Thursday, June 19, 2014

Clint Eastwood The Director: The 1970s

There are few actors in history with as iconic an image as Clint Eastwood. He started acted in bit roles and TV shows in the 1955, but in the early 1960s, when he didn’t seem to have many prospects in Hollywood, he went to Italy and made a trilogy of “spaghetti” Westerns with director Sergio Leone. A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) were all great movies (particularly that last one) and bad him a major movie star. They also cemented his screen image – the so called “Man with No Name” – a strong, silent type who did what was necessary, played by his own rules and was answerable to no one. He was a good guy, but hardly the most morally upright one. A few American movies followed in the next few years that cemented his status as a movie star. And then he decided what he really wanted to do was direct – and it’s his directing career that I really want to look at in this series of posts.

Jersey Boys opens this week, and it will be Eastwood’s 33rd feature film as a director over the last 43 years. That makes him one of the most prolific directors of the era. While I would argue that he has made only a few truly great films, his career has been remarkably consistent -he rarely makes a truly bad film. Of his 33 films, I have seen 25, and if I’m being honest I only truly dislike 2 of them – although there are a few others that I think are little more than average. Eastwood, I think, would have made a great director in the studio era. He works fast, and almost always comes in ahead of schedule and below budget – which is one of the reasons why he has been able to continually make the films he wants to make. His career as a director has had a several different stages – and he’s moved back and forth a number of times from periods where he seems to make nothing but genre films to periods when he makes more “prestige” films. He has won four Oscars – for Producing and Directing Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby – although none for acting.

Eastwood’s first film as a director was 1971’s Play Misty for Me. Eastwood took a pay cut to make the film – and didn’t complain. It made sense to him that the studio, who was taking on a chance on someone who had never directed before, would want to hedge their bets a little bit – particularly since although they had a major star like Eastwood in the lead role, it would also be the first time audiences saw him in a contemporary film – all his previous work he was none for was either Westerns or War films, while this was a psychological thriller.

Play Misty for Me remains one of Eastwood’s best films, and sets his style as a director right off the top. Eastwood is not the most daring of directors – he prefers to play things relatively straight and simple. His movies don’t usually detour too far from their plot, and he doesn’t use a lot of fancy camera tricks. He is, in many ways, a minimalist – and his films are classically structured. That’s the case with this film, that takes a very simple premise – a late night DJ (Eastwood) is being stalked by a woman he meets in a bar (Jessica Walter) who thinks their relationship is more serious than he does. The film is efficient in all the ways that matter – and Eastwood makes even the most innocent scenes ominous and foreboding. Something bad is going to happen – and Eastwood very slowly ratchets up the suspense until the climax. It was a great start for the star turned director.

His next film was 1973’s High Plains Drifter – his first of four Westerns he would direct – and the film is perhaps a
little too ambitious for a largely inexperienced director. In many ways, it resembles the Sergio Leone films he starred in – as Eastwood stars a “Man with No Name” who rides into Lago, quickly kills three thugs, and rapes the town “slut”. So impressed with his actions, the town hires him to protect them for the ruthless Carlin brothers. But Eastwood’s motivations are more complicated than they seem – he’s out not just to destroy the Carlin brothers, but the town as a whole. He literally paints the town red, renames it Hell, and humiliates everyone in town, and leaves the place burning to the ground with a pile of dead bodies in his wake.

The film has mystical, perhaps supernatural, overtones to it. The cinematography by Bruce Surtees is brilliant, and the film is complicated and at times great. But I think Eastwood’s reach exceeds his grasp with this film a little bit – and he doesn’t quite pull off the ambitious project. It’s still a very good film – but I think had Clint waited a few years, it could have been one of his masterpieces.

Later that same year, he made Breezy (unseen by me) – his first film as a director where he didn’t star, and a film that didn’t do very well critically or commercially. It was a romantic comedy of sorts between a young hippie (Kay Lenz) and a middle aged man (William Holden). No wonder it didn’t go over very well. Eastwood’s next film as a director was 1975’s The Eiger Sanction (again, unseen by me) – a rather silly sounding action film where he plays a “classical art professor and collector who doubles as an assassin” in a film that involves mountain climbing. How have I not seen this movie?

His next film was probably the first truly great of Eastwood’s career as a director – his 1976 Western The Outlaw Josey Wales. His second Western as a director, the film’s main character, played by Eastwood, seems very much like his other Western “heroes” – a man of few words, and lots of action. He plays a Confederate soldier who refuses to surrender at the end of the war, and takes off heading West – pursued by the Union, and various bounty hunters. Along the way, he takes up with other outcasts – most memorably one played by Chief Dan George (who should have earned his second Oscar nomination, following the one he received for Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man in 1971).

The film’s first half is very much like High Plains Drifter – in that Eastwood seems to be a man hell-bent on revenge, who kills without feeling or remorse. He is a man who has lost everything and no longer really cares – he is alone, and likes it that way. The second half of the movie though starts to show Eastwood’s character re-discovering his humanity, and slowly, but surely changing – starting to care about other people once again. Eastwood, as always, doesn’t give him grand speeches to explain his emotions – but his performance is more complex than most. The second half may have some moments that are perhaps a touch too light – but overall, I still think this ranks as one of Eastwood’s best film – with cinematographer Bruce Surtees matching his brilliant work on High Plains Drifter here.

Eastwood’s final film of the 1970s as a director was The Gauntlet (1977) – a not particularly highly regarded action film where he plays a mediocre cop tasked with driving a prostitute (Sandra Locke) from Phoenix to Vegas to testify in a mob trail. This is another of the “unseen” for me – so I really cannot say much about it.

In general, Eastwood’s six films of the 1970s (even if missed three) seem to be him sticking fairly close to what’s expected of him. His one real departure, Breezy, was his biggest failure of the decade. Other than that he made a thriller, two Westerns, and two action movies. He was honing his craft though – and while you can dismiss his early directing work as mere genre stuff, its top notch genre stuff – and I think in The Outlaw Josey Wales, he made his first truly great movie. Eastwood wasn’t really taken seriously as a director at the time – and in reality it would take him more than another decade before he truly was – but looking back it’s a solid list of films in the 1970s.

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