Review, 3/4, 1970s, Clint Eastwood, Thriller

Play Misty for Me

Clint Eastwood (made famous by his leading role in Revenge of the Creature, obviously) was a movie star with designs to becoming a film director, so he found a small, thriller script, went to Universal, and asked for the money to direct. He seemed out to prove nothing else than he could make a movie and make it well. Don Siegel, who directed him the same year in Dirty Harry, was something of a mentor and even appears on a small role as a bartender. Eastwood did his thing and came in ahead of schedule and under budget, making a solid thriller while managing everything around the production well, if not in any kind of flashy manner.

Dave Garver (Eastwood) is a DJ in the small California seaside town Carmel-by-the-Sea (the town Eastwood lived in and would eventually become mayor of), playing jazz in the middle of the night and jumping from one woman’s bed to the next, as described by his friend and the guy he replaces every night Al (James McEachin). Dave also has a regular female called who asks him to play the song “Misty” by Erroll Gardner every night, which he does dutifully. He ends up meeting this girl, Evelyn (Jessica Walter) at the bar he frequents run by Murphy (Siegel), and they hit it off, agreeing to a no-strings night of sex. She shows that she thinks there’s more going on the next day when she shows up uninvited to Dave’s house with groceries for dinner. After a tense exchange where Dave tries to lay the law down, they’re ready for a second night of fun.

Things take a turn with Dave’s former girlfriend Tobie (Donna Mills) returns to town and Dave tries to reconnect. In Dave’s mind, it’s a simple series of events that need to unfold: he will break off his relationship with Evelyn, the situation that he made explicit was no-strings, and he will reconnect with Tobie. The problem is, of course, that Evelyn will not let go. The film is a steady progression into Evelyn’s  madness as she lashes out in increasingly violent ways up to the point where Evelyn uses a copy of his house key that she made to break in, tear up his house, and attack Dave’s maid, Birdie (Clarice Taylor).

Walter is really the star of this film, the entire thing hanging on her deranged performance, and she really did earn that Golden Globe nomination. She’s pretty enough to be a believable one-night stand for a local DJ while having a certain innocent charm in her early scenes. Her early moments where she begins to lose control, like when she insists that she’s leaving after putting up the groceries, are crazed enough to raise an alarm but squashed well enough to keep it understandable why Dave might feel safe enough keeping on this thing he thinks is a no-strings attached arrangement. Her descent into complete insanity as she watches Dave fall away from her in favor of Tobie whom she watches from afar in wonderfully creepy moments.

An interesting turn of events happens in the transition from the second to third acts. Evelyn has been arrested and put into a psyche hospital for what she’s done, but the state releases her. She gives Dave a phone call, telling him she’s flying away to Hawaii to start a new life, and the movie just kind of chills for a while. Dave, Tobie, and Al go to the Monterey Jazz Festival, and we get extended time there as Eastwood wanders around the place, sits down, and listens to the music. It almost feels like the movie is wrapping up with a happy conclusion as Tobie announces that she has to go and help her roommate move out and her new roommate named Annabel Lee move in.

Of course, because this is a thriller, that isn’t the ending, and we get our crazed leading lady show up where she’s least expected (well, it wasn’t THAT unexpected), and a horror showdown erupts in shadow with a knife. The ending of it made me laugh a bit, not in a bad way, just in a way where the much taller, strong man finally got one hit in during the fight with the much smaller woman, and it was suddenly all over.

Walter really makes this film, but it’s Eastwood’s calm, collected direction that brings all of the elements together into one entertaining package. He films simply, often in medium shots that capture two figures in frame while allowing conversations to play out with minimal cutting (it’s very old-school Hollywood). The little action is appropriately hyper-active and close up considering the close quarters, darkness, and confusion of the scene.

It’s interesting that Eastwood chose the story of a celebrity dealing with a crazed fan as his first film. Something about it must have spoken to him (he reportedly had a similar situation with an ex-girlfriend a couple of decades before, when he wasn’t nearly as famous), but I still think the primary motive was making something small to prove to everyone, most importantly himself, that yes, he could do the job. The film feels almost like a Don Siegel movie as well, showing the great influence Eastwood’s director on The Beguiled had on him.

Is this a great first film? Not really. Dave isn’t much of a character, and he’s probably the single greatest weakness. He’s not really a narrative match for Evelyn, and I think a more deeply written Dave would have elevated the film to great thriller territory. It works, though. He’s enough for Evelyn to latch onto.

I think Eastwood proved what he set out to prove: he could make a movie and he could make it well. I think he may end up being more than just a movie star if he keeps this up.

Rating: 3/4

5 thoughts on “Play Misty for Me”

  1. “Play Misty for Me” has always stood out to me. So many of Clint’s previous acting gigs had been in Westerns and tough guy roles. Watching him play a DJ…well it stood out to me. (It makes much more sense as you watch his career unfold and learn more about his off-camera life)

    It’s a solid genre movie, I don’t have much more to add than what you said. It does feel more ‘real’ than movies of the same type like ‘Fatal Attraction’. That verisimilitude will come up again and again in movies Clint directs.

    It’s not a genre I revisit much but it’s worth a watch for this discussion.

    Like

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