#19 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
The rumors are rife with this one that Clint Eastwood took over the directing reigns from the credited writer/director Richard Tuggle when Tuggle proved to work too slowly, much like the rumors on Magnum Force. So, I figured that I might as well check it out in this run of Clint Eastwood directed films.
As was evident from The Gauntlet, Clint Eastwood was very self-aware of his image, most particularly about the character of Harry Callahan. In the previous film, he made a dumb, loser of a cop. In this, he makes a family man who also gets lost in sex with prostitutes to help numb the pain from his divorce. Harry Callahan was a largely sexless cop who had no family, being a widower with no children. The role of Wes Block is a marked and another conscious departure from Eastwood’s most famous contemporary role. The film is a much seedier look at the life of a policeman investigating rapes and murders in New Orleans.
A man is killing woman in New Orleans, and Wes Block has been assigned the case. He has to cancel football plans with his two daughters Amanda (Alison Eastwood) and Penny (Jenny Beck) to investigate the newest crime scene with his partner Joe (Dan Hedaya). The scene is surprisingly clean for a place where a man spent several hours having his way with a woman before killing her, and it’s obvious they’re up against an intelligent criminal. However, the film is surprisingly uninterested in the identity of the killer. It’s much more concerned with Wes’s perception of women.
That gets contrasted between the introduction of a rape prevention program leader Beryl (Genevieve Bujold) who wants to work with the police to do what she can to help and the women that Wes encounters in his investigation. The latest murdered woman was a prostitute, so Wes has to interact with the other women in her circle to find out anything about her, and he ends up walking the seedy streets of New Orleans, visiting cathouses, and giving in to his baser nature with the women he meets. He’s out so much, it becomes a regular thing for him to ask to have a cruiser check up on his daughters and their babysitter when he’s away for so long.
Where this film gets its most interesting is in how the killer ends up tailing and even playing with Wes. Since Wes is investigating the same kind of women that he’s preying on, the killer ends up piggybacking on Wes’s activity to choose his next victims. This does two things. The first is to create this psychological miasma around Wes that makes him question himself at a rather deep level. We never get to the point where Wes thinks he’s the actual killer (though I think it flirts with the idea for a moment), but it’s an interesting place to put the character. The other is to muddy some of the investigative waters when the killer murders a woman Wes spends the night with without raping her himself, potentially putting Wes in the investigative crosshairs, a subplot that’s very quickly abandoned.
The lack of interest in the identity of the killer is a narrative choice that limits the view of the killer to his shoes, creating this balancing point between narrative desires of a mystery and trying to replicate the functions of a police investigation. He’s simply not a character, and when he’s finally revealed there’s no great sense of discovery. There’s a literal unmasking that ends up falling kind of flat. We had seen the character before, but it was almost nothing but a background character up to that point. It’s kind of odd. That is what happens when the conscious choice was made to focus so fully on Wes. Compare that to Dirty Harry where Scorpio was front and center from the beginning. The killer in Tightrope simply can’t hold up as an interesting opponent. That leaves Wes, and it works on its own. I just feel like there’s something missing from this dynamic.
There is a thriller finale that works quite well centered around Wes’s house, his two daughters, and Beryl with whom Wes has developed a relationship. It’s solid stuff, and it helps round out the film to a more generic thriller conclusion.
Essentially, I think the film overall works as a thriller with some interesting psychological depth, but it’s also kind of caught between its different takes. The psychological elements end up feeling cut off, and the basic thriller elements don’t feel well served enough to stand on their own. The overall package ends up working as a meld between the two, though, and I was surprisingly engaged, mostly by Eastwood’s descent into near-madness, losing a certain grip on reality helped in no small part by the heavy red look of the film.
In terms of authorship, I’ll go with the official credit, but at the same time, it does have the visual look of an Eastwood film where he tried to do something different, especially around color. Still, even if it was merely a contractual thing (and probably an application of the DGA rule created in the aftermath of The Outlaw Josey Wales), I’ll leave this with Tuggle.
It’s pretty good. It could have been great if it had more fully committed to one of its two main approaches to the story, but as it stands, it’s a pretty solid combination of the two.