Play Misty for Me

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Play Misty for Me is a familiar kind of film, a thriller featuring a crazy female stalker. It’s maybe a little better than the run of the mill movies of this type, but not by much. Clint Eastwood’s feature film directorial debut, which he also stars in, shows the filmmaker trying to inject life into this tired story line. He comes away partly successful, and surprisingly enough for an actor as famous as Eastwood proves to be more of a visual stylist in his first film than a director of actors. Though it’s all in favor of a plot and characters that don’t quite deserve it.

“Play ‘Misty’ for me” is what a throaty voiced woman calls in to DJ Dave Garber (Clint Eastwood) every night in the seemingly peaceful California town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. He obligingly does, exchanges pleasantries with his fellow DJ, and thinks no more about it. He goes to the local bar and picks up a woman, Evelyn Drapper, who turns out to be the “Misty” caller. They have what seems to be just a one-night stand, but Evelyn unfortunately doesn’t see it that way. She shows up at Dave’s house unannounced, and general insinuates herself into his life in ways he never imagined from that first encounter. She’s clearly obsessed with him, and turns violent when he pushes her away.

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This is exactly the plot of Fatal Attraction, which, I’ll grant you, came out a decade and half later, but it still pales in comparison to that inadequate film. Fatal Attraction is disappointing film for several reasons, one which seemingly had no reason to devolve into the mindless slasher film that Eastwood’s starts out as. The only thing I can think of is that Eastwood is a first time director, he probably just wanted to execute this film really well then start getting deep later. Which is perfectly fine, expect that the execution is a bit off too. The film is a bit ragged around the edges, technically, and the acting is pretty flat by all involved.

The film develops as you’d expect, Evelyn does creepier and creepier things the longer the run time progresses. She gets more and more extreme, and you can basically predict the types of things she’ll do and when she’ll do them. Again, it might have been more revolutionary in ’71, I don’t know, but today it’s just obvious and not really suspenseful at all. Anything of interest has to be found in Dave’s character and how he reacts to Evelyn, especially keeping in mind that he’s played by American icon of masculinity Clint Eastwood. He essentially is a pretty passive character until the very end, and mistrusts the authorities (for some reason) to the extent that he’d rather ineffectively deal with Evelyn himself for most of the film than involve the police (who do turn out to be ineffective when they do show up).

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It’s been a while since I’ve seen Fatal Attraction, but the interesting thing about comparing Clint here to Douglas in that film is that Clint is only sort of cheating when he hooks up with Evelyn. He’s seeing this woman named Tobie (Donna Mills) who he wants to actually be dating but isn’t really, and she eventually falls victim to Evelyn’s violent jealousy by the end of the film. He also tells Evelyn under no uncertain terms that he’s not going to have a relationship with her, and she also sought him out in the first place. She really does just seem crazy, without any of the feminist outrage (however extreme and misguided) that Glen Close had. Things are much more cut and dry here.

But of course nobody at the time had Fatal Attraction in mind, it was probably the other way around. Play Misty for Me does seem horribly dated now, with lime green opening titles and the same funky jazz song playing over 90% of the soundtrack (they only play a bit of “Misty” which I found kind of odd). I like the era so it’s more amusing to me than anything else, but it’s still hard to believe this film connecting with many people today.

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Still, the technique on display is promising. It resembles more of Dirty Harry, which came out in the same year, than Eastwood’s previous collaborations with Sergio Leone. Don Siegel (director of Dirty Harry) actually has a small part in the film as a bartender. This is fitting since we’re filming in CA in the ’70s and not the old west. The film has Psycho inspired editing in some of the more violent scenes, and a straight up homage with Evelyn coming at Dave with a knife and then vanishing. There is also some interesting handheld camera work that gives a sense of immediacy when it is used.

But the more interesting parts are in the quiet moments. There’s a very artsy interlude where Dave and Tobie spend some time together in the woods. There’s also a very interestingly shot scene after Evelyn breaks into Dave’s house and attempts to harm herself. Dave reluctantly comforts her so she won’t try it again, and there’s a shot with light falling through the window on the completely still couple that looks almost like a painting. Don’t ask me why. Eastwood also takes us to the Monterey Jazz Festival, though nothing that happens there really needs to happen during that particular event, it still has a feeling of documentary to it, focusing on people in the crowd democratically. These stylistic flairs don’t seem explicable from the text of the film, but their mystery gives some hope for the quality of the film and Eastwood’s subsequent directorial career.

I know I was pretty hard on it, but Play Misty for Me is not a bad movie. It’s just not a particularly great one either. It is truthfully quite dated, and the performances overall, with perhaps the exception of Clint himself because he’s doing what he always does, didn’t work for me. The concept is a familiar one that doesn’t really get a twist or further development here. Play Misty for Me is an interesting one, but mostly to see how Clint handles it, not as a stand alone film so much.

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“Well you know what they always say my man, ‘He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.'”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert review 
The New Yorker “Movie of the Week” video review
The New York Times review

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