, say, The Boys in the Band, but at least Cassidy’s in-your-face character isn’t in anybody’s closet.

We can get a glimpse of the paradoxes of this germinally liberating era from Gore Vidal’s review of the novel in The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal. It’s actually a piece in which he reviews all of the top 10 best-sellers on the New York Times list for January 1973, including Trevanian’s novel. He says presciently that the book can easily be adapted to the screen, and indeed it was–quite faithfully, to judge by his summary.

Vidal finds the novel “sometimes well-written” and “pretty good” as an “Ian Fleming byblow”. He writes, “Fleming once remarked that he wrote his books for warm-blooded heterosexuals. I suspect that Mr. Trevanian (Ms. Trevanian?) is writing for tepid-blooded bisexuals — that is to say, a majority of those who prefer reading kinky thrillers to watching that television set … Mr. Trevanian has recourse to that staple of recent fiction the Fag Villain. Since kikes and niggers can no longer be shown as bad people, only commies (pre-Nixon) and fags are certain to arouse the loathing of all decent fiction addicts. I will say for Mr. Trevanian that his Fag Villain is pretty funny — an exquisite killer named Miles Mellough with a poodle named Faggot. In fact, Mr. Trevanian in his comic mood is almost always beguiling, and this bright scenario ought to put new life into the Bond product.”

Just so you know where Vidal is coming from, the only book he really praises in that essay is Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, concerning which he states: “I am particularly puzzled (and pleased) by the success of Mary Renault … In a dozen popular books Mary Renault has made the classical era alive, forcing even the dullest of book-chat writers to recognize that bisexuality was once our culture’s norm and that Christianity’s perversion of this human fact is the aberration and not the other way around. I cannot think how Miss Renault has managed to do what she has done, but the culture is the better for her work.”

Vidal, who is no slouch on queer readings or on contributing to alternative sexualities in the popular novel, is alert to yet alive to the subversive possibilities of the Fag Villain schtick, a sign of “sophistication” in pop literature and cinema of the day that appeals both to regressive impulses and the desire for “kinky” transgression within the consumers. I’ve heard the device also called Killer Fag and Psycho Fag, but they’re all subsets of the Dead Fag trope, which embraces everything from sensitive suicides to the bashing in Brokeback Mountain. Somehow I prefer the ones who go out shooting.

In a review at DooneysCafe.com, Stan Persky points out notable similarities between Trevanian’s novel, as reviewed by Vidal, and The Da Vinci Code, including the professor hero and the albino. Yes, there’s an albino representing sinister power in Eiger, another baroque element handled with ‘70s flatness.

From The Beguiled

And now let’s turn our attention to the movie here that most merits it, The Beguiled (1970). It opens with Civil War photos, presumably by Matthew Brady, and then we hear Eastwood’s low voice moaning a traditional song about not letting your boys be soldiers, and then comes a breathtakingly beautiful crane shot lilting down through Spanish moss in sepia, gradually turning to color as a little girl stumbles on the bloody leg of a giant man who collapses at her feet. This is the Yankee soldier (or “bluebelly”) Corporal John McBurney, and he’s carried into the shelter of the Farnsworth Academy for Young Ladies (filmed at a historic Louisiana plantation), where debutantes learn vital skills such as French and how to eat with a napkin.

McBurney’s a sly one. Right away he begins working the girls, playing on their vulnerable points to make himself acceptable until he heals enough to make an escape, and so they won’t turn him over to the Confederate forces. For example, he tries to convince the slave woman that she should be on his side, but she’s too no-nonsense for his slick talk and gives him philosophical arguments about his own freedom.

We know he’s a liar, because when he tells about himself, we see flashbacks to the contradictory truth. We also know what each woman and girl is thinking, thanks to odd occasional voice-overs. One of the beauties of this Southern gothic tale, aside from the plentiful visual grace notes provided by cinematographer Bruce Surtees and directed by Siegel (far from the routine hackwork of Coogan’s Bluff), is that McBurney at all times fancies himself in control, a fox in the henhouse, a cat among the pigeons.

Well, he’s stirring them up all right, but he’ll learn that their jealousies and sexual politics aren’t going to be so easy to manipulate in his favor. Again in the Eastwood oeuvre, a man who thinks he’s in control, and especially around women, finds out he’s not quite.

Another small pleasure is the score by Lalo Schifrin — again, a far cry from the functional suspense cues he provided for Coogan’s Bluff. Here he gets internal and foreboding, sometimes with period idioms like drums and harpsichord. The script is by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, listed pseudonymously as John B. Sherry and Grimes Grice; Siegel and Eastwood didn’t like the happy ending Maltz had tacked onto the story and changed it (now there’s a sign of the early ’70s!).

This material, from a novel by Thomas Cullinan and really evoking Ambrose Bierce, brings out everyone’s best and is anchored not so much by Eastwood as by the performances of the women, especially Geraldine Page as Miss Farnsworth and the awkwardly vulnerable Elizabeth Hartman as her only teacher. This claustrophobic hothouse tale is a woman’s movie, and perhaps a subdued horror film, disguised as a war story.

Aside from trailers, the only extras in this set are several on Play Misty for Me which were already on the previous DVD release of this title. These include an interview with Richard Schickel, who draws a few parallels between Play Misty and The Beguiled, citing them as evidence of Eastwood’s early playing with his persona in stories of sexual politics.

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