Thursday, May 06, 2010

Play Misty for Me

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 29 of 100

Made the same year, ‘Play Misty for Me’ is something of a companion piece to ‘The Beguiled’ inasmuch as both films feature a protagonist of irresolute sexual commitment getting his just desserts at the hands of disturbed and vengeful women. Like ‘The Beguiled’, ‘Play Misty for Me’ would have the tang of blatant misogyny about it but for (a) the male protagonist (albeit to a lesser degree in ‘Play Misty’) deserving it; and (b) a powerhouse performance from the actress playing his antagonist.

While DJ David Garver (Eastwood) isn’t the liar, manipulator and borderline paedophile that McBurney is, he’s nonetheless a narcissist and, by dint of spending most of the movie thinking through his pecker, something of a fool. Garver is another of Eastwood’s anti-heroes. It’s fascinating that an actor who has maintained, over half a century of screen appearances, the reputation of the quintessential macho icon so frequently plays flawed characters. It’s also fascinating that in his directorial debut he plays not a cowboy or a cop or a rough ‘n’ ready action hero, but a laconic DJ who doesn’t use violence until he absolutely has no choice during the Hitchcockian finale. For much of the film, and despite his easy charm, Garver is something of a non-character, breezing through life with (at first) genial indifference, and later bland confusion as the implications of one bad decision snowball into psycho-sexual power games, stalking and finally violence.

And who is it who visits said anti-social behaviour upon him? Well, that brings us to point (b) and let’s have a great big hand, please, ladies and gentlemen, for Jessica Walter. Her turn as Evelyn Draper, the obsessed fan who repeatedly calls Garver’s show to request the sultry Errol Garner standard ‘Misty’, is the ace up the film’s sleeve. Without her, ‘Play Misty for Me’ would be at best a curio, notable for being Eastwood’s first outing behind the camera and for being a thriller that’s chiefly devoid of thrilleramics.

Let’s face it, for all of the clones that came after ‘Play Misty for Me’ (I’m looking at you, ‘Fatal Attraction’), you’d think it was a blueprint for the “woman scorned” thriller. And yet virtually every film that borrows from it, right down to a slew of top-shelf erotic thrillers, is tighter in its pacing and more urgent in its narrative arc. ‘Play Misty for Me’ downright meanders. It’s almost as if Eastwood can’t be bothered with the thriller elements. Late in the game, when everything should be revving up to high gear for the nail-biting denouement, Eastwood decelerates for an extended trip to the Monterey jazz festival, then puts the brake on altogether for a bit of how’s-your-father in the woods a la ‘Madame Bovary’ as Garver blithely decides to get back together with old flame Tobie (a bland Donna Mills).

Jessica Walter, however, lights the blue touch paper and burns up the screen every scene she’s in. From her sultry, underplayed pick-up of Garver in a bar tended by his friend Murphy (Don Siegel, mentoring his protégé) to her bouts of jealous rage by way of some moments that vacillate between sexy and scary so effectively that you’re not sure whether she’s fanciable or frightening, Evelyn Draper is one of American cinema’s great psychos, claiming lineage from the iconic and seductive man-eating femmes fatale of film noir, and more than capable of holding her own against the enduring villains of recent years. Give Hannibal Lecter a sex change, a mini skirt, a tube of lip gloss and a preference for ‘Misty’ over the Goldberg Variations and the result would be Evelyn Draper.

In fact, it’s probably Eastwood’s determination to strip away the thriller elements and let ‘Play Misty for Me’ unfold as an offbeat, free-wheeling character study that most benefits the film. With very few genre conventions and/or plot devices to distract the audience*, Walter’s performance is allowed centre stage, and Eastwood’s effortless cool has never seemed so threatened than by the dervish-like fury of Evelyn’s jealous rage.

*Indeed, the only real plot device that sneaks under the radar – matters pertaining to Tobie’s room mate – doesn’t hold water when you stop to consider the chronology of events.


Franco Macabro said...

Eastwood does play various anti-heros through out his films, I remember him in Pale Rider, where he is supposed to be the hero, but he ends up actually raping a woman in one scene!

Play Misty for Me is one of his films that has escaped me!

Neil Fulwood said...

Agreed. I'm currently sketching out a review of 'High Plains Drifter' and he's definitely not the conventional hero in that one. In fact, I'm starting to think that it's their compromised morality and inscrutable attitude to the world around them that makes Eastwood's characters so iconic. He's not too far removed from the snake-eyed anti-heroes of classic film noir like Robert Mitchum or Richard Widmark. That same air of cynical cool.

Aaron said...

Nice write-up there, Neil. I watched this for the first time a couple of months ago, not knowing anything about it, and I was blown away, to say the least. Eastwood's character WAS a douche-bag, but for me to even have any sympathy for him whatsoever is a testament to both Jessica Walter AND Evelyn.

It's also interesting that you bring up the fact that Eastwood's iconic roles have always been flawed characters. I never really thought about that, but you're right. And it is interesting that a movie like this would be his directorial debut as opposed to a Western.

One thing that I really loved about this movie was the small town, bay area aesthetic. It kind of reminded me of THE FOG, as weird as that sounds.

I linked to this review on my blog and I'm really looking forward to your write-up of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER!

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