Classic Corner: Play Misty for Me

Ironically, nothing ages worse than calling a movie “dated.” Motion pictures are inherently products of their particular moment, which the best of them reflect in fascinating ways. Jimmy Stewart described movies as “tiny pieces of time,” and removing them from their specific eras can’t help creating dissonances for contemporary audiences, whether we’re talking faddish fashions or larger cultural mores. But I’ve noticed that most films are only described as “dated” until they’re about 20 years old or so. After that, they graduate to “time capsules,” which are more easily appreciated from a safe distance, without the discomfort of having to acknowledge embarrassing clothes or bad behavior as part of our recent past. (Note: The timeline may be extending on this now that everyone’s been wearing pretty much the same outfits and have had the same hairdos for the past two decades. I mean, can you imagine how wild the scene transitions would have been in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood if he’d filmed it from 1969 through 1980 instead of 2002 to 2013?) 

Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut Play Misty for Me was already being dismissed as an artifact back when I first watched it on TV in the ‘80s. It isn’t difficult to see why, given that the film’s groovy Monterey milieu couldn’t be more alien or out of step with the slick, Reagan era over which Eastwood’s screen persona loomed as a snarling, reactionary avenger. (No matter that his films were almost always more nuanced than they first appeared, when you’re being quoted by the Gipper you can’t escape guilt by association.) Slipped into theaters with little fanfare two months before Dirty Harry blew up the box office, Misty was basically a favor from Universal Pictures. The studio wanted to be in the business of Clint Eastwood Westerns and figured there was no harm in indulging their rising star with his oddball little thriller, so long as he could bring it in cheap. 

Written by Eastwood’s pal Jo Heims, best known at the time for scripting the Elvis Presley caper comedy Double Trouble (itself now better known as the first film produced by Irwin Winkler of Rocky, Raging Bull and The Irishman fame), the screenplay for Misty had been kicking around the studio for years but nobody knew quite what to make of it. Universal boss Lew Wasserman famously wondered why anyone would want to go see Eastwood play a disc jockey, and maybe more importantly, why would a star of Clint’s stature want to make a movie where his female co-star gets the meatier role? 

Indeed, the part of KRML D.J. Dave Garver is hardly a flattering one for Eastwood. A celebrity in the idyllic little community of Carmel-by-the-Sea, he’s a whispery FM voice in the night, playing jazz records, reading poetry and drinking for free at bars he mentions on the air. It’s the longest Eastwood has ever worn his magnificent mane, chasing girls with his reefer-smoking Black sidekick from the station and running games (sometimes literally) on single women with his wry, wingman bartender (played irresistibly by Clint’s mentor and five-time director, Don Siegel.) Dave’s got dreams of making it big in San Francisco, but we get the distinct vibe that Carmel is about as good as things are going to get for him. He’s hanging around town like the star high school quarterback a few years after graduation, accepting adulation wherever he can still find it.

One of those places is from his most devoted fan, Evelyn Draper. She calls into his show every night, asking him to play Errol Garner’s “Misty” for her. Then one night they finally meet at Siegel’s bar. Played by a wide-eyed Jessica Walter in an expertly frightening turn, Evelyn’s totally cool with being a one-night-stand, until the next day when she shows up at Dave’s house unannounced, to cook him dinner. The scenario is a heady combo of sex guilt and paranoia. I doubt there are many folks out there who haven’t at one time or another been in a romantic situation where one person’s intentions weren’t made as clear as they should have been. Yet most jilted lovers don’t have Evelyn’s affinity for kitchen knives.

If this sounds like Fatal Attraction, that’s because 1987’s zeitgeist-defining smash was basically an uncredited remake – albeit one that shrewdly re-centered the threat to a sanctified suburban family and their cute little bunny rabbit instead of a dirtbag disc jockey tripping over his dick. But just as Adrian Lyne’s (not very good) blockbuster became a release valve for the era’s unspoken AIDS paranoia, Misty is just as representative of its own cultural moment, evoking the eerie hangover that followed the Free Love era, shot the summer after the Manson family ended all that California dreamin’ on Cielo Drive. There’s a hint of panic behind Dave’s cool demeanor, a desperation to settle down with his wandering artist, sometime-girlfriend (Donna Mills) once and for all. He’s starting to seem exhausted by her revolving roommates and his freewheeling lifestyle that isn’t built to last. The party is winding down, even before Evelyn ends it at the tip of a knife.

Heims’ original script (which she revised alongside her Dirty Harry co-writer Dean Riesner) was set in Los Angeles. Eastwood shifted it to his adopted hometown for what he claimed were pragmatic reasons – he knew all the locations already and could shoot in his friends’ houses without having to build any expensive sets – but it also lends the picture a wonderful smallness and specificity that well-worn L.A. sights and soundstages could never provide. Clint clearly loves this place, and the way his camera dawdles and lingers on the surroundings drove some critics crazy. (Variety called the film “an overdone travelogue for the Monterey Peninsula.”) Play Misty for Me has the laid back, ambling Eastwood pace that would eventually become a trademark, but took some getting used to at first.

The film’s two most notorious sequences are (1) when the entire narrative stops and becomes a documentary about the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival, featuring a marvelous performance from Cannonball Adderley, and (2) a soft-focus, sexy-time montage for Eastwood and Mills, set to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” that my friend, writer Nick Braccia, calls “84 shots that look like 1970s Trojan ad photography.” Eastwood is said to have paid $2,000 for Flack’s song and damned if he wasn’t going to use every note, despite Universal executives begging him to trim the sequence. (Look, if you’re an up-and-coming actor directing a film for the first and possibly last time, why wouldn’t you devote 4.2% of the total running time to Donna Mills having sex with you under a waterfall?)

However superfluous and “dated” these digressions may be, they make the film feel idiosyncratic and alive in ways assembly-line thrillers never muster. Heims and Resiner’s script has a sturdy potboiler engine, while surrounding it are so many things that seem to be there simply because the director enjoys them: soft jazz songs, gorgeous Northern California vistas, and gratuitous sex scenes. Released seven months after Clint was metaphorically castrated by horny schoolgirls in Siegel’s The Beguiled, it’s got a lot of the anxieties and iffy gender politics that will come to the fore in later Eastwood pictures, and this won’t be the last time he casts himself as kind of a dumb, weak guy we’re not sure how we’re supposed to feel about. Play Misty for Me is a movie very obviously made by a person, not a corporation or an algorithm. That kind of expression ages well, even when the fashions and hairdos don’t.

“Play Misty for Me” is streaming on Netflix.

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