PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971)

  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Writers: Screenplay by Jo Heims and Dean Riesner, Story by Jo Heims
  • Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills, John Larch, Irene Hervey, James McEachin, and Clarice Taylor
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The great actress Jessica Walter passed away this week at the age of 80. Being of a certain age, I knew her almost entirely from her amazing TV work from the past few decades, on Arrested Development and Archer. I just learned that she was also the voice of the mom dinosaur on Dinosaurs. But Walter also had a long career going back to the 1960s, which included dramatic as well as comedic roles. In Play Misty For Me she plays Evelyn, the stalker who goes crazy over Clint Eastwood’s radio DJ, a performance that Roger Ebert described as having an “unnerving effectiveness.” Walter received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Drama for the role. Regardless of where you know her from, Walter will definitely be missed.

Today, Play Misty For Me is known primarily as the first of over thirty movies directed to date by Clint Eastwood. Many of his later films have reached much greater heights of acclaim, including two of his movies, Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, for which Eastwood would win both Best Picture and Best Director. He was a huge star as an actor, primarily from Westerns, though he had recently started to branch out. He took the basic story by Jo Heims and insisted that the setting be moved from Los Angeles to Carmel-by-the-Sea (well up the California coast near Monterey), where he lived and could shoot in his favorite restaurants and at friends’ houses. Many years later, Eastwood would actually serve as mayor of the town for two years. This lends a certain, interesting flavor to the whole thing, lots of dramatic surf splashes against rocks (the movie actually opens and ends with what I assume are helicopter shots of that surf). Also everyone in this movie has really amazing houses. Eastwood’s radio DJ, David, lives in this crazy place overlooking the Pacific Ocean that has a freaking koi pond in the foyer. At one point somebody gets gurneyed out and the paramedics have to negotiate the stepping stones through the koi pond, and nobody even mentions anything. It’s kind of hilarious.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie while it was happening, either in spite of or because of its status as basically a glorified proto-Lifetime Original Movie. Eastwood’s David works at a jazz radio station (a real station in Carmel, which has since moved to the “Eastwood Building”), where he gets frequent requests for the title song from Walter’s Evelyn. Eventually she finds him in a local bar and they have casual sex. Or at least that’s what David thinks of it as. Then he tries to get back together with his past girlfriend, Tobie (future Falcon Crest star Donna Mills), and let Evelyn down easy. Evelyn turns out to be pretty much a psycho, whose initial reaction to David trying to break up with her is to casually stroll into his bathroom to “wash her face” and slash her own wrists. She survives long enough to scream a bunch at him and also attack David’s housekeeper (Clarice Taylor) with some scissors, after which she gets arrested. David and Tobie get back together and think things will be fine now, but first Evelyn watches them have sex in the woods while dreamy music plays and then poses as Tobie’s new roommate so she can tie Tobie up and then cut off her hair (“We have to make you look pretty for David”). There is also a convenient painting of David for Evelyn to slash with a pair of scissors, for extra emphasis.

I really enjoyed Play Misty For Me, but mostly as camp. Walter is great in it, and Eastwood is doing the same growl-y delivery to ask why he wasn’t told that his stalker was let out of the mental institution as he would bring to lines like “Do you feel lucky, punk?” He has a very silly Black DJ friend (James McEachin) who spends the whole movie commenting on how hot Eastwood’s various girlfriends are. I found it interesting that the movie doesn’t actually use the word “stalker,” presumably because it wasn’t widely known yet. I particularly liked the bit where his housekeeper shows up and finds him on the couch, beer bottles everywhere, the bed clearly having been the scene of shenanigans the previous night. “Why are you in there couching it when there was clearly other things going on in here?” “What, are you doing another Kinsey report?” Eastwood growls.

Anyway, there is probably something to be said here about the gender politics of this movie (imagine the gender roles reversed, and none of this is nearly as campy), but honestly I’m not sure I have coherent thoughts about that. For the most part, Eastwood seems genuinely flummoxed by what’s happening. In perhaps the movie’s weirdest scene, Eastwood’s lunch interview for a potential job at a bigger station in San Francisco is broken by Evelyn’s sudden appearance in order to scream at the somewhat older Station Manager (Irene Hervey) for trying to steal her man. Eastwood physically drags her out of the harborside restaurants, throws her into the back of a cab, and yells “Get her out of here!” The put-upon cabbie makes a couple of attempts to ask him where he’s supposed to go, before finally pulling out, question unanswered.

One thing I find interesting is that David sleeps with Evelyn not just the one time, but at least two other times after he starts to realize she’s nuts and he needs to end things. The movie’s position on this seems to be, you know, she’s throwing herself at him, what possible choice does he have? In one of these scenes, she drops her bathrobe in his driveway to reveal she’s naked under there (we just see her from the shoulders up). Eastwood initially looks horrified and hustles her inside, but it’s clear that they do end up sleeping together. The option of not sleeping with a willing, beautiful woman does not seem to have occurred to this movie. I suppose if it had, we might not have a movie.

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