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Play Misty for Me: Notes on watching Clint Eastwood’s assured directorial debut, 50 years later

Here’s a throwback to Clint Eastwood’s stalker drama, Play Misty for Me, on the film's 50th anniversary this month.

Play Misty for Me: Notes on watching Clint Eastwood’s assured directorial debut, 50 years later

Last Updated: 10.56 AM, Jul 04, 2024

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In this column, we look back at classic movies that complete 50 years to examine why they were considered to be iconic when they released, and if they are still relevant today.

Stone the crows! Clint Eastwood is in his 90s but is still directing and acting in movies. What's more, he is still playing the leading man. He is also starring opposite leading ladies who are decades younger than him. In his most recent offering, Eastwood is unbelievably macho - the operative word being 'unbelievably'. Maybe that's why the film is called Cry Macho.

Cry Macho was released earlier this year, in September. It's Clint Eastwood's 40th directorial venture.

The release of Cry Macho made me look up other directorial outings by Eastwood, 14 of which I have watched, and re-watched. One of the surprising things I found out while taking this jaunt into the past is that Eastwood began his innings as director way back in 1971 with Play Misty for Me. Until now, I thought he only starred in it. And so, in order to take a closer look at his debut as a director, I re-visited the film.

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This may only be Eastwood's first film as director, but he rarely, if ever, misses a beat. His hero (himself) is vulnerable; he looks scared; he is shaken, and he plays his age. I found all this rather refreshing and intelligent, especially coming from someone directing his first film. Not only do I like the role he gives himself, but also that he does justice to the other actors he has cast in the film. Jessica Walter, who plays an extremely terrifying woman named Evelyn in the film, keeps calling Eastwood’s Dave Garver, asking him (he's a disc jockey) to play the song titled Misty and proceeds to relentlessly stalk him. The police sergeant is funny. The music is lilting. The town in which the film is set is picture-perfect. Eastwood's sea-facing home is gorgeous. The car he drives is a work of art. And Donna Mills, as Dave's ex-girlfriend Tobie Williams, delivers a performance that is strong and dignified. All these people, accessories, touches and props add heft, nuance, and texture to the film, making Eastwood's debut directorial an assured step in the direction of good things to come — give or take an occasional, embarrassing dud.

As a devoted fan of Eastwood, I hope Cry Macho is not going to be his last film. Eastwood deserves a better swansong. After all, he's only 91 years old. And more than a decade away from the oldest person to direct a feature film - that would be the late Manoel Cândido Pinto de Oliveira, who made his final feature film - the marvellous Gebo and the Shadow - in 2012, at the age of 104. In fact, so good is Gebo and the Shadow, that it was showcased at the 69th Venice International Film Festival and received a 100% rating on the popular film rating site Rotten Tomatoes. Considering that, I feel reasonably confident that Eastwood's best as a director is yet to come.

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Speaking of great directors, let us invest a few minutes getting to know Don Siegel. Siegel was a director who worked with Eastwood in a remarkable film just before the latter decided to try his hand at directing. This film helmed by Siegel was The Beguiled.

The Beguiled is a 1971 American Southern Gothic genre movie starring Eastwood and Geraldine Page. It was the third of five collaborations between Siegel and Eastwood, following Coogan's Bluff (1968) and Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), after which they teamed up on Dirty Harry (1971) and Escape from Alcatraz (1979).

If you're still with me, let me assure you that there's a good reason for the aforementioned aside into the work of Don Siegel with Eastwood. Eastwood, possibly as a mark of respect and gratitude, features Siegel in the first scene of Play Misty for Me. But he didn't just feature him in it, he also played a prank on him.

The first scene of Play Misty for Me features Siegel as Murph, the bartender. As a joke, Eastwood first made Siegel do 11 takes, after which told the cameraman to put the film reel in the camera. This was not only Eastwood's first movie as director, it was also a first for Don Siegel as an actor - but not his last. After his turn as Murph in Play Misty for Me, Siegel went on to play cameos in Dirty Harry (directed by Siegel himself), Philip Kaufman's 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a remake of Siegel's own 1956 masterpiece), Charley Varrick (a film directed by Siegel that was supposed to star Eastwood but was turned down by the actor), and in the 1985 John Landis film Into the Night.

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All this talk of casting brings me to the most powerful performance in this film. Undoubtedly, the honour must go to Jessica Walter for her chilling and disturbing turn as Evelyn. To think she may not have bagged the role if Universal Pictures were allowed to have their way, boggles my mind. The behemoth studio originally wanted Lee Remick to be cast in the role of Evelyn. But Eastwood, who was mighty impressed with Walter’s acting chops in The Group (1966), decided to zero in on her instead.

When Play Misty for Me was being made, Remick was definitely a more celebrated and experienced actor than Walter, but Eastwood still decided to follow his gut. It was a bold move. In case you're wondering, Walter did not win an Oscar for her turn as Evelyn. Perhaps she should have. That year the award for Best Actress was bagged by Jane Fonda for her role in Klute - also a re-watchable movie.

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And while we're on casting what-ifs, consider the fact that Steve McQueen turned down the lead role that Eastwood eventually decided to assign himself. The story goes that McQueen turned it down because he felt the female lead was more prominent than the male, which it undeniably is. But that someone as accomplished and experienced as McQueen didn’t feel secure enough to play second fiddle to a relatively new actress, offers a thought-provoking insight into the power dynamics between male and female actors back then and, come to think of it, even now.

All of this makes Eastwood's decision to play the male lead even more remarkable. What's more, he more than does justice to it. Maybe the fact that it was Eastwood's first film as director was another reason McQueen (or anyone else) chose not to take up the role.

For fans of Eastwood the director, the McQueen rejection didn't seem to make much of a difference. Eastwood knew what he was doing. He looked at home facing the challenges of directing his first film. This familiarity and sure-footedness may have had something to do with the fact that Eastwood was, in some ways, literally at home while making this film.

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Play Misty for Me, you see, is set in Carmel-by-the-Sea (what a delightful name for an equally delightful town), the city of which Eastwood would eventually become the mayor in April 1986 and in 2001. Carmel-by-the-Sea, however, was not the director's first city of choice to shoot the film in. The story was originally set in Los Angeles, but at Eastwood's insistence, was moved to the more comfortable surroundings of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Eastwood could shoot scenes at the local radio station, bars, restaurants, and acquaintances' houses. Side Note: Oh, and by the way, the utterly charming town is only one square mile, has no streetlights or home mail delivery, and allows dogs to accompany their owners into local business establishments and eateries.

The film also drew heavily from a real-life stalking experience Eastwood was subjected to about 21 years earlier to making the film, when an ex-girlfriend stalked him and threatened to commit suicide after he had broken up with her. Phew!

Finally, let's ring the curtain down on this shocker of a trip down memory lane with a deadly twist: you may be surprised to know that at the end of the movie, when Evelyn's dead body is seen floating in the sea, that is actually Jessica Walter, not a stand-in or a body double.

Ebert's End: What the legendary Roger Ebert had to say about this film: "Play Misty for Me is not the artistic equal of Psycho, but in the business of collecting an audience into the palm of its hand and then squeezing hard, it is supreme."

(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)

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