Play Misty for Me: Clint Eastwood made a confident debut as director with this proto-‘Fatal Attraction’ romantic thriller

Play Misty for Me (1971) was the first film directed by Clint Eastwood. Clint also starred alongside Jessica Walter in this romantic thriller set in and around Clint’s hometown, Carmel.

1971 was a big year for Clint Eastwood. He had three releases that year- Two of which was directed by his pal & mentor, Don Siegel. One of the two was the iconic “Dirty Harry,” that catapulted Clint to superstardom. The other film directed by Siegel was “The Beguiled,” undoubtedly the strangest and most courageous film Clint was ever involved in as a star\actor. The third film he made that year was “Play Misty for Me,” with which he made his directorial debut. After kicking around the film industry in various capacities for more than a decade and half, Clint finally ascended to wielding the megaphone on a film with this one. The move turned out to be fortuitous because he would go on to become the most successful and most prolific actor\director in American film history; a superstar who would go on to direct himself in almost all his films. And, in time, as age caught up with him, he would partially retire from acting to take up direction full time. It’s as a director (more than an actor) that Clint would earn all the awards, critical respect and prestige. Clint’s directorial debut was this suspenseful romantic thriller (made in the vein of a Hitchcock-ian thriller) that’s both intelligent and shocking. In his directorial debut, Clint took the bold decision to cast himself against type. Till then he was the macho Western\action hero, who blows away his enemies with his guns, but here he plays an ordinary guy – a small-town celebrity Radio jockey – who is hounded by a female fan with whom he has a fling. This is the third film in a row for Clint where he is playing a character beset or tormented by women; Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), in which he co-starred with Shirley McLane, and “The Beguiled” (co-starring multiple actresses) were the other two. As in “..Sara,” Clint accidentally runs into a woman, who attaches herself to him, and will keep tormenting him for the rest of the film, despite his best efforts to shake her off. But this film is much more darker, and more like “The Beguiled,” with Clint playing a charming cad, who tries and succeeds in manipulating and seducing women just to satiate his lust, but, later, has to face their vengeful wrath. All these films present Clint as a very different actor from his usual action-oriented films. As opposed to his usual subdued self, Clint is far more expressionistic and dynamic actor in these films.

The film is set in Clint’s hometown of Carmel, California- the same town which would elect him Mayor a decade later. In the film, Clint plays David Garver (Clint Eastwood), a late night KRML radio disc jockey. During his show, he takes phone calls to receive requests from the listeners. A frequent caller is Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter), who always asks for the same tune, `Misty.’ to be played. One day, after work, frequenting his favorite bar, David picks up a girl, who turns out to be Evelyn, and has a one-night stand with her; though for a moment it appears that David has seduced the girl, it turns out that Evelyn is secretly obsessed with him, and her being at the bar was no accident. David, like any carefree, narcissistic, young hunk, is prone to having one-night stands, and he dismisses this encounter as only one among them. Also, David, at this stage of his life, is getting tired of his bachelor life and wants to settle down. To this end, he is making an effort to mend a relationship (previously gone bad) with a young artist named Tobie (Donna Mills). But Evelyn turns out to be more than just a one-night fling; she starts displaying obsessive behavior by repeatedly interfering in his life: with unannounced visits to his house, jealously sabotaging a formal interview for a better job, and, finally, by trying to commit suicide in his home by slashing her wrists when he tries to end their relationship forever. Things get even worse when she vandalizes his house and attacks his cleaning lady with a butcher’s knife after she discovers David’s affair with Tobie. After this incident Evelyn is arrested and admitted to a psychiatric hospital, which allows David the much needed respite to stabilize his relationship with Tobie. But their happiness is short-lived, as a vengeful Evelyn comes back into their life, this time with the intention of killing David.

“Play Misty For Me” is a romantic drama that morphs into a tense thriller; it was a film that was way ahead of its time. In a decade and a half of its release, this kind of film will become a subgenre to itself – ‘The lover from hell’ movies that would be kick started by the super success of the 1987 thriller, “Fatal Attraction,” starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close; a film that was undoubtedly inspired from “Play Misty for Me.” Jessica Walter’s Evelyn Draper is a spiritual foremother of Close’s Alex Forrest. Of course, “Fatal Attraction” was a more slicker film than Clint’s, and it was much more successful and has more pop cultural relevance. Clint’s film is more rawer and less polished, and it was only a modest hit; and it got buried under the weight of Clint’s more successful and iconic films. Nevertheless, this is a very good first film from Clint that establishes most of the trademarks of a Clint Eastwood directed film. It’s a low budget, quickly shot film; very evenly paced and very straightforwardly shot, with a very dark visual palette; sometimes it’s too dark, especially the climax scenes. The film begins with an aerial shot (another directorial trademark of Clint’s) of the beautiful Carmel-by-the -sea landscape, and Clint has gone out of his way to include many beautiful locations of the city in the film. The film also shows his inexperience in some areas: like the lengthy sequence featuring the Monterey Jazz Fest that goes on and on and looks unnecessary; and quite an embarrassing musical romantic montage showing Clint and Donna Mills frolicking naked in a meadow. But the rest of the film, especially the central conflict , that of a relaxed & laidback young man whose life is thrown out of balance by an unhinged, aggressive woman is handled very well. The film follows the three-act structure religiously, with the first act setting up the characters and their relationships, the second act introducing the central conflict, and the final act being a full on thrill-ride, almost as heart-poundingly thrilling as a suspenseful slasher\stalker thriller. And in each act, a foreboding of the more violent and unsettling things to come is very subtly introduced, keeping the audience on tenterhooks. Like Evelyn’s sudden outbursts of eccentric behavior in the opening act, when she appears to be rather harmless; or David’s penchant for quoting poetry on his show, later leading to Evelyn quoting  Edgar Allan Poe poem, “Annabel Lee” back to him- from which David deduces the true identity of Tobie’s new roommate; or the terrible dream that Evelyn has of drowning , and the manner in which she meets her end. It’s to Clint and the screenwriters, Jo Heims’ & Dean Riesner’s credit that they managed to add some character, depth and dramatic strength to what could very well have been a very simplistic and exploitative psycho-stalker thriller.

It appears that Clint was definitely inspired from Alfred Hitchcock in the construction of this film. Two sequences where Evelyn brandishes a knife is a straight homage to the the “Master of Suspense.” The most terrifying one being Evelyn attacking David’s maid, Birdie, after the latter catches the former in the act of vandalizing David’s house. It’s the slickest scene in the film, as far as camera movements and editing is concerned, and evokes memories of the famous shower murder scene from “Psycho.” Another shocking moment is when Evelyn attacks David in his sleep, which for a moment, both David and us, the audience, has trouble making out whether it was real or David’s nightmare. The Hitchcock influence is also visible in a few other scenes where in the final moment of a very tranquil and ordinary scene, a terrifying detail is introduced that changes the tone of the scene completely. A rather routine scene were David and Toby are walking through the beach having a gentle conversation is tonally altered when camera pans out at the last moment to reveal Evelyn’s hands crushing a twig at the edge of the frame. Similarly, the unmasking of Tobie’s roommate is also delayed by Clint until Evelyn appears out of the darkness, and this coincides with David’s discovery of the Poe poem. Of course, there are influences of Clint’s mentor Don Siegel as well; Siegel specialized in making spare B-thrillers in the early part of his career, before he became an A-List director. To lend moral support during his disciple’s first stab at direction, Siegel also acted in this film: he has a fantastic cameo as Murphy, the bartender, who’s David’s best friend and help him pick up girls at the bar. The camaraderie between Clint and Siegel is palpable- a nonsensical game that they play in the beginning, when David tries to attract the attentions of Evelyn, is rather cute and inventive, and it’s fun to watch them together on screen.

Since this is a film driven purely by actors for its most part, their performances have to be good to make the film work. Nobody has a bigger responsibility than Jessica Walter, who’s actually the real hero\ anti-heroine of the film; the whole film pivots around her, and she’s really awesome as the psychotic Evelyn Draper. This is easily Walter’s career-best performance. She organically changes from a very sweet person to a very obsessed and violent person. She creates a character who is smooth and confident on the outside, but totally broken up from inside, but still manages to hide the true nature of her dangerous mental state; only the occasional outburst or the odd quirky behavior – like publicly dropping her clothes in front of David – betrays her true nature. Donna Mills’ Tobie is the standard ‘Damsel in distress’ who needs to be rescued by Clint, and she is also the ‘good girl’ alternative to Evelyn’s ‘bad girl.’; the girl good enough to inspire a Lothario like David to eventually settle down- after he’s done sleeping with many girls like Evelyn. It’s the stereotypical character and the stereotypical situation that’s keeping in with the times when the film was made.

Clint has confirmed in interviews that of all the characters he has played, David Garver comes closest to his real self; and you can understand why. David is a middle class guy, who wears ordinary clothes, lives in a modest house but who is also a celebrity in his own right- not of Clint Eastwood-ian proportions, but a minor one for sure. Clint himself worked his way up from a working class\middle class background, and he may have had his share of experiences with ‘fanatic’ fans. Clint is very convincing as a small-town celebrity whose life is turned upside down when a deranged fan infiltrates his life. He’s too much of a lothario not to succumb to the temptations of sleeping with a sexy woman again and again, despite her showing sporadic abnormal behavior. But Clint’s David Garver is kind of passive and carefree, and his initial response to Evelyn’s obsessive overtures are to ignore them or intentionally avoid them. But he soon realizes that the regular tactics he employs with other women – when he’s done with them – does not work with Evelyn. As Evelyn becomes more and more crazed and starts imposing herself on David, he becomes more and more clueless as to how to tackle her. Usually in his films, we find Clint always in command of a situation, but here he’s helpless and, in the final act of the film, becomes the prey stalked by a female predator. Again, in a Clint film, it’s usually Clint who does the hunting with a wide variety of weapons; here he’s unarmed and hunted and it’s only his fists that finally come to his rescue.

Clint, very generously, hands over the spotlight to Walter, allowing her to shine at every turn, while he is content to remain in the background for most of the film. Also, i think that in this film, Clint looks the best that he was ever looked in any film; between the late ’60s and early ’70s Clint was the the height of his handsomeness; this was just before baldness set in and his face started getting covered in wrinkles. So, Evelyn’s obsession for him is very believable. As a director too, Clint must be commended for extracting good performances from his actors. I do wish that he had tightened the script a little more. There are several plot holes in the film, and some of the behavior of the characters belie logic in some cases- especially with a mentally sick woman running amok; the conversation that Clint has with a cop, played by John Larch, after Evelyn has attacked his maid is one of the weakest scenes in the film- instead of understanding the seriousness of the situation and showing urgency in tackling it they engage in some silly banter. But Clint’s direction is smooth and pacey and one does not bother about these things when one’s watching the film; it’s only later when one thinks about it that one notices the inconsistencies. Anyway, “Play Misty for Me” was an auspicious start for Clint, the director. He got good notices from the critics of the day for his work behind the camera. Watching this film we understand this is not a film made by star\actor just for a lark- like a lot of actors do once they are bored with acting, having done it for a long time – but by a man who knew exactly what he was doing, and what he wanted to do for the rest of his career. The two Oscars he has since won for his directorial work is a testament to that. He has a natural talent for direction, and though it’s in a pretty raw form here, it’s enough to carry through this project that’s made with modest ambitions.

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