The work of Clint Eastwood is… hard to pin down to say the very least. Trying to effectively figure out the man behind the camera throughout the majority of his almost 5 decade long career proved much more difficult than one may expect, with me being one of many who seem to just assume he’s always just as grizzled and moody as he is in his performances. By looking more into his directorial work, another side – or even multiple new sides – open up, revealing one of the most interesting filmographies in memory. This sprawling, baffling filmography shows real growth throughout, with so many small changes and tweaks in terms of both ideology discussed and the form itself that it’s hard to believe. Going through was… quite an adventure, and so I figure I’ll discuss my experiences and thoughts on going through his body of work, looking at how his work evolved and grew over time. The only one I was unable to find was his debut documentary behind the scenes of The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971), so I like to think that I investigated plenty. I may also include some brief points at films he starred in, as this is intended to be an overall study of Eastwood as a film icon, so it makes sense to touch slightly on additional Malpaso productions throughout!
This first part will focus on the beginning of Eastwood’s career, from his breakout performances and (short) rise to fame, then all of his ‘70s directorial work! One essay on all of his work would’ve been just too long, however, I will be releasing this in parts one decade of work at a time!
So, Eastwood’s breakthrough came in the infamous Man With No Name trilogy – a series of three spaghetti westerns directed by Sergio Leone, released in 1964, ’65 and ’66. His performance as the man with no name, a mysterious badass with the aim of a God who wandered from town to town, clearing them of anyone who gets in the way before moving on gave Eastwood an almost instant fame, with him being recognised as perhaps the biggest western star alongside John Wayne from the off.
With Eastwood being a man who never quite seems completely satisfied with his achievements, it wasn’t much of a surprise to find out that – whilst his acting career continued to grow and blossom, building him into one of the most recognisable stars to ever touch the big screen – he soon turned to directing and (often) producing his own films. This started with a short behind-the-scenes documentary surrounding The Beguiled, a film directed by Don Siegel that Eastwood starred in, that was made and ‘released’ (one print is known to exist now, and that one print has been shown very few times) in 1971. In the same year, Eastwood released his own feature, Play Misty For Me.
Play Misty for Me is a thriller about a radio DJ (played by Eastwood himself) who finds himself in trouble when a huge fan starts stalking and harassing him. It starts off innocently, a budding romance between Eastwood and the manic fan, played by Jessica Walter. Coming out only a few years after Eastwood became popular, and during what may just be the peak of his popularity in the early 1970s (with the release of Dirty Harry – a film that Play Misty for Me makes a small cameo in early on), it’s hard to ignore the paranoia on show here about the relationship between celebrity and fan being so messy. Despite the fact that Eastwood had been married for almost twenty years when he made Play Misty for Me, there is a thick tension given to the feeling that comes from trying to associate yourself with someone who knows you more than you know them, it is maybe that idea that Eastwood fears the most here. What starts as a brief fling soon turns into a freakish nightmare, think Fatal Attraction, and the focus is much more about how Eastwood’s character reacts to this as opposed to the action itself, which is fascinating. The paranoia is brought to the foreground, changes in how Eastwood himself acts become noticeable and these changes in character become markings of a man who feels trapped by his own celebrity rather than gifted by it. It makes a lot of sense coming from someone who was as popular as Eastwood was during the early 1970s, and the context surrounding the film only serves to make it all the more interesting and powerful.
Two years later, in 1973, Eastwood returned to the director’s chair with High Plains Drifter, a western focusing on a new cowboy in town who is asked to fend off some outlaws who are on the way. Bringing to mind the late work of John Ford in a way that no director ever really has, Eastwood brings the revisionist western traits to the forefront and forces his audience to focus on them. One scene in particular looks as a traumatising event experiences by Eastwood’s gunfighter, with his performance, the grim chiaroscuro lighting and the dizzying cinematography used in the moment to make the scene uncomfortable in a way that Eastwood never had before, really humanising his nameless ‘stranger’ through his experiences. It’s one of the best moments of his entire career, and the film itself could easily be placed in his ten best efforts. It’s one of the best westerns of the 1970s, even if Eastwood later did even better.
Making another huge leap in genre, from thriller to western and now into romance, Breezy came out. Released in the same year as High Plains Drifter, the film really proves Eastwood’s cinematic versatility. As similar as many of his performances are (although you can argue that he worked to disprove his typecast acting in the most vulnerable parts of High Plains Drifter, and also by making the small jump from cowboy to cop with the Dirty Harry series, which received it’s second film in 1973 with The Enforcer), it’s hard to deny his versatility from behind the camera, something that still surprises his audience even now. Breezy can most easily be explained as beautiful. The film focuses on a lonely, middle aged Frank Holden (played wonderfully by William Holden), a man who seems to have given up on love after a divorce who meets Breezy, a ‘teen-aged hippy with a big heart’. With a similar focus to Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974), Breezy looks into the stigma surrounding age difference in relationships, both internal and external. Many scenes clearly point out the scorn that comes from others, but just as many look into the more internal paranoia that comes from the worrying about what others may think. It’s a tough film to get through at times, often due to the paranoia being so strong that the audience is forced into feeling a similar way to the characters, however, Breezy herself has such a charm that it is easy to overlook some of the pain shown and is played so brilliantly by Kay Lenz, who (fun fact) was asked to play Annie Hall later on, but refused as her husband didn’t want her to be involved. It’s also the film that maybe shows Eastwood’s influences most clearly, with many mirror shots bringing to mind the work of Douglas Sirk, matched with the chiaroscuro lighting style of Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life, tipping the hat in a way that Eastwood never really had before… and never really would again.
One more thing of note surrounding Breezy is the way that it looks at the romance shared between the characters. Despite the fact that they are portrayed so differently, the relationship between Breezy and Frank is strikingly similar at times to the one between Dave (Eastwood) and Evelyn in Play Misty for Me, which makes the way that the mood is controlled here so interesting. Breezy also introduces a trait often returned to within Eastwood’s directorial efforts, the look at passage of time and the paranoia of not doing the best with it. One monologue at the end of the film forces Frank to question how he is spending his time, and given Eastwood’s productivity and frequent returning to this same point, it’s difficult to think that this monologue isn’t one aimed at himself to a certain extent.
Next, The Eiger Sanction – maybe his most relaxed film. Feeling like a knock-off James Bond film (the tagline even features an explicit License To Kill reference) from start to finish (in all the right ways!). An action film that just glides along like butter, it’s fun, it’s silly, it’s visually impressive. Eastwood plays up everything that makes his performances so enjoyable, he speaks through gritted teeth for the majority of the film and gets REALLY angry whenever anyone tries to step on his toes, and just like the James Bond films from the same time, he frequently has sex with women who later stab him in the back. Anyone trying to take this one too seriously will probably not have such a good time with it, however, for any Bond fans and any fans of fun action movies, this one is a must. Some of the aerial photography during the climbing sequences are ridiculously impressive, and the film is so entertaining that you may as well just watch it, even if it has nowhere near as much flair or personality as his three previous features.
So, remember when I said that Eastwood soon proved he could do the western genre even better than he did with High Plains Drifter? Well, The Outlaw Josey Wales is that very film. Released in 1976, the film focuses on Josey Wales (surprised?), an outlaw (still surprised?) who loses his family to a savage group of cowboys when they set his house on fire, and decides he will exact revenge on them. Just as revisionist as his last entry into the western genre, Eastwood takes his focus on the cowboy as more of a victim of circumstance than anything else and emphasises it here in a way that has never really been matched. There are so many small moments of real vulnerability here, Eastwood crying and staggering next to his son’s grave, the re-appearing dizzying cinematography during the scene of the tragedy and so many various lines throughout, such as “Dying ain’t hard for men like you and me. It’s living that’s hard when all you’ve ever cared about has been butchered or raped.”, and they are contrasted by Wales’ reputation as one of the most frightening men alive in such a staggering way, especially when Eastwood also includes a large amount of scenes wherein his character saves others and spares people, as well as only ever really killing those who attack him or others in an unfair way. It’s so interesting to see how his perspective on the western genre changed, but I suppose I’ll have much more to say about that when we move onto the 1990s work and get around to Unforgiven! The fact remains, though, that The Outlaw Josey Wales is one of Eastwood’s crowning achievements, and in my opinion deserves a spot amongst the best westerns ever made.
Moving onto the final film Eastwood directed in the 1970’s, The Gauntlet. It’s no surprise to see Eastwood once again casting himself in the lead role, something he had done in every film he directed up until now aside from Breezy, and even less surprising was the fact that he was playing a badass cop. What is surprising, however, is just how anti-authoritarian this film is. Some moments in the Dirty Harry films show a similar viewpoint – Callahan often talks about how, despite the fact that he is a rough around the edges, he gets the job done better than anybody else, and Harry also shows a certain level of pride surrounding the way that he never lets himself become corrupted in a corrupt system – and here, it comes together brilliantly as Eastwood just goes all out against the authorities and gives them the finger. It’s wonderfully pissy, incredibly annoyed for the majority of the runtime which is fascinating given that Eastwood would go on to make some of the most patriotic American films of recent memory later on (I’ll say more about it in the next entry, but his very next film, Bronco Billy, is baffling in it’s juggling between being angry and adoring American life). The Gauntlet is more focused on fun than anger, however, with some of the most fun action set pieces in Eastwood’s career. The finale of this film is just wonderful, the energy is extremely high from start to finish and the anger against authority only really adds to that most of the time. Sondra Locke also makes her second Eastwood appearance of many as Gus Mally, the inciting character in the film who would make many more appearances throughout Eastwood’s work in the 1980s, and also have a key part in his personal life.
But for now, that concludes this part of the Eastwood retrospective. The next essay will focus on his work from the 1980s, which is a bit of a rough patch… but it’s not all bad. I’m sure I’ll find a way to talk about Honkytonk Man in quite a lot of detail…