Within the short period between the conclusion of Man with No Name’s story and the debut of “Dirty” Harry Callahan, Clint Eastwood would find himself in the director’s chair for the utterly terrifying drama-thriller, Play Misty for Me in 1971.
In terms of recognition, Play Misty for Me is immediately interesting because it falls into the generic, but delightful category of “hidden gem”. Play Misty for Me, whilst not universally recognised as Eastwood’s best, most popular, or even directed by the great man himself, is undisputedly superior to any of Eastwood’s directorial work released between The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and Mystic River (2003).
Play Misty for Me, whilst early in Eastwood’s career, possesses aspects of which were still apparent decades later; the most obvious being: directing oneself. Very, very early in Play Misty for Me, perhaps one of the opening shots, Dave Garver (Eastwood) observes an artistic drawing of himself by the window of his home – this early self-recognition and self-recognition can, perhaps, be read as a nod to his status as a director, and directing himself, of course.
Play Misty for Me presents a vulnerable Eastwood. To an extent, a retrospective viewing of Play Misty for Me is more impactful than viewing it as a new film in 1971, that is because in the decades since, audiences have witnessed Eastwood in a variation of roles of which he is domineering, strong, in control etc, whereas Play Misty for Me presents Eastwood’s Dave Garver in such a vulnerable and life-threatening state.
In Play Misty for Me, Eastwood’s Dave Garver is the man. Stylish handsome aside, Dave Garver drives a luxurious car, is an ambitious radio DJ, can virtually have any sexual partner he desires, and lastly, is served free drinks by his Dirty Harry director, Don Siegel. Though it seems like he has it all, Dave Garver quickly runs into life-threatening trouble when he engages with his fandom – he sleeps with his #1 fan, a constant caller asking for Garver to “Play Misty for me.”, hence the film title, but little does he know…she is a delusional and psychotic stalker. Dave Garver’s #1 fan is Evelyn Draper, played absolutely terrifically by Jessica Walter. Some of Draper’s actions within Play Misty for Me instantly remind viewers of Hitchcock’s Psycho – of which is a good thing, obviously.
As Play Misty for Me progresses, Draper’s stalking and antics increase to a worse state – because she is dangerously delusional, she has cemented a relationship between herself and Garver, thus if she spots him with another woman, sexually or not, he is cheating on her, thus the other woman as such much be eliminated. From showing up to Garver’s home unexpectedly to ruining job opportunities and almost-deadly violence, Play Misty for Me builds its viewership up to a climax of which is far from subtle, but completely frightening and wild to say the least.
After Play Misty for Me, Eastwood’s directorial career resumed with a return to the western genre with 1973’s High Plains Drifter, and again with 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. It is probably safe to argue that the only films directed and starring Eastwood of which are superior to Play Misty for Me prior to the release of Unforgiven are The Outlaw Josey Wales and the fourth Dirty Harry film, Sudden Impact.
Conclusively, where does Play Misty for Me rank within Eastwood’s directorial work? Obviously, Play Misty for Me is not close to the likes of Unforgiven or Million Dollar Baby, however, Eastwood’s directorial debut does deserve to be held in high regard because it is legitimately good and frightening, and the presentation of a vulnerable Eastwood is a rarity that demands a viewing.
As psychological thrillers go, Play Misty for Me’s legacy is hardly of an iconic status, unfortunately. It is somewhat of a surprise that Play Misty for Me hasn’t been remade; however, there are a number of films of which do present the storyline of an extreme fandom turning extraordinarily dangerous – including 1990’s Misery and 1996’s The Fan. It remained a touchstone for many years to come.