It’s the final week of mt spotlight on directing debuts that really made an impression. The last director whose debut I’m going to discuss is Clint Eastwood. I think we take his talents a little for granted today. One of the fascinating things about Clint Eastwood is how effortlessly he transitioned from acting to directing. But he made his directing debut way back in 1971 with a gripping thriller called Play Misty For Me. Not only did he make his directing debut with the film, but he also starred in it. That takes serious talent. If done badly it could have been a failed ego trip. But in Play Misty For Me, Eastwood proves he can work in front of and behind the camera and succeed at both. Watching it today, you can see how it spawned a slew of imitators. The most famous one would be Fatal Attraction. But Play Misty For Me is just as terrifying as it was way back in 1971.
In Play Misty For Me, Clint Eastwood plays radio DJ Dave Garver. He broadcasts out of California and periodically incorporates poetry into his broadcasts. One night, he goes to his favorite bar and encounters Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter). After driving her home. he learns that their meeting was not accidental. She went to the bar after he mentioned it on his radio program. Dave also figures out that she’s the caller who has been repeatedly asking for the jazz standard Misty to be played. They sleep together… and then it gets crazier from there.
What starts office as a harmless relationship becomes toxic in a hurry. Evelyn starts following Dave to work, showing up at his house uninvited, and shows other signs of obsessive/stalker behavior. After Dave tries to end things amicably, Evelyn attempts suicide in his house and murders his housekeeper. She is then committed to a psychiatric hospital. With Evelyn locked up, Dave rekindles his romance with Tobie Williams (Donna Mills). A few moths pass and the nightmare seems to be over. But, alas, it’s just beginning. Evelyn gets released and calls in a request for Dave to play Misty. Evelyn also informs him that she is moving to Hawaii for a fresh start. But, that night, she breaks into his house, and tries to kill him.This eventually builds to a third act that has more tension than in few films I have seen since.
Play Misty For Me is one heck of a directing debut. When I saw this film for the first time, I was jarred a bit at first by the material. I got introduced to Clint Eastwood with westerns. So seeing him direct a thriller for his first feature was surprising. And it’s a very well constructed thriller at that. The way he frames his shots, especially the one where we see Evelyn’s point of view as she’s stalking Dave, are chilling. And Play Misty For Me isn’t a mindless, by the numbers slasher/stalker film. It takes twists and turns that you really don’t expect.
Another reason this film goes on my list of strong directorial debuts, is that Eastwood manages to star in the film as well but not have his performance overshadow the rest of the cast. He’s very generous with dividing their screen time. I want to give a special shout out to Jessica Walter (modern audiences know her as the matriarch on Arrested Development). She makes for one terrifying villain. It’s astonishing how one minute Evelyn can seem like the sweet girl next door, and then turn on a dime into a complete psycho. The character could have been a caricature. But Walter’s performance makes Evelyn feel grounded in reality, making the character that much scarier. And Eastwood shows a real vulnerability in his role as the DJ. Up until that point, his persona onscreen was so badass, it was a kick seeing him on the run from a seemingly sweet little woman.
Today Clint Eastwood is rightfully regarded as one our greatest directors. It’s hard to believe his debut was way back in 1971. Now he’s been nominated for multiple directing Oscars (winning one for Million Dollar Baby) and has continued to be a force in front of and behind the camera. There may have been a few stalker movies before Play Mist For Me. But it raised the bar and few films have come close since.