Saturday, November 12, 2011
"Careful! I might put your eye out."
The year 1971 was a distinct one in film…at least for those of us around during that period. The bloody tally of the Vietnam War still was scrolling by in snippets across our television news broadcasts. And those returning from it (in whatever state) already were impacting upon our population and culture at the time. For sure, all of that had an effect on anti-war protests, which carried over from the previous decade (to the vexation of one side and the spurring of the other). Despite that, we were in the midst of several other dramatic changes as well. Civil and women's rights were center stage, to say nothing of a sexual revolution. Yet, it all evolved into more critical examinations of American society and questioning who we were as a whole. As is our trait, it included our expression and reactions through violence in real life and through the popular arts. Whether it was the war we waged abroad or on the homefront, it was reflecting back on us in our own cinema. Remarkable films debuted that year. From such prominent film releases such as The French Connection and A Clockwork Orange, to the small and influential movies such as the controversial Straw Dogs, the initially TV-released Duel and, hell…even Billy Jack. Violence and upheaval were at their core.
Many more were to come this decade, especially in the crime genre. However, this year in particular stood out for one actor and his burgeoning career as a filmmaker: Clint Eastwood. Three critical films with him in the lead debuted in '71. To their benefit, the highly undervalued director Don Siegel had involvement in all of them. Two of the three had Clint as the clear hero. Regardless, none of Eastwood's characters in any those pictures were portrayed anywhere close to the unblemished saviors of yesteryear. The Siegel-directed Dirty Harry and The Beguiled offered unusual, contrasting stretches in character for the actor (and audience expectations). Still, only one movie had the rangy Mr. Eastwood in the director's chair for the very first time. Appropriately enough, it was the underrated, psychological thriller of its day: Play Misty for Me. This one marked the popular film star's first steps at the helm of a Hollywood studio-backed motion picture. As well, the audience would begin to glimpse a number of Clint's penchants in what would become a template for his filmmaking style. Prime among them, his preference for showcasing actors (other than himself) with meaty roles in the films he would come to produce, whether they were men and/or women. And it would be his film's co-star, Jessica Walter, who'd take the part handed to her and reach heights unanticipated as his deranged nemesis in the story. At length, she'd trail-blaze for those who'd come in subsequent and obsessive fare such as the barely disguised remake Fatal Attraction (1987), its teen equivalent, Swimfan (2002) and other fanatical fare. Even so, Jessica's character didn't take a back seat to any of them.
Clint Eastwood always has been a fascinating actor to me ever since watching him on TV's Rawhide series as a boy. He never appeared to he doing much on-screen (on TV or his early movies), looking towering and brooding, but ever cocksure. That is, till you observed carefully and found he was doing more than you ever thought. Tall, lanky and good-looking, he possessed the rare quality of being attractive to women, and yet having a majority of men wanting to be exactly like him (and all without a hint of resentment). Plus, he was just plain cool; all the while he was kicking your ass, that is. He built a career in film in many ways like that of other movie and Western icons, John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Still, in another manner, he was quite different from that duo and decidedly more in-tune to this era, which was very much the Sexy '70s. Besides, Gary Cooper never directed. Wayne did, but he never developed as much as he may have wanted to — perhaps, being held back beneath the shadow of his mentor, John Ford. Only Eastwood ever rose to being the world's biggest star and box office champ and enjoy an accomplished directorial career that almost rivaled the former. Allowed to handle the reins in this 1971 feature film, after a pretty successful period starting in the mid-'60s, it was here where that new vocation began to borne fruit.
Younger generations of moviegoers likely will roll their eyes or give knowing glances when reading the synopsis for this early '70s film (released on this autumn date 40 years ago): radio disc jockey Dave Garver (our man Eastwood) has one sweet gig going. He slings jazz tunes at a station in the jewel of California beachside communities, Carmel-by-the-Sea (the only town I know that has hyphens in its official name). Being on-the-air with frequency, Dave gets his fair share of 'play' with the ladies, too (sorry, couldn't resist the puns). One evening, Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) let's herself get picked up at a bar by Dave. Only later, after letting him believe he is seducing her, does Evelyn reveal that she's his longtime admiring fan. She being the same one who frequently calls the station to request the classic Erroll Garner ballad, "Misty." From that point forward, the carefree radioman begins to learn his casual "fling" means a hell of a lot more to the certifiably jealous and clingy inamorata. As their encounters grow in number, even as an old flame returns to Dave's life, the increasingly obsessive and violent relationship with Evelyn threatens his job prospects, those he cares about and eventually his own life. Hearing "Misty," either requested or played, will never mean the same thing again.
Though this was his first stint as a director, it wasn't done on a whim or for ego-polishing. Eastwood had been steadily prepping for this for some time. In point of fact, all the way back to the Rawhide series (picking up second-unit work when allowed, purely to build experience). Plus, being exposed to a couple of great directors (Sergio Leone and Don Siegel) in the '60s-era films that established him, only fed that drive. His major sponsor to get him into the director's chair was none other than Siegel himself (and you can spot his influence on the actor-turned-filmmaker from this inception…along with a film cameo from Don as the bartender). It culminated with the Play Misty for Me opportunity after a string of films with Universal, using an original story by Jo Heims (one Eastwood optioned beforehand). Jo would go on to work with Dean Reisner on the final screenplay. I think you have to give Clint credit for choosing something as unexpected as this material was at the time. Given his filmography to that point, an action film would have been the safe and anticipated move for the actor-cum-director (at least from the studio's standpoint). It certainly would not have been the Hitchcockian psychological thriller he eventually made. And thank God for that. As well, he was willing to give himself a role that was clearly nothing like his Man With No Name persona. Coldly endearing Dave is not as that icon was — he's very much the flawed protagonist.
DAVE: Don't you like me?
Let's be honest, the Dave Garver character is a bit of prick, literally, in Play Misty for Me. Tooling around in a two-seat convertible roadster (the 'Tang mobile of its day) says it's all about him. His wants, his desires, are all that matter. When the film opens (with a great long tracking shot by longtime collaborating cinematographer Bruce Surtees), he's at his old girlfriend's cliffside house (foreshadowing where the film will end), staring at himself. A portrait his ex Tobie (played well by a young Donna Mills) painted of him is visible through the window of that now vacant flat. He's definitely not the badass cowboy from the previous decade's stable of roles. Clint's Garver has a familiar connection with the period that was the time. Manifestly, he is the inheritor and purveyor of all that "free love" behavior and mentality the '60s offered. Perhaps his only real talent, besides his looks, is jumping beds and partners. All at the cost of Tobie, the woman he loves. Still, that's not enough to slow this one down (as his housekeeper plainly warns him half-way through the picture). The film makes clear that everything comes home to roost. Just like the rise of venereal disease rates that followed in the wake of all the "uncomplicated" Free Love Movement sex everyone with a pulse was into back then, there were repercussions. The point, even in that pre-AIDS era, was there were no free rides during this transformation of mores. As his disc jockey cohort, Al Monte (James McEachin), later notes with only the thinnest veil of symbolism:
AL: He who lives by the sword, shall die by the sword.
That such requital is delivered in spades by an outstanding performance by Ms. Walters, is what makes this film special. While the studio wanted the remarkable Lee Remick in this role, Eastwood insisted on the relatively unknown Jessica (through her small work with Sidney Lumet at the time). It proved to be another deft move by Clint. And it is the character of Evelyn Draper that really is the key to this movie. The tragic Madame Butterfly nature of the tale lies with her. A pivotal scene where Dave forcibly puts Evelyn into a taxi, after their confrontation, still packs a wallop after all these years. It's raw and intense as you catch sight of the vulnerability of her character, one plainly on the edge of sanity. Yeah, she repels you, but simultaneously you feel bad for the woman. Even if the audience wants Evelyn to die by the movie's end for the damage done, some part of you feels remorse when it comes to that. Play Misty, with its sexual underpinnings, could have been something Alfred Hitchcock chose to film (he'd release his sexual murder thriller Frenzy the following year). All the same, the women in Eastwood's film are the core component (and director Clint doesn't treat them as merely beautiful objects like Sir Alfred was prone to do).
At the beginning, Evelyn seems fragile, almost doleful. But like a thin glass, she's the one that's going to shatter and cut the one holding it. Evelyn only wants what she loves (in this case, most obsessively), and all during a period when there was little commitment to be had. Yet, between her and the object of her desire (her Dave), she's really the only one that you could actually say "cares." Dave wants nothing to do with strings (unless he's the one tying them). I believe the most compelling line Evelyn delivers in the film (and she has more than a few), also is the most simple (just three words) in entire the picture. On one hand she's revealing who she is to the unsuspecting Tobie, but on the other she's telling her rival she still doesn't realize that Dave is never really going to change his ways:
EVELYN: God, you're dumb.
It's the underlying thread of the film. In many ways mirroring the frustrations of living in a man's world, Evelyn is no longer going to be the doormat and nor be stepped on from a certain point on in Play Misty for Me. This wasn't the domestic '50s nor was it the bra-burning '60s where anyone could do what they wanted. This was something else altogether. And women of this decade weren't going let men have it both ways:
DAVE: Get off my back, Evelyn.
EVELYN: Get off your back? That's where you've been keeping me, isn't it!
In a number of ways, this film turns the table on men (another element this movie had in common with The Beguiled). Eastwood's picture plays very much like a throwback to the films of Alfred Hitchcock when he was still at his peak, specifically Psycho and Vertigo. And yes, it's nowhere near as invented or iconic as those two. However, like that pair of films, Play Misty for Me did offer some groundbreaking aspects in its story. In this case, the film's tale is one where the women drive all the action and dominate the male character in unforeseen ways.
Eastwood's use of music also should be noted. With original tracks supplied by Dee Barton (who'd collaborate again with Clint in High Plains Drifter and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), this was very much a personal statement of the budding director — another trait that would mark his future productions. Jazz always has been central to this actor and he made sure to showcase it throughout as the story unfolded (John Larch's Sgt. McCallum "Montivani" crack offering humorous counterpoint notwithstanding). Perhaps not surprisingly, his sequence at the Monterey Jazz Fest was at a level near the best of the early music documentaries at capturing the essence of what it'd be like to be there during this transformational time. Reportedly, Clint shot 30,000 feet of film toward it. And he was very much the auteur in putting together the unexpected montage to "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Clint went out of way to acquire the rights to that sensual rendition of the song (performed by Roberta Flack, written by Ewan MacColl) and Garner's title tune for his movie.
Shot in three weeks time, entirely on location with not a soundstage in sight, Clint Eastwood delivered the picture with time and budget to spare (probably the studio's most admired trait of the new actor/director). All in all, the film he delivered passes the test of time and stands up to repeat viewing (even if you've never seen a rotary dial phone before, or only have begun to understand what it was like before Caller ID). In contrast to the Hitch classics mentioned (as great as they are), but like the blood that flowed more freely in this post-'60s cinematic era, Eastwood's first film is much warmer to the touch, I think. I'm not saying the 1971 movie surpasses the British suspense master's work — but it was one of the best psychological thrillers of its decade. Plus, the film had something to say about those changing times. Not to mention, like the actor himself, his initial foray in the director's chair seemed competent enough. That is, till you looked more closely and found he accomplished a hell of lot more than you ever thought.