Play Misty For Me is an clichéd, overlong but generally impressive directorial Debut by its star Clint Eastwood, first released in 1970 it has dated relatively well (at least in cinematic terms) and remains one of his better directorial efforts. The film helped cement Eastwood’s reputation as more than just a man in a cowboy hat, and showcases his talents, both in front and behind of the camera, even if it isn’t quite worthy of the praise it regularly receives.
Dave Garver (Clint Eastwood) is a late night Radio DJ, with a fondness for women, and beer, though enjoying his job he is somewhat perplexed by a series of phone calls to the station by a young woman, repeatedly asking him to play the song ‘Misty’ by Erroll Garner.
Going to his favourite bar one afternoon (Eastwood’s frequent director Don Siegel portrays the Barman) he is approached by a devoted ‘fan’ Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter), who reveals herself as the mystery caller. Against his better judgement he takes her home with him, making it very clear he is no mood for a long term relationship, especially when his girlfriend, Tobie Williams (Donna Mills) returns to town. Putting Evelyn to the back of his mind, he tries to patch up his rocky Relationship with Tobie. But Evelyn won’t take no for an answer and starts to stalk him, disrupting a business lunch, damaging his belongings, and even attempting suicide in his house. Her behaviour grows gradually more deranged, and soon Dave will find more than just his personal life at stake…
It’s a somewhat clichéd premise (the ‘crazy stalker’ was already a staple of thrillers by 1970), that takes surprisingly long to play out considering the film’s short running time of 102 minutes.
The biggest and most annoying problem with the film is the script. The dialogue ranges from good to predictable, to truly banal in places, alternating the film’s tone between gripping and enjoyable to boring and confusing. The simple plot takes a while to get going, the film spending unnecessary time and detail explaining Garver’s home life-unnecessary because we ultimately learn very little in the process, and whilst he hasn’t got a Stenson or a 457.Magnum Garver is still a hero in the typical Eastwood mode-tough, bitter and single minded, and as such completely predictable.
It’s never made completely clear Why Garver doesn’t just report Evelyn to the Police. It’s an obvious question that is somehow skated over in the film, whilst it doesn’t really effect the film’s final impact, it may a cause of confusion or annoyance for some viewers. It isn’t the only instance of the narrative rather more convenient than it should be.
Uneven pacing is evident throughout the film. Once past the opening Evelyn is soon revealed as a psychopath, too soon, her thin motivations are stretched out for well over half an hour before anything ‘thrilling’ happens. (It’s worth noting that this is a dialogue heavy thriller with only 3 deaths in the entire film), many of the repetitive ‘stalking scenes’ feel like padding, removing a lot of tension from the film, and making it all too easy to guess where the story is heading.
About halfway into the film Evelyn drops out of the narrative for a while, and Garver, Tobie and Garver’s colleague Al Monte (James McEachin) take the opportunity to visit a local Jazz festival (Eastwood being notable Jazz fan). Whilst it does serve a limited purpose in the story- showing Garver and Tobie’s relationship improving, it’s irrelevant to the central plot, a weak attempt to make up for the sketchy characterisation in the film, it’s one of the few times the film noticeably sags.
There are less than 20 credited roles in the film, whilst it’s hard to confuse the cast, it’s equally hard to remember or care about many of them, and few of the supporting cast are given much purpose in the film, acting as gap fillers in the story and given forgettable dialogue. Though Duke Everts as Tobie’s gay friend Jay Jay stays in the mind for all the wrong reasons, a caricature of various dated stereotypes, his appearance, though very brief, may prove uneasy viewing for modern audiences.
On the other hand the main cast are largely impressive. Donna Mills and James McEachin both give good performances, even if they are largely thankless roles. Eastwood gives a convincing if very understated performance, his Garver isn’t lacking in Charisma, but feels a little flat in comparison to some of Eastwood’s other roles.
By far the strongest performance comes from Jessica Walter as Evelyn, rising above the film’s misogynistic undertones, and confused script she gives a thoroughly convincing, even scary performance, snapping at the slightest things and using her body language to great effect, she dominates every frame she’s in, even if the character is landed with occasionally over the top dialogue in the film (if it was too convincing it wouldn’t be entertaining would it?). In the quieter moments she show’s Evelyn’s human side as well as her insanity, cracking a few jokes, and sharing a convincing chemistry with Eastwood. She may be a psycho, but it’s almost possible to feel sorry for her.
As the Director Eastwood is more impressive, he guides the main cast to good performance’s, and displays the famously unfussy shooting style that has since become his hallmark. Filmed simply and cheaply it isn’t particularly visually interesting, but it’s to the film’s benefit. The story is already a bit far-fetched and doesn’t need the camera detracting attention. A few ropey editing decisions (several camera shots come across as accidental) and the messy ending aside (which will be covered in a minute) the cinematography is largely assured, but low key throughout, Eastwood lets the story tell itself.
Overall It’s a good decision, Eastwood holds the film together well, until the melodramatic and overloaded ending (an ending which may well prove obvious 10 minutes in, to any Eastwood fans), which drags on too long, and frankly lacks the tension it should have. It is further complicated by an over enthusiastic cinematographer.
Though taking place at night, the final few minutes are so dark its hard telling who’s who, fight scenes which are meant to be brutal come across as confusing, the film ending rather suddenly, with a surprisingly restrained resolution.
In cinematic terms the film has dated relatively well, the picture quality, and cinematography still stand up today, but the film’s misogynistic undertones- the women in the film have very predictable roles, are a bit unsettling when viewed from a modern perspective. A few one liners punctuate the script, but the film is largely serious in tone, the only real laughs come from the dated fashions worn by several cast members.
Play Misty for Me is overlong, convoluted, and certainly won’t be too all tastes. But for Eastwood fans, or those looking for a simple enjoyable way to spend two hours Play Misty for Me may be worth watching, it certainly has its flaws, but it is entertaining.
Far from being one of Eastwood’s worst, but not one of his must see’s Play Misty For Me is none the less an enjoyable thriller, and a more than respectable directorial debut from its star.