Monday, May 29, 2017

Clint Eastwood's Directorial Debut 'Play Misty for Me' Still Delivers Chills

Clint Eastwood showed Jessica Walter how to hold a knife on camera so that it caught the light.Thanks for the tip, Clint.

Play Misty for Me scared the life out of me as a ‘70s Yooper kid. After watching Misty again, 40-something years later, this slasher thriller may seem tame to today’s audiences. The 1971 suspense film still startles, thanks to no-frills storytelling and a thrilling turn by Jessica Walter as the scary woman scorned.

'Misty' was made on a shoe-string and made a mint. Clint also starred as
'Dirty Harry' the same year, the box-office equivalent of Fort Knox.
Clint Eastwood stars as Dave Garver, a dreamy-voiced DJ in Carmel, CA. Dave spins records, recites poetry, and generally turns his listeners on. The latter certainly holds true for Dave’s biggest fan, who regularly calls to make the title request. A “chance” encounter at a local bar leads DJ Dave and # 1 fan Evelyn Draper to spend the night together—as the then-popular Stones song goes. For Dave, it’s a casual encounter, but for Evelyn, life or death—his! Dave is on hiatus with his hippie girlfriend, Tobie, who wants commitment. Their relationship is on the rocks because of his roving eye. Dave seems to shrug off the serial shagging on his part, while bitching that Tobie always has—roommates! Perhaps they put a crimp on the couple’s alone time…a good thing she doesn’t live in a commune. While Dave begs Tobie for another chance, he still placates needy Evelyn with one more session of pity sex. Dave tries to make the break final, but his #1fan turns out to be fanatic. Evelyn takes “slash and burn” tactics to a new level.

Clint as Dave, Carmel's sexy DJ who meets his #1 fan...fanatic.
Star Clint Eastwood, in his directorial debut, filmed Misty on location in Carmel, CA, his home all these years. Eastwood has always been a lean machine when it comes to keeping his films simple and under budget. No ego-maniac epics or wasted money on Clint’s resume.  Eastwood shot the movie in a number of homes, restaurants, bars, and even the local radio station—no sets or process shots here. There’s also the natural beauty of the Pacific coast, well-utilized here. According to Jessica Walter, Clint requested that the female stars kept their makeup and clothes simple. Clint didn’t want female leads Walter and Donna Mills slathered in standard studio makeup. The clothes budget reflected the characters’ lifestyles. Though it’s easy to laugh at Misty’s ‘70s mod hairdos and duds—that’s what people were wearing at the time.

Clint, with his soft voice, is well-cast as the DJ and playboy. After the swinging ‘60s, baby boomers were heading into the “me decade.” It always amuses me to see stars from the prior generation, who came of age in the ‘50s, sporting long hair, beads, and groovy threads. Clint was 41 here, a long way from Rowdy Yates. Whether intended or not, Dave’s aging Peter Pan DJ actually adds depth to Clint’s characterization. DJ Dave has played both sides to the middle for too long, and now he is cock-blocked by a one night stand who won’t say goodbye.

Jessica Walter as Evelyn Draper, who wields a knife much like Joan Crawford does an ax in 'Strait-Jacket,' with diva gusto!
Clint Eastwood is a generous superstar when it comes to sharing the screen—no Barbra Streisand tactics of hiring big name supporting casts, who then get edited down to cameos. Clint seems secure enough to let talented co-stars shine, especially his female stars. Eastwood basically hands Play Misty for Me to Jessica Walter on a silver platter. As Evelyn Draper, Walter has one of those showy, dramatic roles that would have nabbed an Oscar nomination a decade or two before. Draper is a throwback to an old-school movie diva role that Joan Crawford might have played—1947’s Possessed meets ‘64’s Strait-Jacket? Jessica certainly has some of Joan’s wild-eyed, husky-voiced intensity. Evelyn Draper goes from sassy and sexy to needy and nuts in a blink of an eye, and Walter takes us on a wild ride. Evelyn Draper is really a younger, sexy version of all the star turns in “hag horror” movies from the ‘60s. But Misty was released in the early ‘70s, when realism and/or British actresses seemed to get most of the Oscar nods. Still, Walter got raves and a Golden Globe nomination—and her performance is right up there with Arrested Development’s loony Lucille Bluth. The actress has said that the key to making Evelyn Draper believable—and scarier—was to play her as not thinking she was crazy.

Donna Mills as Tobie, Clint's hippie chick artist with a Brady Bunch shag.
Donna Mills, later celebrated as evil Abby Ewing on Knots Landing, is warm and sensible as Tobie Williams, Clint’s cool but fed-up hippie chick artist. Unfortunately for Mills, she gets saddled with most of the era’s “hip” dialogue. While pondering  their relationship, Mills gets to recite clinkers even more eye-rolling than from that other Pacific coast free spirit artist, Liz Taylor in The Sandpiper.


Unlike its remake rip-off, Fatal Attraction, there are no pretensions with Play Misty for Me; it’s just a well-made, down-and-dirty thriller. Except for the ‘70s styles and some old-school “character-defining” dialogue, Misty feels modern and direct. Play Misty for Me, like Psycho, was bankrolled by Universal Studios for just under a million dollars, over a decade later. Though not the classic or blockbuster that was Psycho, Misty made a mint at the box-office. Misty marked the beginning of a long, increasingly distinguished directorial career for Clint Eastwood. Play Misty for Me is most memorable for the all-stops-out performance by Jessica Walter, who should have become a major movie star after her turn as evil Evelyn Draper.
Lucille Bluth, before she switched to martinis!

2 comments:

  1. I loved reading this and very coincidentally saw this on HBO on demand just yesterday, reigniting my desire to revisit. My Dad was a major Clint fan and I was always along for the ride. I was WAY too young to watch this in 1971 but did anyway. Jessica was great and super scary, I remember something about corned beef sandwiches, and hot cocoa as part of her stalky behavior, lol. As an adult I like a lot of Eastwood films, not all, but the ones I do I really like. Interesting to find out this was his first directorial effort. Super fun read, thanks.

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  2. I'm always amazed in retrospect how many "grownup" movies Mom let us watch...there were five of us, that may have been a part of it! I like Clint's straightforward way of handling material, though his subject matter doesn't always interest me. But this was a memorable childhood movie! Cheers, and thanks for reading. Rick

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