In 1971, Clint Eastwood starred in three films, one of them being his directorial debut Play Misty for Me. The films in which he had previously starred were westerns or action films except for his role in a segment directed by Vittorio de Sica for the anthology film The Witches (Le Streghe, 1967). In Play Misty for Me, Eastwood casts himself as a radio disc jockey working for KRML, a radio station specializing in jazz and located in Carmel, California, where Eastwood has lived since the 1950s. Dave Garver is a local celebrity but an unusual role for Eastwood when compared to the powerful males he had played in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy (1964-1966) or most of the American productions he starred in after his return from Europe.
Dave is stalked by Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter), a fan with whom he once spent the night. What he regards as a one-night stand is perceived differently by Evelyn, who starts harassing him to the point that his life and that of his girlfriend Tobie (Donna Mills) are in danger. Evelyn follows Dave wherever he goes and shows up at the most inappropriate moments, making a scene that sometimes leads to violence. She suddenly disrupts a business lunch, showering Dave with insults and putting an end to his professional ambitions with potential partners.
Evelyn becomes more and more obsessive, stealing Dave’s keys, entering his home and – using an assumed name – becoming Tobie’s flatmate. Quite unlike the characters that had contributed to creating Eastwood’s screen persona as a violent loner hero, Dave is turned into an object under the gaze of a woman.
Seeing a man as an object had already been suggested in Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), in which Eastwood starred alongside Shirley MacLaine. In this film, the wandering mercenary Hogan is clearly modelled on the character Eastwood played in the Dollars trilogy: he is taciturn, violent, effective. However, Sara, the nun who turns out to be a prostitute, is far more clever and no less courageous than Hogan, and he is the one who has to adapt and accept her leadership. He is no more than one of her mules.
Play Misty for Me lacks the comical side of Siegel’s western, and the female protagonist is portrayed as a threat to manhood. Evelyn shares many character traits with Scorpio, the serial killer in Siegel’s Dirty Harry, a film released only a few weeks after Play Misty for Me that confirmed Eastwood’s status as the American superstar of the 1970s. Both Scorpio and Evelyn, who kills Dave’s housekeeper and a police officer, are depicted as murderous psychopaths. Like Scorpio, Evelyn represents the male hero’s dark obsessions, his suppressed sexuality and his penchant for violence. In both films, violence is given more prominence than sexuality, and this is in accordance with the conventions established in the so-called Gothic novel in American literature as analysed by Leslie A. Fiedler in his famous study Love and Death in the American Novel (1960). A link with the Gothic elements in American literature of the 19th century is directly established in the plot when Evelyn introduces herself to Tobie as Annabel, thus recalling Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem “Annabel Lee.” Poe is one of the important writers of Gothic fiction, and Siegel’s Dirty Harry has frequent allusions to works by Poe. Although only a minor point, it is nevertheless worth mentioning that Siegel appears in Play Misty for Me as the barkeeper in the sequence in which Dave and Evelyn first meet – Eastwood paying homage to his mentor and reminding us of their shared interests and cultural references.
Play Misty for Me deals more overtly with sexuality than Dirty Harry in that it gives the role of the hero’s alter ego to a woman. It also explores the stereotypes of the blonde and the dark-haired woman, with Tobie – the blonde – embodying the virtues of civilization and Evelyn – the dark-haired woman – its negative side. Dave has to learn to control his carnal desire before he can become a suitable husband for Tobie, and therefore he has to eliminate Evelyn, who has tried to kill Tobie and has attacked him with a knife. In the ultimate showdown, the male protagonist confronts his evil doppelganger. He hits Evelyn, knocking her through a window and into the rocks of the shore below. In Poe’s poem, Annabel Lee’s tomb is “by the sounding sea”, and Evelyn’s grave is in the depths of the ocean.
In Play Misty for Me, the blonde and slender Tobie is not depicted as a victim but as a strong-willed, independent woman who makes a living selling her paintings and is not willing to accept Dave’s unfaithfulness. She seems far more determined and autonomous than her boyfriend, and the modern male is obviously no longer the dominating figure but instead a victim of his own desires and sexual impulses.
The film’s landscape photography reflects the plot’s development from normality towards nightmare. The setting is the picturesque small town of Carmel-by-the-Sea and the beautiful Californian coastline, and these are depicted as idyllic places where the protagonist simply enjoys life. In the long opening sequence, Dave is at the wheel of a cabriolet, driving along the coast in bright sunshine. Another long sequence shows him at the beach with Tobie. When Evelyn intrudes into his life, the images become darker and shadows that fragment objects and space create a constant feeling of insecurity and destabilization, especially in some of the interior shots.
The lively tune composed by Dee Barton that accompanies the opening sequence matches the atmosphere of freedom of movement associated with the American Dream. In the sequence at the beach, the song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, sung by Roberta Flack, enhances the romantic feeling evoked by the setting and supported by the gentle movements of camera and editing.
These two sequences in which music plays an important role suspend the straightforward rhythm of the storyline as a thriller. This is even more the case in the long sequence filmed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1970 and containing performances by Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Otis and his band, and Joe Zawinul. Showing Dave and Tobie at the event gives this sequence a strong documentary-like quality, with music taking on a diegetic role and reality complementing fiction. The use of a hand-held camera heightens the impression of realism, as does Eastwood’s naturalistic acting.
As a young man, Eastwood wanted to become a jazz musician, and his love of jazz music is something that inspires many of his films. The title Play Misty for Me is a reference to Erroll Garner’s “Misty”, and this is the piece that Evelyn asks Dave to play when she calls the radio show every night before she and Dave meet. Jazz is one of the central elements connecting Eastwood’s directorial debut with the body of films to come. The sophisticated use of light and shadow and the exploration of the many shades of black are further traits that this film shares with others that Eastwood directed later. The cinematographer Bruce Surtees, whose nickname was “Prince of Darkness”, shared Eastwood’s interest in shadowy images and blackness.
Play Misty for Me confirmed Eastwood’s desire to challenge his screen persona and create strong female characters. For a star like Eastwood, making use of his persona as a creative tool involved some risks. Indeed, Universal, the studio he worked with, was reluctant to allow him to go behind the camera. He had to promise not to exceed $750,000, a very small budget even for the 1970s. Shooting in Carmel, where he lives, in natural settings, and in a very short production time enabled him to keep costs low. The film was a success, grossing $10.6 million at the US and Canadian box offices – proof enough that the studio’s investment was worthwhile.
Eastwood has directed thirty-nine films so far, and in many of them he has demonstrated his willingness to take risks: playing the director of a rundown Wild West Show in Bronco Billy (1980) and a country music singer dying of tuberculosis in Honkytonk Man (1982), telling the story of a famous battle from the point-of-view of the Japanese enemy in Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), and casting non-professional actors in main roles in The 15:17 to Paris (2016). Even though Eastwood has not written any of his scripts, all his films bear his hallmark and are part of his cinematic universe, a universe in which he has transformed Hollywood conventions into his own very personal narrative and aesthetic vision.