1971 was something of a banner year for Clint Eastwood. He starred in two terrific Don Siegel films – one of which featured his most complex performance to date (The Beguiled), and one of which significantly increased his status as a pop culture icon (Dirty Harry). Between the release of those two films, Eastwood whipped up his own directorial debut: Play Misty for Me, a thriller which has inspired a host of imitators over the years (most notably Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction). It's a strong, slick debut that find Eastwood fusing a not-bad Siegel imitation with some early indicators of his own directorial preferences.
In addition to directing, Eastwood stars as Dave Garver, a late-night disc jockey who broadcasts from a small radio station in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California (the town that would elect Eastwood mayor in 1986). Every night, he gets a call from a woman making the same request: “Play 'Misty' for Me.” Dave is always happy to oblige, dedicating the lush Erroll Garner tune to his devoted fan. Eventually, the two share a chance encounter. Her name is Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter, Arrested Development), and she's eager to share more than her musical preferences with Dave. Despite harboring a desire to work things out with his ex-girlfriend Tobie (Donna Mills, The Incident), Dave readily hops into bid with Evelyn (greatly encouraged by her “no strings attached” promises).
Alas, what Dave thought was a mere one-night stand turns into something far more serious. Evelyn has intense feelings for Dave, and when he tries to brush her off, she turns obsessive. Evelyn emotionally blackmails Dave into staying with her, threatening self-harm if he dares to shove her out of his life. Before long, the laid-back lothario finds himself trapped in a tangled web of jealousy that threatens to derail his personal and professional life.
Though this sort of tale feels awfully familiar now, Play Misty for Me essentially set the template for the modern jilted-lover thriller. While it falls into the same traps as many of its imitators (chiefly, neglecting to turn its murderously obsessive character into a convincing human being), it's a fine piece of work and a surprisingly assured directorial debut. Eastwood ratchets up the tension with the precision of a guy who's been around the block a few times, and wrings a good deal of uncomfortable suspense out of the squirm-inducing scenario he presents.
Dave feels like a less despicable variation on the character Eastwood plays in The Beguiled – he's a sexually confident man who doesn't hesitate to jump into bed with any woman who will have him. As in that film, he is severely punished for his libidinous ways. Both films play like cautionary tales for men who think with their other head, though The Beguiled is a notch above this one in terms of artfulness (there's nothing in this film as visually astonishing as the Gothic dream sequence in Siegel's flick) and characterization (Geraldine Page is a considerably more nuanced female rival than the one Jessica Walter plays).
Still, Walter compensates for the thin characterization with an undeniably compelling performance. Walter is genuinely frightening in the role, particularly when her sticky-sweet seduction routine is interrupted by flashes of primal rage. We may not have much in the way of depth or credible motivation, but we believe Walter when she promises to do terrible things to herself, Dave or the people Dave cares about.
Eastwood's voice shines through awkwardly but memorably in an extended lull between the film's second and third acts – it starts with a lengthy romantic montage set to Roberta Flack's cover of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” and finishes with an even lengthier sequence set at the Montreux Jazz Festival. It's a good fifteen minutes or so of relatively plot-free material, with Eastwood using terrific music to fuel an exploration of interesting visual ideas. There's one particularly distinctive shot of Eastwood and Mills lying in the middle of a forest that deliberately evokes The Garden of Eden – a romantic paradise that will soon be shattered by the arrival of an evil force. Elsewhere, the film seems to reflect the masculine, energetic style of Siegel's films (and Eastwood acknowledges his pal's influence by giving him a small, charming role as a bartender).
Despite some amusingly dated elements (most notably the ridiculous early '70s font used for the opening and closing credits), Play Misty for Me holds up reasonably well as a stylish, engaging thriller. It's not a great film, but it's probably the best movie of its sort simply because it isn't aggressively dumb or mean-spirited. I think there's a great film to be made in this vein, but it would have to look past basic primal fears and be willing to let the audience empathize with an obsessive, mentally damaged person. Too often, cinema regards such troubled souls as mere monsters.
Play Misty for Me
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 1971