Play Misty for Me – Eastwood does Hitchcock

“And now a little diddy for all you bloggers out there in the airwaves.  My contribution to The Best Hitchcock films Hitchcock Never Made blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Tales of the Easily Distracted and Classic Becky’s Brain Food .  From an era gone by, misty memories.”

Dave Garver arrives at KRML, a local radio station in Carmel by the Sea, a small California coast town.  He’s a local celebrity, a disc-jockey at the station who’s hoping to make it in a bigger market.  Dave settles in behind the microphone for his stint this day, reads a few lines of poetry – part of his regular “schtick – and almost immediately receives a phone-in request, “Play ‘Misty” for me,” a sexy female voice.  He obliges but we don’t hear the song.

His shift at the mike now over, we see Dave step into his local haunt, a bar he often endorses on his radio program.  There’s a woman sitting at the bar, very conspicuous.  She walks over.  Familiar voice, one Dave recognizes – this leads to that and they go to her place, spend the night together and…this is not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Play Misty for Me (1971), an acclaimed but somewhat obscure film, is Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, and his most suspenseful thriller.   Made for little money, Eastwood directed Misty for free.  He had a three-picture deal with Universal and volunteered for the job as a way to get directing chops in a feature film, kicking off a stellar career as one of cinema’s finest directors.  He really liked the script written by Jo Heims, a friend of his.  This film is beautifully photographed, especially given its budget, on location in the director’s hometown of Carmel, California, a town for which he would become Mayor years later.

Misty stars Eastwood as Dave Garver and co-stars Jessica Walter, Donna Mills and John Larch.  Eastwood plays Disc-Jockey Dave pretty much as I imagine Eastwood is in real life – soft-spoken, laid-back and very sexy.  Worthy of note is that Eastwood plays the victim in this film, which I assume was a major change for his fans in 1971 used to seeing him with gun-in-hand in his previous starring roles.

But I digress, back to Misty…almost immediately after Dave’s initial meet with Evelyn, the woman with the sexy voice who repeatedly calls requesting a song, his life and love become the target for a psychotic’s increasingly deadly campaign of terror.  Dave’s a “player” but, as the film opens, he attempts to reconcile with his girlfriend, who has just returned home.  They’d been on the outs due to Dave’s philandering but he gives his best shot to a real commitment.  Unfortunately, he also just met Evelyn, whose infatuation has deadly consequences.

Jessica Walter plays Evelyn, the woman who we know minutes into the film is way off-kilter.  Walter plays the role with charm, which turns to menace on a dime.   She creates a character who seems confident, yet vulnerable, and prone to instantaneous bursts of psychotic anger – startling to the viewer each and every time. It’s an honest portrait of an extremely disturbed individual with the ability to conceal the true nature– and danger– of her mental state.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this woman is related to Annie in Stephen King’s Misery.  I’d be remiss not to mention Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, as well.  The latter being a recognizable remake of Play Misty for Me, for all its similarities.  I am a big fan of Ms. Close’s portrayal of psychotic Alex in Fatal Attraction, but I’d dare say Walter’s Evelyn is more disturbed and disturbing.  More menacing as a result.

Interestingly, Universal wanted a “name” actress for the part of Evelyn, someone like Lee Remick who was very popular at the time.  Clint Eastwood wanted someone with “zip, an edge” like the actresses of the 1940s, when he says women had substantial roles in film, unlike what was being produced in the early 1970s.  Luckily he went with Jessica Walter who’s really great in this role – charming, attractive, and ever so crazy.  This character makes Misty a unique film for its time if for no other reason than the fact the murderous lunatic is a woman and the victim a young, strong man.

Misty as Hitchcock Sir Alfred preferred manipulating the audience with long bouts of drawn-out dread, versus going for the jolt of a quick shock.  Clint Eastwood works both forms of torture into his film.  Not long ago I submitted an entry to another blogathon, The Hitchcock Signature, in which I discuss the visual commonalities between all of Hitchcock’s films.  I mention it here because Misty could have easily made that list as well.  Besides its obvious suspence/thriller theme, what makes Play Misty for Me a film Hitchcock could have made are its many Hitchcockian visuals/scenes.  Following are mentions, some images and SPOILERS!

The straight-toward-the-camera shot so beautifully used by Alfred Hitchcock to bring us directly into the action of the film.  Like so many poor sods throughout the years, we too were his victims.  Eastwood uses that particular (and very effective) POV shot throughout Misty.  Each time Evelyn attacks someone, it is as though she is attacking us:

For some reason it proved difficult finding images of Play Misty for Me, the many shots I wanted to refer to as “typically” Hitchcockian, but here’s one great comparison – Misty and Frenzy.

The scene depicted in the following image is one of the most effective scenes in the film.  Feeling trapped like an animal, Dave can’t move lest his “captor” wakes up and continues her madness.  Eastwood pans in (very slowly) from the shot shown here, into his own face to an extreme close-up of his eyes.  When he pans out again, into darkness showing the passage of time and the fact he’s still unable to move.  Hitchcock is all over this.

Close-ups and skewed angles add to the tension, a-la-Hitchcock:

Play Misty for Me features a notable soundtrack and a score composed by Dee Barton.  Yet, Eastwood chooses not to use music in the film’s key murder/attack scenes, which adds so much to the terror similarly used by Hitchcock in some instances.  The kitchen murder scene that lasts days in Torn Curtain comes to mind.  Eastwood’s scenes are much shorter but have the same “feel” to them.

Among other things, the main character’s distrust of the police in Misty, is also a theme prevalent in Hitchcock films.   Then there’s the setting.  The places in all Hitchcock films are central to his telling his stories on film, arguably as important as his characters.  As I mentioned, Eastwood shot Misty in his own home town, giving the many exterior shots and those in various establishments a familiar, hometown feel.  However, for his apartment, where many of the tense scenes take place, he chooses a claustrophobic, crowded place with a strange design and often depicts scenes at night when people are most vulnerable, a psychological advantage for suspense – a-la-Hitchcock.  Smoke and shadows.

I must mention also a brief, but obvious Hitchcock homage (at least to me) during the film’s climactic, final encounter between Evelyn and Dave.  In the scene, Evelyn yields a knife, way up over her head, a flash of the background – a bathroom curtain.  Very similar to another psycho of much repute.  (It’s really too bad I couldn’t find an image of that to share.  It is instantly recognizeable to anyone who might be Psycho-obsessed.)

Add to all of that the aforementioned cliffs and angry waves seen throughout the film that play a vital role in the climactic scene.  With the realization that Evelyn is about to kill Tobie, his girlfriend (played by Donna Mills), Dave speeds along a winding road, dangerously close to the cliffs and menacing waves.  Sound familiar?

It’s also worthy of note that despite the important role the song, “Misty” plays in the film we hear the title song (as an audience) at the very end of the film for the first time, as Evelyn floats in the Pacific Ocean, having fallen to her death.  And we hear the prerecorded dedication as the credits start to roll,

“And now we have one for the lovely lovers on a cool, cool night.  It’s the great, Errol Garner classic, “Misty”.  And this one is especially for Evelyn.”

Eerie!

There is no greater accolade to give a director’s film made in the suspense/thriller vein than for it to be described as “Hitchcockian,” an adjective that describes the standard in the genre.  There’s no doubt Hitchcock would have made different choices had he made this film, but there is also no doubt Eastwood was influenced by the master.  Should a viewer miss the many images and scenes made in Hitchcock’s distinctive style, the overall “feel” of this movie in unmistakenly Hitchcock.

Play Misty for Me is an outstanding thriller/suspense film consistently listed as such on many “best- of” lists in the genre.  Alfred Hitchcock fans would enjoy it for its numerous visual and thematic homages to him.  Everyone else for its numerous cringe- and nail-biting-worthy moments.  I can picture Sir Alfred having made this film, with some adjustments, late in his career.  And I am not the only one who thinks so.

In one of the documentaries included in the Clint Eastwood collection I have, which this film is part of, Eastwood makes no mention of the fact he was influenced by Hitchcock in any way.  However, when discussing how well the film was received upon its release in 1971 by both audiences and critics, Eastwood mentions the reaction of John Cassavetes to the film.  The famed director simply told Eastwood, “the only thing wrong with this movie is that it doesn’t have the name “Hitchcock” on it.”

Is Play Misty for Me the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made?  No.  There are several others worthy of that distinction.  But Misty deserves attention, which is why I chose to discuss it – not only because it’s a good movie, not only because of its Hitchcockian elements, ensuring it a place among the top-tier of the best suspense films out there, but also because it is the stellar first outing of Clint Eastwood as a director.  He is one of today’s greatest.  So, I strongly suggest you take a look at Misty.  Visually and psychologically, a memorable fright.

For more opinions and discussions on The Best Hitchcock films Hitchcock Never Made, visit one of the two host sites for this great blogging event accessible through the links below.  All entries are by knowledgable, passionate cinephiles and surely to be entertaining.

Tales of the Easily Distracted and Classic Becky’s Brain Food

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