By 1971 Clint Eastwood was a major international star thanks not only to his eight-season run on television series Rawhide but also his three popular Italian westerns – culminating in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) – and a string of successful Hollywood films including Hang ‘Em High, Coogan’s Bluff, Where Eagles Dare (all 1968), Two Mules for Sister Sara, and Kelly’s Heroes (both 1970). He had already taken on a stronger hand in dictating his film projects by setting up his own production companies. Like all famous actors, however, what he really wanted to do was direct.
Over the past 50 years Clint Eastwood has directed 39 feature films and won four Academy Awards. Today he is arguably better known to audiences as a director than as an actor. His first directorial feature is Play Misty for Me (1971), a contemporary thriller released the same year he performed in The Beguiled and Dirty Harry.
David Garver (Eastwood) is a successful Californian radio DJ. One night he picks up a woman in a bar, Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter), only to learn that she deliberately went to the bar to meet him. When Evelyn begins to take their romance more seriously than David, he tries to back away – only to discover she is murderously obsessed with him.
Hollywood has spent a generation courting the fantasy of the rugged, masculine man being stalked by an obsessive, murderous woman. Back in 1971 it must have had remarkable novelty value, but then Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) kicked off an entire movement of obsessive women hunting down male victims and American film simply never looked back. It is an extraordinary feat of patriarchal ego: male protagonists so irresistible that women lose their sanity in pursuing them. When staged the other way around – crazed men stalking women – it becomes about power not misplaced love, and invariably another male protagonist is tasked with stopping the stalker. The female target is relegated to damsel status. In either direction, somehow the gender roles essentially remain the same: men are driven, smart, and calculated, while women are hysterical, irrational, and foolish.
The female stalker film is also generally incited by adultery of some kind. It feels like a reflection of America’s comparatively puritanical culture: cheat on a wife or lover, and be nearly murdered in return. While there may be a moral lesson there, it is still couched in the binary of calm men and panicky women. Men can handle their infidelities, while women cannot negotiate the boundaries of their affairs.
All of this is in effect in Play Misty for Me, which is a small-scale but generally effective thriller. As an actor, Eastwood performs pretty much his entire career with a single cadence, but there are subtle differences between his various grim-faced cowboys and laconic radio DJ David Garver. Something quite striking about the character is his fallibility: it is obvious from the outset that sleeping with Evelyn is a bad idea, yet sleep with her he does. With each incident of rising tension he continues to acknowledge her irrational behaviour while still returning for another quick sexual encounter. As noted above, I think there is always an element of moral lesson about this genre, but in this case Eastwood really drives the puritanical angle hard. It is the most insulting cliché of real-life sexual assault cases to claim the victim was culpable – “she was asking for it” – but that is in effect what Eastwood does here. Given its context – the film was released in 1971 – it all feels like a conservative hangover after waking from the “swinging sixties”. Free love leads to a world of trouble.
Jessica Walter may play a dreadful stereotype – perhaps not when the film was made, but certainly it is now – but she does an outstanding line in unhinged overreactions and worrying mood swings. We can debate the purpose, but there is little denying her talent in fitting it. Other supporting performances work very well, including Donna Mills as David’s one-again off-again girlfriend Tobie and John Larch as the amusing police sergeant McCallum.
One of the elements most commonly attached to Eastwood’s directing is a matter-of-fact, unfussy style, and that is certain the case here. It is far from artless, but there is nonetheless a straightforward narrative style to Play Misty for Me. Style never overrides the needs of the story, and this is something one can see all through Eastwood’s career. Story is king, and everything else acts as its servant.
Describing the film’s narrative too much will reveal plot details for new viewers, but suffice to say the climax is a jaw-dropping feat of patriarchal machismo that I laughed out loud. The sexual politics may be terribly dated, and its portrayal of mental illness typically inaccurate, but there is a solid, old-fashioned potboiler at work here. Historical context seems key.