Daily Archives: July 8, 2016

Play Misty for Me (1971)


*. We begin with an aerial shot of Dave Garver’s spectacular home and immediately you have to wonder. Did Clint Eastwood really think a late-night DJ at a tiny local radio station would be able to afford an oceanfront property like that? Or were such things possible in 1971? I doubt it, but you never know.
*. Yes, it was 1971, a time when a well-dressed ladies man could have a whole wardrobe full of nothing but golf pants and Dave Garver hasn’t seen Fatal Attraction yet. But he does seem to understand the script, which is very much the same script, complete with a reference to Madame Butterfly and a botched suicide attempt.
*. By later standards, Dave seems a little too understanding of Evelyn’s obvious madness. Perhaps it’s just that men were more in control. I suppose the underlying social anxiety behind such stories is the (perceived) falling and rising fortunes of men and women. If we plot these threatened-male films on a chart we can see ascending and descending gender arcs. From Evelyn Draper, a mental basket case, to Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (who is at least together enough to have a job), through the ball-breaking Demi Moore in Disclosure and ankle-busting Annie in Misery (note how Evelyn here is Dave’s “number-one fan”), to the alpha-psychopath Amy in Gone Girl who gets it all and gets to have it on her own terms. You’ve come a long way, baby!
*. As the women have grown in efficiency and menace, the men have lost ground. Clint is Dirty Harry, after all, a film released the same year as this one. He can handle himself and defend his woman. Michael Douglas’s masculinity is more in question, and tellingly it’s his wife who has to administer the coup de grâce to Glenn Close. Finally (or at least most recently, we may still have a way to go) poor Ben Affleck is just a pathetic doofus who is putty in Amy’s hands, to be molded like a block of wet clay.
*. Kim Newman thought the big difference between this film and Fatal Attraction was that in the former the man is a playboy and in the latter he’s a caring family man. This means that Clint has to be taught a lesson about using women while Douglas is more sympathetic. I’m not sure this means the message of Play Misty for Me is “turned inside out” by Fatal Attraction. They seem more like points on the arc I’ve described. Though what Newman says does add another dimension. Certainly by the time we get to Gone Girl we’ve found something rotten at the heart of American “family values.”
*. Getting back to the opening aerial shots, I wonder who was the first to make use of that “predator’s eye in the sky” motif in a thriller/horror film. Of course the opening of The Shining immediately comes to mind, but if you start looking for it you’ll see it in countless horror films from the 1980s on. The idea being suggested is of fate looming over the victim (invariably the person or people in the car). I don’t mean who did the first aerial car shot — I remember They Live By Night (1948) having one of those, and it probably wasn’t the first, but that was a different context. I mean the first aerial shot of a car being driven by someone we know is in trouble.
*. What an odd walk Clint Eastwood has. Look at him leaving the bar the time when Evelyn is waiting for him in his car. He seems to have an unnatural curve to his spine, but this is the only film I’ve really noticed it in.
*. This was Eastwood’s debut as director and I think he handles most of it well, especially considering the fact that it was filmed on location with a very low budget (which limits a lot of what a director can do). The violence explodes in startling ways. There’s a nice use of the mirror at the back of the bar in the scene where we’re first introduced to Evelyn, drawing out her approach to Dave by basically showing the same movement to us twice.


*. There is, however, one major issue that has been the focus of a lot of criticism: the strange “intermission” in the final part of the film where we see Dave and Tobie (Donna Mills) making love in various romantic locations and then taking in the Monterey Pop Festival.
*. Roger Ebert: “There is no wasted energy in Play Misty for Me. Everything contributes to the accumulation of terror, until even the ordinary, daytime scenes seem to have unspeakable things lurking beneath them.” This is not quite the reaction I had. I thought these scenes were pure filler.
*. Take that montage of Tobie and Dave walking on the beach, through the woods, getting naked in a waterfall, making love in the woods, and then kissing by a spectacular sunset, all to the soothing strains of Roberta Flack singing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Where are the “unspeakable things lurking beneath” these images? Are they rolling around in Poison Ivy?
*. Some people, however, appreciate the romance. Here’s Donna Mills: “He [Eastwood] worked very hard on that montage . . . I thought it was one of the most beautiful pieces of film I’d ever seen.” Hm. She goes on: “At the time, strangely enough, a lot of people didn’t like it. They felt that it was intrusive.” I can’t imagine.
*. Well, here’s Ebert again: “Eastwood succeeds in filming the first Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude that works. The Semi-OLI, you’ll recall, is the scene where the boy and girl walk in the meadow and there’s a hit song on the sound track. In Eastwood’s movie, he walks in the meadow with the girl, but the scene has been prepared so carefully that the meadow looks ominous. The grass looks muddy, the shadows are deep, the sky is gray, and there is a chill in the air. The whole visual style of the movie is strangely threatening.” Really, Roger? It just looks like postcard or motivational-poster material to me.
*. Love it or hate, the Semi-OLI is followed up by the Monterey Pop sequence, which has a similar lack of narrative or thematic purpose. Cut both these sequences out and what has the film lost? Nothing. And by placing them together they don’t even work as a break in the film’s pacing. Instead, things just come to a stop. I really think they were both a mistake, at least as they’re presented here. At the very least they needed a break between them to show us what Evelyn was up to in the meantime.
*. I wonder (I’m always wondering odd things) what would have happened if Dave had gone along with Evelyn and let himself be smothered. Could they have lived happily ever after? No, I don’t think so. She would have had him stuffed and kept him around like one of those giant plush animals.
*. You have to love the way Dave catches on to the clue in Evelyn’s quoting the Poe poem “Annabel Lee” to him. And he just happens to have a volume of Poe’s collected works in the radio studio! Whatever happened to bookish, literate action heroes?
*. But Dave’s fondness for poetry also raises a question. At the beginning of the film Dave begins his radio show by reading “a little verse,” consisting of the following lines: “Men have destroyed the roads of wonder, and their cities squat like black toads. In the orchards of life nothing is clean or real, or as a girl, naked to love or be a man with.” What is he quoting from? I haven’t been able to find any source. Was it just something they made up for the movie?
*. There’s a disjunction between the mellow sounds that Dave plays, and which make up most of the soundtrack for the film, and the tense material. I think that it would have been more effective if there’d been a suspenseful score instead of the laid-back romantic tunes that are always playing.
*. I like this movie, despite it being crude and dated in many ways (I mean, just dig the lettering for those groovy opening credits!). What stands out most is Evelyn Draper, very well played by Jessica Walter. Evelyn was something different: a new kind of femme fatale for the times. She’s a far more compelling character than Dave: someone caught between playing different roles  that she can’t keep straight in her head (the nurturing mother; the slutty lover, both dominant and submissive). This has led to all sorts of arguments over whether the film is misogynistic.
*. I think it might be, though only as part of a simpler conservative message. The old order was breaking down, leaving wreckage in its wake. The psycho-bitch from hell would go on to have a long, prosperous life in popular film, but in movies that were more concerned with psychopathologies. Evelyn is a head case, to be sure, but she’s also representative of a larger cultural breakdown. Say what you will about Eastwood’s point of view on this breakdown, he at least put it in play. As the genre developed the politics would change, but the song would remain the same.