Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Play Misty For Me (1971)

Play Misty For Me, released in 1971, was Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut. And a very impressive debut it was.

This is a stalker movie, but it’s a man being stalked by a woman. It's also a psychological thriller. Dave (Clint Eastwood) is a DJ. He plays requests. A woman keeps ringing, asking him to play Errol Garner’s Misty. She rings constantly. Then Dave sees a woman in a bar. She looks like she’d be worth picking up. He picks her up. He finds out her name is Evelyn. She’s the Misty lady. That should perhaps have been the first red flag, the fact that she’s some kind of obsessed fan should have been the first indication that maybe she can be a bit obsessive.

Dave isn’t thinking that far ahead. He just wants a simple one night stand with no complications and Evelyn assures him that that’s all she wants.

The next day she turns up on his doorstep. His nightmare has begun. There is simply no way to convince her that this was never anything but a casual hook-up. She is convinced that he’s madly in love with her. When he tries to make it clear that he has zero interest in any kind of relationship she takes it badly. Really badly. And when Evelyn takes things badly the results tend to be spectacularly messy.

Dave isn’t scared yet, just exasperated, but the terror is about to begin.

Dave has a girlfriend, Tobie (Donna Mills). He’s in love with Tobie. But Dave has this problem with women - he just can’t keep away from them. Dave is no Boy Scout, but on the other hand his relationship with Tobie hasn’t really reached the committed relationship stage. Tobie knows he sleeps with other women. She hasn’t really made a commitment either. It’s not like having a one night stand with Evelyn is some heinous moral crime.

Everything would be fine, except that for Evelyn it’s not a one night stand. It’s not even an affair. It’s true love, of the totally obsessive variety. As Jessica Walters puts it in an interview included as an extra, as far as Evelyn is concerned she has to have this man or she will die. Evelyn has a very tenuous grip on reality. She believes what she wants to believe and she hears what she wants to hear. She’s unstable, with the potential to go right off the rails, but Dave can’t foresee any of that.

Adrian Lyne’s 1987 Fatal Attraction is more or less a remake of Play Misty For Me. Play Misty For Me is by far the better film for a variety of reasons. Clint Eastwood is a much better director than Adrian Lyne. As an actor he’s much better cast than Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction. He’s a much more sympathetic hero and we need to be on his side. Michael Douglas could be extraordinary in the right role but playing a basically decent regular guy was not within his range.

And Jessica Walters gives a vastly better performance than Glenn Close - she manages to be both more terrifying and more sympathetic. Evelyn is a deranged psycho but Walters gives her an odd vulnerability. Her performance is both more over-the-top and at the same time more subtle and more believable. It’s a great performance.

Eastwood’s own performance is also excellent. Dave is no macho action hero type. He’s an easy-going rather laid-back guy. He’s totally out of his depth in this situation. And he’s frightened. He feels like a trapped animal which is pretty much what he is. It’s an effective low-key performance.

Look out for Don Siegel, who directed Eastwood in some of his most famous roles, in a small acting part as a bartender.

This being Eastwood’s first movie as a director he was given a very small budget. He wasn’t bothered by this. As far as he was concerned what mattered was that he was going to be allowed to direct it. He knew the lady (Jo Heims) who had written the original treatment and it was something he really wanted to direct. He does a very assured job.

Eastwood understands the basic technique of suspense. We, the audience, know what Evelyn is going to do next but the other characters don’t. The other characters, not just Dave but the cops as well, continually underestimate the dangers. They just don’t realise how crazy she is. The audience however knows that she really is incredibly dangerous and incredibly crazy.

One thing I love about this movie is that we get no backstory at all on Evelyn. No half-baked Freudian explanations for her behaviour, no stuff about childhood traumas. That kind of thing always ends up being unconvincing and phoney. We have to judge Evelyn entirely on what she does and says in the course of the story. I like that.

This is a good solid suspense thriller. Jessica Walters is extraordinary. Highly recommended.

Universal’s Blu-Ray looks terrific and there are some very decent extras.

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