Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Ten Days of Terror!: Play Misty for Me

Films: Play Misty for Me
Format: DVD from Moline Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

When the topics comes around to great directorial debuts, there are a lot of obvious places to go: Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, the Coens and Blood Simple, even Sam Raimi and Evil Dead. For whatever reason, Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, seems to be regularly forgotten. This is a film that for whatever reason doesn’t get a great deal of love when it comes to discussions of genre films, films from the 1970s, or any other specifics. It’s a damn shame, though, because it’s got a great deal going for it. Any director would be proud to claim this as his or her own.

The truth may well be that in 1971, Clint Eastwood was, well, Clint Eastwood. No one could have predicted that a couple of years later he’d be winning Oscars as a director and that people would be legitimately talking about him as one of the great working directors not merely in the States, but in the world. It’s possible that the world can be forgiven for that lack of foresight. Up to this point, Eastwood had starred in a variety of tough guy roles and would continue to do so. But the evidence is here that Eastwood took a lot of lessons while he was in front of the camera.

Dave Garver (Eastwood) is a jazz disc jockey working at a California radio station, infusing his show with poetry between spinning jazz classics. He gets frequent calls from a listener asking for him to play the Johnny Mathis standard “Misty.” One night after the show, he picks up/is picked up by Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter), that same Misty-requesting listener. For Dave, this is likely a one-off thing, since that’s certainly his reputation. It’s soon evident that this is a great deal more for Evelyn, though.

Evelyn soon shows that she is clearly obsessed with Dave. She shows up at his house unannounced, calls him constantly, and begins to show more than a little evidence of possessiveness and jealousy. This is complicated by the arrival of Tobie (Donna Mills), Dave’s previous girlfriend. We learn that Dave and Tobie split, probably because of his inability to be faithful, and Tobie left the area. She is back, and over the months of her absence, Dave has discovered that his life is a lot emptier without her in it. The complication is Evelyn, who clearly refuses to let Dave go despite his numerous attempts to get her out of his life.

Things escalate, including a suicide attempt, Evelyn bargaining in on a business meeting, and her attacking Dave’s housekeeper. She’s naturally committed to an institution after this attack, but since this happens with a good half hour left in the film, it’s a cinch that Evelyn will get out before the conclusion. I don’t want to spoil how this works out, because it’s worth seeing if you haven’t already seen this. Suffice to say the conclusion works just about perfectly.

One of the great things about Play Misty for Me is that Eastwood plays dramatically against type. This is a guy who made his living in movies always knowing what was about to happen and being the toughest guy in the room. Here, Dave Garver is completely out of his depth, struggling with trying to cope with a woman who demonstrates that she is completely insane and completely obsessed with him. Better, Eastwood makes it work. He’s completely believable as Dave, and entirely sympathetic.

In many ways, though, for as much as this is Eastwood showing that he’s at home behind the camera, the film works because of Jessica Walter, who is absolutely terrifying. Playing the obsessed person is something that needs to be pitch perfect. Not played with enough intensity, no one buys it; played too over the top, and no one buys it in the other direction. Walter does a great deal with her eyes in this. She’s got crazy eyes when she needs them, and she’s a huge part of the reason the film works even a little.

What’s most impressive about Play Misty for Me is that this is very much the birth of the modern stalker movie. I may be wrong in this, but to my knowledge, stalker films before this one were very much focused on women being pursued by men, usually with overtly murderous intent. Here, the genders are reversed, but it goes a great deal further. Evelyn is certainly murderous, but she is equally, psychotically, in love. She is the epitome of the person who will kill the object of her affection just so no one else can have it, and that feels new, or at least seems new for 1971.

I think I can make a case for the idea that films like Fatal Attraction wouldn’t exist without Play Misty for Me covering that ground first. Even the moments that feel clichéd—moments where we know what is going to be revealed a moment or two before it is—only feel clichéd because other movies have cribbed from the notes created here. Play Misty for Me does a hell of a lot right and it’s a movie that more people should know and love. If you haven’t seen it, track it down, turn the lights out, and be prepared to be scared of Jessica Walter.

Why to watch Play Misty for Me: It’s the birth of the modern stalker film.
Why not to watch: No good reason—this is as solid as a thriller comes.


  1. This is a terrific first film for Eastwood but I'm not sure it would have worked with someone other than Jessica Walter as Evelyn. Her intense performance is really what a viewer walks away with as the most memorable aspect of the film.

    I think her lack of a nomination for her work shows how genre films were seen at the time as opposed to when Fatal Attraction came out and Glenn Close was lavished with praise and if not awards many nominations. Glenn was terrific but no better than Jessica Walter is here.

    1. I agree completely. Walter is tremendous in this and pitch-perfect in every scene she has. She'd have been in my list of Best Actress nominations for 1971 without question.

      What I find interesting in Eastwood is that his career had so much been him as the tough guy (and it continued to be that for years afterward), but he's so vulnerable here. It's so against type, and I love it when an actor does that well.

  2. I completely agree, this one deserves a lot more attention than it gets.

    Dirty Harry was released one month later, and there was no room for audiences to digest two completely different Eastwoods. His tough-guy-with- the-biggest-gun was what captured the imagination, and Play Misty For Me was quickly -- and really unfortunately -- ignored and forgotten.

    The also excellent The Beguiled, also from 1971, suffered the same fate.

    Before Dirty Harry, Eastwood was clearly willing to experiment. After Harry, it would be a long time before he took on more vulnerable roles.

    1. And it's a shame that it seems like this was treated as a failed experiment. Eastwood is really effective in this role because of his vulnerability and because of how much that plays off of his accepted persona. In fact, I'd argue that it's all the more effective because we expect Eastwood to pull out a gun and kill everything that's getting in his way.

  3. Jessica Walter is scary good, but nowhere close to how great she is in "Archer." I still can't believe she is married to her "Archer" husband in real life.

    1. I've heard a lot of good things about Archer, but I've never seen it.