“Al, you ever find yourself being completely smothered by someone?””
Play Misty For Me (1971)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Jo Heims and Dean Riesner
102 minutes, rated R
It should be noted that while I do believe very strongly in the wonderment of an audience experiencing a movie’s twists and turns on their own, these reviews will not shy away from spoilers if they are necessary to discussion of the film.
Quick rating: 4/5
I saw this film for the first time with Trish, whom I have mentioned in these pages before, within the first year of our relationship beginning. Both of us had become very enamored of an American sit-com entitled Arrested Development. Our initial interest in the show was a comedic actor named David Cross. We remembered him fondly from an irreverent sketch-comedy show called Mr. Show that had gone off the air before we ever even knew each other, but our mutual admiration for the show’s subversive humor and innovative connecting-every-sketch-to-every-subsequent-sketch formatting was one of the small things we had in common when we first began to date. Arrested Development was also, in and of itself, very subversive and clever, but it also added a breaking-of-the-fourth-wall element that Trish and I both admired as fans of post-modern literature. Over time, this very absurd and strange sit-com became our collective favorite show, and we never missed it.
The cast of Arrested Development featured a wide array of comedic actors that were not, at the time, as well known as they might one day be. Jason Bateman was the star, but his supporting cast included Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, Tony Hale, Michael Cera, and Jeffrey Tambor. An actress named Jessica Walter pretty much stole every episode. She played the dim-witted and jaded matriarch of the Bluth clan, the dysfunctional family around whom the entire show centered. Over time, she became my favorite character on the show.
We were probably four or five episodes into the show’s initial broadcast when I mentioned to Trish how hysterical I found Jessica Walter to be. Everything she said was devastatingly deadpan, and a large portion of what made her performance so comedically-adept was how matter-of-fact most of the ridiculous things her character had been scripted to say rolled off of her tongue. If Lucille Bluth were a real-life person speaking to you, and not a character on a television show, a listener would never be certain if Lucille was an utter nitwit or just woefully out of touch with present-day reality. Trish agreed with my assessment, and commented that the genius of this comedic performance was a far cry from the “absolutely terrifying” portrayal of Evelyn that Jessica had given in Play Misty For Me back in 1971.
Ah, yes, Play Misty For Me. The directorial debut of Clint Eastwood. A movie that I was aware of because of my interest in Eastwood, but had, strangely, never seen. Trish was noticeably flabbergasted that this film had slipped under my radar. Declaring it as one of her personal favorite films, she insisted that I needed to see it. A weekend or so later, I did, courtesy of a DVD borrowed from our local library.
My initial impressions of this movie were favorable. I could see what Trish liked about it so much, even if I found the film’s content disconcerting. Keep in mind that the woman I dated before Trish had gotten me arrested because I reacted inappropriately to her, basically, stalking me. My own experience was not as over-the-top or “what the everlovin’ hell?” as the one depicted in this film, but the memory of it was still fresh in my mind. I could, at minimum, relate to Eastwood’s plight: how to get rid of a woman that, you believe, will continue to hurt herself if you attempt, again, to rid yourself of her. To say the least, the movie gave me a severe case of the heebie jeebies. That effect– the making me uncomfortable in my own skin– that this movie had on me at that first viewing is one of many reasons that I carried this film around in my head for so long.
This film is now fifty years old. It has been almost two decades since I saw it for the first time. I still find the movie disconcerting. It’s creepy, and terrifying, and all the things that a good psychological thriller ought to be. It’s a solid film in that regard. However, being as removed now as I am from the personal events that made the movie ring so true back in 2003, the sense of unease I feel when watching it is far less visceral than it was when I saw it for the first time. Stepping back from the movie and watching it with a more critical eye, reveals many things that would be of disservice to my enjoyment of the movie had I watched it for the very first time today. This is a good film with some serious, serious flaws.
Play Misty For Me centers around a DJ named Dave (played by Eastwood) who frequently receives a call on the late-night request line for the song “Misty”. Soon, he learns that the mysterious caller is an attractive woman named Evelyn (as I mentioned, played by Jessica Walter). They sleep together with the mutual promise of no strings attached. Evelyn keeps showing up, though. She insists that she and Dave are in love. She won’t take no for an answer. Eventually, she proves herself capable of incredible violence when she doesn’t get her away.
First off, it needs to be mentioned . . . this film is Eastwood’s first after The Beguiled, a movie that was so misogynistic that it made my stomach hurt. Given the fact that Play Misty For Me‘s plot description, when dumbed down to its most base elements, is “crazy woman terrorizes perfectly-normal man for no reason”, it seems odd that Eastwood would follow up such a controversial film with another film that is controversial for the exact same reasons. Yes, it could be argued that the women in The Beguiled being crazy because of sexual repression is problematic in a far more offensive way than Evelyn being crazy because she clearly has some sort of untreated borderline personality disorder. However, “she has an untreated borderline personality disorder” is the only glimpse into her character that we ever see. The film’s script (which, it should be pointed out, was written by a woman) doesn’t even bother to give her a last name. We learn nothing about her through the course of the narrative– other than she might cut you if you cross her. At least the women in The Beguiled were developed characters with individual personalities and backstories. Ultimately, this is the second film in a row that revolves around a “crazy woman” not being able to get enough of Clint’s man-meat. This is a perception that somewhat taints the film overall, a taint that might have been lessened had Eastwood opted to just direct the film and not star in it.
My own research into this movie revealed that Steve McQueen was offered the role of Dave. A well-known misogynist himself, McQueen reportedly turned down the role because he didn’t like that the “juicier role” went to the female. Personally, I think McQueen would have been terrible in this role, but the very notion that he was even considered made me realize that Eastwood missed a big opportunity to better this film when he took on the lead role himself. Do you know who else was a huge box-office draw in 1971? Al Pacino. Dustin Hoffman. John Travolta. Any one of these actors would have been absolutely dynamite in this role. More so, at any rate, than Clint Eastwood, who– it pains me to say it– is downright abyssmal in this movie.
There comes a point in the film, when the events between Evelyn and Dave have become their most volatile, that Clint pulls off a pretty great performance. This performance, however, is in his body language and demeanor– much as it was, honestly, in the height of being tortured in The Beguiled— and not at all in his dialogue delivery. Clint sounds stilted and bored through most of this film, dropping quick retorts into, supposedly, witty banter with no inflection or change in level. Even his dialogue when he is reading poetry on the air sounds emotionless and drab. His best line deliveries are shouted, a usual necessity in order to be heard over Evelyn, who spends so much of this movie shrieking that I needed a thumb firmly on the volume button of my remote because my dogs were absolutely losing their shit.
Jessica Walter’s Evelyn had a strange effect on me in this viewing. Most of what I found terrifying about her this time around was a result of having seen the movie before. This meant that I was already aware of what she was capable of. This meant that I actually found her more chilling in the quiet moments– the cute dimpled smiles, the flirty eyebrow raises, the seemingly-loving-yet-possessive touches. These quiet moments were mesmerizing to me. I had spent so many years being scared of her that I never noticed how magical she is at “her sanest.” In just a few seconds, I knew, she was going to start screeching again, but right now, in this moment, you can see why a man like Dave might be inclined to let her stay. It is in these moments that you can see why she might have been cast.
As a director, Eastwood makes a solid case for himself right out of the gates. This is a more-than-competently directed film. The film is well-paced. This time around, I noticed how reminiscent of the Italian giallo films this outing is visually. Most notably, scenes of violence are depicted in quickly-edited shots that reveal more blood than any actual point of contact between skin and implement of flesh-cutting. Color and lighting are of utmost importance to the film’s climactic battle between Evelyn and Dave. Eastwood was clearly influenced by Sergio Leone when he made this film. Wisely, Clint chose to not make his directorial debut a western or war film– the genre for which he would have been most known at the time– and it is an interesting homage to see Leone’s techniques in the sort of film that Leone would have never made.
Overall, it was fun to see this film again after such a long absence from it. This was a movie that Trish and I watched often, and I’m not sure that I have had occasion to watch it since our relationship ended. My critical view of it has lessened over time, but my personal enjoyment of it has not waned. I dare you to watch Jessica Walter take the same shears she just, moments ago, used to angrily slice a painting of Dave into ribbons and use them to cut Dave’s bound-and-gagged girlfriend’s hair without getting a queasy feeling that Dave’s girlfriend is about to get her pretty little face sliced off. This is a solidly-crafted film that is well worth seeing, if even only once.