This week sees two movies hitting theaters/VOD that are directed by actors. Sully comes from Clint Eastwood, who’s been directing movies for over 40 years while Ithaca represents actress Meg Ryan’s directorial debut. So this week we turn our attention to the movie that took Eastwood from being just an actor, though a relatively respected one, to the director’s chair where he’s earned many critical accolades, the thriller Play Misty For Me.
The movie was not only directed by but also stars, as is often the case with his movies, Eastwood. In it he plays Dave Garner, a DJ who each night receives a call from a mysterious woman who requests he play Erroll Garner’s “Misty.” One night when he’s at a bar he picks up Evelyn (Jessica Walters) and the two head back to his place. There he learns she’s the one who’s been calling in with the requests. They begin a casual relationship but she soon becomes too clingy for his tastes, though it’s tough for him to make a clean break. She attacks him and is sent away for a while, only to return more dangerous than ever, this time not only threatening Dave but also his current girlfriend.
If you look at the poster you’ll see how in line it was with other psychological terror movies of the era. Eastwood, who was a bankable star at this point in career, is the only name above the title on the one-sheet. Below that you see Dave’s face as it looks up from where it’s lying on a pillow to the danger above, namely Evelyn standing above him with her mouth open wide and a knife raised in her hand. “The scream you hear may be your own” the copy over the image tells us.
Again, this is really exemplary of thrillers of this time. The stark colors, the shouting copy points, the overly dramatic faces the actors are making…These are all common tropes. What’s notable is that while Eastwood is the star of the movie, the design shows the audience that he’s the one in danger, he’s the one out of control. That’s a strange position for an actor of his caliber (at the time) to be in. To put it in context, imagine Chris Pratt being so clearly not driving the action on a poster for a movie he’s in. Yeah.
The trailer…well, it plays like an episode of “The Rockford Files” or another show from the era. It starts out with Dave getting the titular dedication and then starts ratcheting up the tension as we skip over most of the introductory exposition or scene-setting and get right to Evelyn threatening Dave and those around him. So we see him trying to run away while she slashes up pictures, threatens Dave’s girlfriend and otherwise is a terror to him and others.
The footage itself is good and creates the right kind of attitude for the story. But that’s undercut to a great extent by the jazzy, horn-driven, “CHiPs”-like soundtrack that plays under all of it. That makes it seem like an upbeat procedural more than a gripping thriller. The editing is choppy, which isn’t uncommon for this period, and the collection of stills pieced together at the end only makes it feel more like the opening sequence to a 70’s private detective show. And no, that’s not Orson Welles doing the voiceover, but someone trying to bring that level of gravitas to the trailer, though again that runs in contrast to the music.
All in all, yes, this looks like a movie made and marketed in 1971. What’s striking is that it’s so outside what now comes to mind when we think of a Clint Eastwood movie. Now his movies are known for their subtle emotions, deliberate pacing and steady camera work. But he started out, based on this campaign, playing to the attributes of a genre and the attitudes of the time, making something that’s far less timeless-looking than his later output.