Play Misty for Me (1971)    2 Stars

“The scream you hear may be your own!”

Play Misty for Me (1971)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills

Synopsis: A brief fling between a male disc jockey and an obsessed female fan takes a frightening, and perhaps even deadly turn when another woman enters the picture.

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Play Misty for Me marked Clint Eastwood’s debut as a director, a responsibility he had to forego his acting fee to secure. It’s fairly untypical for an Eastwood movie; his character isn’t entirely sympathetic to begin with although, in the face of relentless amorous attention from Jessica Walters’ frighteningly believable bunny-boiler, it’s impossible for us not to eventually side with him. For most of the movie, Eastwood’s character is a victim, effectively helpless in the face of a deranged stalker – not a position in which we’re used to seeing the former Man With No Name.

Eastwood plays Dave Garver, a local radio DJ operating from Eastwood’s real-life hometown of Carmel, California. He’s a particularly cheesy DJ, it has to be said; all slick, soft murmurs with his lips up close to the microphone, but his audience seem to like it like that. One of his most devoted fans is Evelyn (Jessica Walters), an attractive young woman who repeatedly requests that he play the title song. Evelyn engineers a meeting with Dave in his local bar, and as he’s something of a ladies man, it doesn’t take much for her to get him into the sack. What Dave doesn’t realise, though, is that Evelyn is severely psychologically disturbed, and his attempts to bring their relationship to a swift end triggers a violent revenge plot.

Eastwood the director does a pretty good job in his debut effort, but he’s hampered by a miscast leading man. It’s not easy to accept Eastwood the actor as a flawed character at this stage of his career but, in order for the movie to work, Dave Garver has to have a noticeable selfish streak when it comes to women. He’s a nice guy, the sort that would make a great drinking bud – until he slept with your girlfriend, which he invariably would. So at first it’s fairly easy to feel that he’s getting what he deserves when Evelyn first turns needy – and then decidedly nasty. One of Play Misty for Me’s strengths is the way in which it depicts the feeling of wretched helplessness when subjected to the calculated schemes employed by an obsessive personality determined to dominate their attention. At one point in the movie, Garver sits on his bed in the darkness with his head resting on the wall and Evelyn sleeping with her head on his chest, and he looks like a man who’s just been stunned by the realisation that he’s been trapped by his own weaknesses. His sense of powerlessness in the face of someone more devious, relentless and unreasoning than him is palpable.

Jessica Walter is frighteningly convincing as a psychotic stalker, capable of twisting the truth in her own mind in order to mould the facts into her own interpretation of reality. Loving and playful one moment, she turns into a shrieking banshee at the slightest rebuff. It was a career high for Walters, who would spend most of the following four decades working in TV with guest spots on the likes of Quincy and The Love Boat. Paradoxically, the fact that the character of Evelyn is given no back story whatsoever somehow makes her all the more frightening, as if she’s a wild and untameable force of nature.

Play Misty for Me is a solid enough thriller, with a decent twist that is capably concealed until it’s sprung. But Eastwood falls down badly when he succumbs to self indulgence by following a romantic montage sequence played against Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw His Face with a sequence at the Monterey Jazz Festival which brings the whole show grinding to a halt. It’s a typical mistake of an inexperienced director given full creative control. Now with more than 30 director credits to his name, it’s the kind of error that Eastwood would never make today.

(Reviewed 15th July 2012)