Strong Directorial Debuts: Play Misty For Me

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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.

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Strong Directorial Debuts: The Maltese Falcon

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It’s week two of my mini spotlight on strong directorial debuts. This week I’m focusing on director John Huston. Huston was one of the most versatile directors Hollywood ever had. And his directorial debut shows a great deal of his promise. It was 1941’s The Maltese Falcon. Based on Dashiell Hammett’s best-selling novel, it is considered by many to be the first film noir. And boy does it set the bar high. This was the third time the novel was filmed. But it is by far the best. It also marked the beginning of Huston working with frequent collaborator and friend Humphrey Bogart (they also worked together on The African Queen and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre).

The Maltese Falcon introduces hard-boiled detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). Spade is half of the Spade & Archer Detective Agency. Archer is played by Jerome Cowan. One day at the office, they meet prospective client Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). She’s looking for her missing sister. Wonderly tells them that her sister was involved with a man named Floyd Thursby. Archer tails Thursby and is found *spoiler alert!* murdered that night. Spade is interrogated by the police about Archer’s murder. Later Thursby turns up dead and Spade is suspected of killing Thursby to avenge Archer.

By working for Wonderly (who we later find out is really Brigid O’ Shaughnessy), Spade has gotten involved with a whole bunch of shady characters. Among them are Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). Cairo offers spade $5,000 to find the black bird (the Maltese Falcon of the title). When Cairo and O’ Shaughnessy meet, it’s clear that they know each other. And it is revealed that O’ Shaughnessy also knows Gutman.

I won’t reveal all the twists and turns of the story. That’s one of the joys of watching The Maltese Falcon. It gave audiences their first taste of noir, the world of dangerous dames, hard-boiled detectives, and twisted plots. John Huston, in his directorial debut, does an amazing job of establishing mood. The Maltese Falcon has a great haunted and mysterious look. One of my favorite shots is the one of Spade in his office answering the phone and hearing of Archer’s murder. The way Bogart’s face is framed and lit, the way the office looks…it’s haunting and beautiful. There’s also a famous shot at the end where, through lighting and shadow, it looks like prison bars are symbolically going across Mary Astor’s face. Credit should also go to cinematographer Arthur Edeson. Among his other credits were Casablanca, All Quiet On the Western Front, and the 1931 version of Frankenstein.

There are many other reasons this is such a great directorial debut. One of them is that the script is brilliant. And the one filmed was Huston’s first draft. The Maltese Falcon is a very talky movie. But it never feels long-winded. There’s not a minute of wasted dialogue in the picture. Another reason this is a great debut, is because Huston showed he knew how to collaborate. He story-boarded the whole movie. But if the more experienced cast came up with something better, he would gladly throw it out. He wasn’t too stubborn to know when something better came along.

Finally, it’s a great directorial debut because it does a great job of balancing character and story. The Maltese Falcon has a very complex  story to tell, But it never gets bogged down in the details and feels tedious. It keeps clipping along right until the end. By the time the film is over, we’ve been introduced to multiple fascinating characters. Even the supporting cast, including Ward Bond and Elisha Cook Jr., get their moments in the sun. Huston had a great ensemble cast and got great performances out of all of them. The way The Maltese Falcon establishes its characters amidst the backdrop of San Francisco creates one of the most absorbing worlds ever put on-screen for a noir film.

John Huston directed two of my other favorite noir films: The Asphalt Jungle and Key Largo. He also directed a film version of the musical Annie and The Man Who Would Be King. Huston was also an actor. The man was ridiculously talented. The Maltese Falcon showed that John Huston was going to be a force to be reckoned with. Over 70 years later, it’s still one of the best directing debuts in Hollywood history.

Strong Directorial Debuts: 12 Angry Men

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Greetings, readers! Over the next few weeks I will be having a mini spotlight on directorial debuts where directors were brilliant right out of the gate. Often it takes time for filmmakers to find their footing. But there are exceptions. The first director I’m going to spotlight is Sidney Lumet. Often on great directors lists his name is curiously absent. Here are just a few of his credits: Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and The Verdict. And those are just a few of the great films on his resume. The only explanation I can think of is that he’s not the showiest of directors. But few directors have hit as many home runs or have consistently gotten great performances of their actors as Lumet. And he definitely falls into the category of directors who were brilliant right from their big screen debut. Let’s consider the film that gave Sidney Lumet his start: 12 Angry Men. There have been many court room dramas over the years. But few have held up as well.

12 Angry Men on the surface sounds fairly routine. An 18-year-old boy is on trial for the murder of his father. The film follows the 12 jurors as they pour over the evidence presented in the case. They must come back with a unanimous verdict. If convicted, the sentence for the defendant will be death. In the jury room, initially all but one initially vote guilty. The holdout is Juror 8 (Henry Fonda). He questions the accuracy and reliability of the only two witnesses and the prosecution’s claim that the weapon (a switch blade) is rare. The rest of the jury pool eventually agrees that, considering the defendant’s life is at stake, the case deserves at least an hours worth of discussion.

The joy of watching 12 Angry Men isn’t just listening to the evidence and making your own conclusions as a viewer. What makes the film come alive is watching the character of the jurors be gradually revealed and seeing how their personalities play into how they cast their ballots. In fact, the film is often used to illustrate team dynamics and conflict resolution techniques.

While Fonda’s Juror 8 is the focus of the film, the other 11 jurors are given equal screen time. Everyone gets their moment to shine. The cast is one of the best ever assembled for a movie: Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, E.G, Marshall, Martin Balsam, and Ed Begley, just to name a few. And they’re all great.But, for my money, the best character arc belongs to Juror 3 (the versatile character actor Lee J. Cobb). He’s hostile to the defendant and the whole idea of bothering to discuss the case from the word go. But,rather than being a character who is an angry caricature, he has a revelation during the final vote that is absolutely heartbreaking. It’s not spelled out in blunt dialogue. Cobb reveals it in his body language and his perfect delivery. Cobb can certainly play angry like few other actors. But here, he shines in the quieter moments when we find out where he’s coming from. And it isn’t a revelation oozing clichés. It’s believable and gives the film’s ending a real emotional punch.

12 Angry Men was a low-budget movie. But Lumet made something extraordinary thanks in part to a talented cast and his skills as a director. The film is shot primarily on one set: the jury room. One of Lumet’s many strokes of genius was to put the actors in the same room and repeat their lines over and over to give them the feeling of what it would be like to be cooped up in a room with the same people for an extended period of time. That added to the claustrophobic feel of the whole movie, one of the keys to its tension. The tension also comes from the way Lumet frames so many shots in the movie. We see the sweat on the faces and the weariness in the eyes of the characters. At one point, there’s even a storm outside. It’s a great piece of symbolism to compliment the rising tension between the characters.

I’ve seen 12 Angry Men multiple times. It never loses its magic. Each time it’s fascinating watching the jury gradually come over to Fonda’s side and see everyone’s character development. Today so many films neglect character development and nuance, instead focusing on preachy dialogue and special effects, 12 Angry Men is all about people and how they interact. It’s a simple film on the surface. But Sidney Lumet, showing us shades of his genius with a low-budget, gives us a directorial debut for the ages.

Great Movie Openings: Jaws

This week I continue my spotlight on great movie openings. This time I will be discussing the opening of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Like the rest of the movie, the opening sequence does a great job of building suspense and terror.

Jaws opens with the credits being shown over some great underwater footage. And in the background is the now iconic John Williams score. The credits take us deep into the depths of the ocean. As the images progress, we’re left wondering what’s down there. The music suggests something rather ominous. As the music builds to a crescendo and the credits end, we’re transported to Amity Island. We see people sitting around a beach campfire. It’s a fairly routine scene. But it turns out to be the calm before the storm.

The gathering around the bonfire turns out to be a party. Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) and her boyfriend take off running across the beach after a few drinks. Eventually Chrissie ends up swimming in the ocean as her boyfriend passes out on the beach. But Chrissie is out in the deep waters alone in the dark. This is not a recipe for a happy ending.

As Chrissie swims out further into the ocean near a buoy, something starts dragging her under the water. What makes this a great opening, along with the tension-filled music, is that we never see the shark. All we see is the poor girl being dragged around and hear her blood-curdling screams. The sequence establishes the terror in the ocean while also creating that great sense of vulnerability we all have we venture into open water. With almost no dialogue and without the mechanical shark, the opening of Jaws is to this day one of the most terrifying scenes ever put on film.

The troubled production of Jaws has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. What’s fascinating is that the shark not working ended up turning Steven Spielberg into a more resourceful and artistic filmmaker. If we had seen the shark when it killed the first victim, there would have been no buildup. It would have been a by the numbers movie. Instead, we got a much more nuanced piece of film making. And the rest is history. Jaws was a  box office sensation and Steven Spielberg’s struggles while making it gave him the skills he needed to succeed in his later films.

Jaws is a testament to the dictum that less is more. Rather than showing the audience everything, it establishes the terror in their imaginations. Respect your viewers and it will payoff in spades.