For a filmmaker whose characters have names like Dirty Harry and Bronco Billy, director-producer-star Clint Eastwood has earned a lot of attention from cultural pundits. Clint Eastwood, Actor and Director: New Perspectives, edited by Leonard Engel, contains essays by more than a dozen respectable critics and scholars, and they aren’t the first to think seriously about his work. Among the many others is Roger Ebert, who has praised Eastwood for “intelligence” and an “instinct for the cinema” that keeps growing with the years. Film critic Scott Foundas maintains that his signature as an artist is “sensitivity to human frailty”, and Dave Kehr finds explorations of “populist values and communal sentiments” even in the slapstick “monkey movies” where Clint’s costar was an orangutan.
On the other side of the Eastwood equation, women are often less sympathetic. Judith Crist went gunning for him regularly, while the legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael described him as “a tall, cold cod” and wrote of Dirty Harry that the “action genre has always had a fascist potential, and it has finally surfaced”. Defending that runaway 1971 hit, Eastwood invoked no less a precedent than the Nuremberg trials to support his notion that a “higher … true morality” should replace mere legal principles from time to time. “That isn’t fascist,” he concluded; “it’s the opposite of fascism.” Hmm. Conflating hoods of San Francisco with Nazi war criminals seems like the opposite of morality to me, but plenty of moviegoers bought into it — only nine American pictures outgrossed Dirty Harry in 1972 — and I imagine the idea strikes Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia as legal philosophy at its very zenith.
The critical community’s mixed opinions of Eastwood are appropriate, since his career has been very varied as well as very long. He earned his first acclaim as an actor in Sergio Leone’s early “spaghetti westerns”, starting with A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, and made his name as a director with the 1971 melodrama Play Misty for Me, which found rousing entertainment value in psychotic female jealousy more than 15 years before Fatal Attraction reached the screen. He soon began manifesting more nuanced views of individual behavior and social psychology, however. By the late 1980s he was making genuine art films like Bird and White Hunter Black Heart, and more recently he’s directed Mystic River and the World War II dramas Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, which are to Steven Spielberg’s ham-fisted Saving Private Ryan what the Nuremberg trials are to Guantánamo’s kangaroo courts. Special mention goes to his 2004 production Million Dollar Baby, an investigation of physical and metaphysical pain that does what Hollywood has traditionally regarded as impossible, treating the issue of euthanasia with philosophical nuance. It accomplishes this intelligently enough for one not-quite-the-opposite-of-fascist critic, the righteously right-wing Michael Medved, to say that “hate is not too strong a word” for his feelings toward it. Eastwood is clearly doing something right.
Rising to the challenge of Eastwood’s oeuvre, many of the writers in Engel’s collection have fresh and noteworthy things to say, usually organizing their arguments around particular movies. Beneath the clunky title of Brad Klypchak’s essay, “`All on Accounta Pullin’ a Trigger’: Violence, the Media, and the Historical Contextualization of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven”, lies a smart analysis of how the 1992 western uses a story set in 1881 to comment on questions related to violence, masculinity, and feminism, and – more interestingly – how the film’s repackaging in later years (most notably for a DVD edition in 2002) frames these matters in different ways designed to capitalize on shifting values in the film industry and American society at large. “Subverting Shane: Ambiguities in Eastwood’s Politics in Fistful of Dollars, High Plains Drifter, and Pale Rider”, by Stephen McVeigh, shows how these movies both express and problematize Eastwood’s conservative ideological views. “The Old Man and the C: Masculinity and Age in the Films of Clint Eastwood”, by Walter Metz, explores the title topics via, among other things, the generally overlooked 2002 thriller Blood Work and its intertextual affinities with Vertigo, the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece of 1958. David Cremean takes an interesting look at anarchist ideas in Leone and Eastwood westerns; Matt Wanat offers an analysis of irony and self-absolution in Dirty Harry; and Leger Grindon studies the inversion of middle-class values in one of the monkey movies.
Not all of the chapters are this strong. The book’s one interview with Eastwood, gathered by John C. Tibbets at a 1992 press event, reads like a hastily written feature for a middle-brow entertainment magazine. Other pieces are flawed by dubious assertions and careless prose. In her essay on “Feminism and the Limits of Genre”, it’s astonishing to find Brett Westbrook denying that John Ford’s celebrated 1956 western The Searchers condones the main characters’ brutal treatment of an Indian woman, since the film unambiguously presents this as an episode of rollicking comic relief. McVeigh cites two historians to support the idea that John F. Kennedy’s death created “psychological pressures that [drove America] to commit the atrocity of Vietnam” without mentioning that Kennedy presided over the early stages of that atrocity. And a description of Ennio Morricone’s score for A Fistful of Dollars inducts McVeigh into the swelling army of Americans who think “infamous” means the same as “famous”, only more so, since it has more syllables. Whatever.
The book’s overarching flaw is its top-heavy emphasis on Eastwood’s westerns at the expense of the narrative, generic, and thematic diversity I referred to above. With a mere five mentions of Bird, two apiece of Honkeytonk Man and White Hunter Black Heart, and none at all of Firefox or The Eiger Sanction, the collection misses out on much fascinating material. I realize that not everyone finds The Eiger Sanction as amazing as I do, but any picture with Clint as an art professor (!) cum mountain climber (!!) cum political assassin (!!!) deserves all the analysis it can get. Passing over it entirely strikes me as, um, infamous.