When Clint Eastwood made Play Misty for Me he was a cowboy. He got his start on television with Rawhide and of course became an international star in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns.
In the six years between the final Leone movie and Misty, Eastwood played four more cowboys (Hang ‘Em High, Paint Your Wagon, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled), a couple soldiers from World War II (Where Eagles Dare, Coogan’s Bluff) and a cop out of the west who wore a cowboy hat (Coogan’s Bluff). Interesting, then, that when he got his first opportunity to direct one of his own pictures, he made something so different and so contemporary as Misty.
The picture is a romantic horror film. Eastwood plays Dave Garver, the night disc jockey at a jazz radio station in Carmel, California. Each night he gives his listeners “a little verse, a little talk, and five hours of music to be very, very nice to each other by” and every night an anonymous caller rings him and coos “Play ‘Misty’ for me.” One evening at a bar, Dave picks up a woman named Evelyn (Jessica Walter) who turns out to be his loyal fan. He thinks he’s had a fun one night stand but Evelyn isn’t so quick to let go and she’s quickly worming her way into his every nook and cranny of his life. When Dave tries to distance himself so he can reconcile with an old flame (Donna Mills), Evelyn’s attraction turns fatal. I love the way Roger Ebert described Evelyn in his original review of Misty from 1971: “She is something like flypaper; the more you struggle against her personality, the more tightly you’re held.”
There are some Hitchcockian elements, some themes that call to mind Eastwood’s previous picture as an actor, Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, and a couple good scares, but beyond the slasher elements, Play Misty For Me is sort of a love letter to Clint Eastwood by Clint Eastwood. This is a movie in which a woman paints a portrait of Eastwood that wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a romance novel, and a totally different woman would rather die than live without Clint.
As we’d eventually come to expect from Eastwood’s work, the technique is strong and unfussy. In the murder scenes the camera gets very close to the victims; technically speaking it’s probably too close for clarity’s sake. But the effect is a disquieting one, as if Eastwood is quite literally rubbing our noses in the gore (the fine documentary that comes on the Misty DVD describes how Eastwood’s special effects man came to the set with an eyedropper full of fake blood and Clint told him not to come back until he had a couple gallon jugs worth of the stuff). My favorite moment comes at the climax, when Dave realizes where Evelyn is and races off to stop her and Eastwood cuts back and forth between oddly angled shots of Dave motoring down the highway and Evelyn taking a pair of scissors to the painting of his face, a nice way of heightening the tension before the finale while simultaneously suggesting the fragile nature of Dave’s mental state.
Watching Misty, I wondered why I never read Eastwood’s name in articles about the New Hollywood period of the early 1970s. To my mind, Misty fits in well with the films associated with that term: like them, it’s shot on a low budget, entirely on location, with no sets and very limited art direction. The extended sequence with Dave and his buddies wandering the Monterey Jazz Festival feels like a direct descendant (albeit a very sober descendant) of the Mardi Gras scenes from Easy Rider. With Leone, Eastwood even made a couple of the European movies that influenced the New Hollywood movement.
His exclusion probably has more to do with his personality than his work: unlike so many of the New Hollywood directors, Eastwood wasn’t prone to wild flights of druggy inspiration and always brought his productions in on time and on budget. The fact that Eastwood was a huge movie star, and thus seen as an actor first and a director second, certainly hurt his perception as a “young artist.” His politics, or at least his presumed politics, after appearing in movies like Siegel’s Dirty Harry no doubt distanced him as well. It’s worked out in the end; while so many New Hollywood directors crashed and burned along with the linings of their nasal cavities, Eastwood’s matured into a director the equal or superior of those who hogged all the early acclaim.