Play Misty For Me (1971) – In his directorial debut, movie tough guy Clint Eastwood is having some girl trouble. Making a departure from the westerns and cop films that made him a house hold name, Eastwood finds himsrelf stalked and terrorized by an insane woman in a case of fatal attraction in his psychological thriller Play Misty For Me.
Clint Eastwood plays Carmel-by-the-sea, California dj Dave Garver, whose nightly jazz program at KRML radio catches the attention of listener Evelyn Draper (future Arrested Development co-star Jessica Walter). Each night Evelyn calls Dave with a simple request – “Play Misty for me” and an amused Dave always obliges. One night, when Dave mentions a drinking establishment that he often goes to on the air, Evelyn finds him there and propositions him, which Dave accepts, but tells her right away that there will be no strings attached and it was a one time thing. Unfortunately for Dave, Evelyn has a borderline personality disorder, displaying extreme emotions of love and anger, and doesn’t know how to take a hint. Before Dave knows it, Evelyn has seized his life and Dave can’t escape her unwanted advances. At first Evelyn’s continuous presence in Dave’s life is an odd annoyance, until his ex-girlfriend Tobie (future Knots Landing star Donna Mills) returns to Carmel, which sends Evelyn completely over the edge. Suddenly Dave finds himself in a deadly love triangle between the woman he loves, and a psychopath that wont take no for an answer.
For his directorial debut, Play Misty For Me was a bold departure from anything that Clint Eastwood had done before, or even since. Known for his tough guy films, throughout his career Eastwood has stayed away from psychological thrillers or horror films. Play Misty For Me remains to be the only exception, making it stand out amongst Clint Eastwood’s body of work. Eastwood put his own personal imprints on the film making it uniquely his own. Although he was in charge, Eastwood had friend Don Siegel, who directed him in films such as Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules For Sister Sara, The Beguiled and Dirty Harry, alongside him to consult with. In fact, Siegel makes a notable appearance in the film as the bartender at the bar that Eastwood’s character goes to at the end of his radio shows. Eastwood also used many members of Siegel’s regular production team, including cinematographer Bruce Sertees, composer Dee Barton and editor Carl Pingetore, which created a familiar group of professionals which Eastwood could work easily with. Eastwood also brought the film close to home by moving its location from Los Angeles to the small California harbor town of Carmel-by-the-Sea where Eastwood had settled. Eastwood filmed the entire film on location in local business establishments, friends homes and even Carmel’s real jazz station KRML, in which Eastwood chose to keep as the call letters in his film. The small town atmosphere of Play Misty for Me creates a claustrophobic feel to the film, which adds to the film’s suspense. Eastwood would eventually become mayor of Carmel in 1986 and continues to live there today. Residents of Carmel can still listen to jazz on KRML which still exists, although its location has changed.
Eastwood’s love of jazz plays an important part in the film. A jazz pianist in his younger days, Eastwood incorporated jazz into the entire embodiment of the film. From the occupation of his character, to the name of the film to the bluesy tone of Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Saw Your Face, jazz music lives and breathes through the picture. Eastwood even used the movie as a way to film a sequence at the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival. Although the scene really has nothing to do with the plot of at all, Eastwood includes a performance of Cannonball Adderly in Play Misty for Me, and captured the crowd, performers and feel of the event. The sequence serves as an interesting time capsule of one of the most celebrated jazz festivals in the world.
Even though Clint Eastwood’s character, Dave Garver, is essentially the film’s victim, Eastwood still makes him the type of “tough guy” that he is known to play. This becomes interesting to the plot because despite the fact that Eastwood is tough, to the point and not even a very nice guy, he still finds himself under siege of a psychopathic female stalker. Other directors would have made the male victim much more “wishy washy” or weak, but Eastwood plays it cool. The result is an intensified danger because even a tough guy like Clint Eastwood isn’t safe from a crazy woman who has been scorned.
Although Universal wanted Lee Remick to star as Evelyn, Eastwood had seen Jessica Walter in The Group (1966) and lobbied for her to get the role of his stalker. Walter’s performance is genre making, and the impact of her role continues to be seen in films today. What makes Walter truly terrifying is her quick mood swings, and unstable temper. The audience is never sure exactly what she is going to do next. Evelyn is a villain that not even the cold and tough Clint Eastwood can handle, and unlike psychopathic villains in thrillers in other films, Evelyn is a more realistic menace that could be hiding behind the smiles of pretty lonely women in any small town. Jessica Walter never cheapens her character, or makes her cartoonist, making her one of the scariest and most threatening villains in film history. Her performance would earn her a Golden Globe nomination, and would go on to inspire further obsessed psychopathic villainesses in films such as Fatal Attraction, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Basic Instinct.
Play Misty For Me continues to be one of Clint Eastwood’s most interesting films. An incredibly personal film, it continues to be unlike any other film that Eastwood has directed or appeared in throughout his celebrated career. Hollywood has copied the film over and over again, but has never been able to recreate the subtle horror, tension and shock of Eastwood’s only thriller.