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Play Misty For Me (1971)

August 2nd, 2008 · 5 Comments

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Synopsis
Disc jockey Dave Garver (Clint Eastwood) opens his show at jazz station KRML in Carmel by promising “a little verse, a little talk, and five hours of music to be very, very nice to each other by.” A regular female caller phones in and purrs, “Play ‘Misty’ for me.” Winding down at his favorite watering hole, Dave attracts the attention of a brunette at the end of the bar. Introducing herself as Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter), she tells Dave that she’s been stood up on a date. He gives Evelyn a ride home, but feels he knows the woman from somewhere. She reveals she’s his “Misty” caller.

Dave tells Evelyn he doesn’t want to complicate his life. She doesn’t see why this is any reason they shouldn’t sleep together. He sneaks off in the morning, but Evelyn shows up unannounced at Dave’s house to make him dinner. The disc jockey establishes a few boundaries before sleeping with her again. Dave is more interested in patching things up with his artsy ex-girlfriend (Donna Mills) when he discovers she’s moved back from Sausalito. But Evelyn tracks Dave down, asking why he hasn’t taken her calls. He’s not amused. “Where does it say I’ve got to drop what I’m doing and answer the phone every time it rings?”

Evelyn continues to smother Dave – banging on his door in the middle of the night and professing her love for him – until he makes it clear he doesn’t feel the same way. She responds by slashing her wrists in his bathroom and drawing out her recovery so he won’t send her home. When he finally leaves his house for a business meeting, Evelyn follows him to the restaurant and has a fit. Dave breaks it off with his schizophrenic woman for the last time, unaware she’s copied his house key and considers the affair far from over.

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Production history
Jo Heims met Clint Eastwood while working at Universal as a legal secretary in the early 1960s. She wanted to be a screenwriter. He was a TV star taking acting classes with aspirations to be a serious actor. Some years later, Heims wrote a sixty-page treatment called Play Misty For Me. Eastwood read it and recalled, “I liked the Alfred Hitchcock kind of thriller aspect, but the main thing I liked about it was beyond that, the story was very real. The story was believable because these kind of commitments or misinterpretations thereof go on all the time.”

Eastwood optioned the treatment and took the project to CBS, to Universal and to United Artists, but with his feature film career limited to the spaghetti westerns he’d done in Europe, none of the studios were interested. While in England shooting Where Eagles Dare, Eastwood received a call from Heims. She had an offer from Universal to purchase Play Misty For Me. Unsure when he’d ever get around to the project, Eastwood told Heims to sell it. When Universal later signed him to a three-picture deal, Eastwood asked what had happened to that “odd little story about a disc jockey.”

He was shown a script the studio had commissioned, but didn’t care for it. Eastwood worked with Heims on a new draft – changing the setting from L.A. to Monterey County – then approached Dean Riesner to do a polish. Studio VP Jennings Lang was dubious. He tried to talk the star out of the project by mentioning that the woman had the best part, but Eastwood had already made up his mind that Play Misty For Me was going to be his directorial debut. Studio chief Lew Wasserman approved of the idea immediately, but notified Eastwood’s agent that he’d only be paid the DGA minimum for his services behind the camera.

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With a budget of $700,000, Misty commenced shooting September 1970 in the area of Carmel, where Eastwood lived. He cast his mentor Don Siegel in the role of Murph the bartender, but ended up not needing the directorial guidance, bringing his first film in on budget. Despite an enthusiastic preview in San Jose a year later, Universal showed little inclination to support the picture. It performed well at the box office anyway, so well, that Eastwood received a call from the manager of the Cineramadome in Hollywood, asking if he could stop Universal from pulling the film after only four weeks. “The audience just keeps coming.”

Opinion
In the 1980s, Brian DePalma and John Carpenter were both approached to direct a potential blockbuster about an obsessive affair, but turned it down – in part – because they felt it was too similar to Eastwood’s directorial debut. Play Misty For Me is not only superior to Fatal Attraction as a thriller – slowly building dread and paying off with a couple of sharp, unexpected shocks – but remains a classic because it actually has something relevant to say about men and women; specifically, how flirtations can easily ignite into obsessions.

While not a model of perfection – the bar scenes are too bright and some of the casting is on the level of a nighttime soap – shooting on real location lends the film a terrific energy. Jessica Walter and Clint Eastwood are the chief reason the movie works as well as it does. Equally impressive is the fact that Dave Garver never picks up a weapon, but is left completely at the mercy of his conquest. Bruce Surtees provided the stark cinematography and Dee Barton – who Eastwood met at an L.A. nightclub where his band was performing – composed the moody score, his first.

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Scott Weinberg at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “I doubt many people would argue against Eastwood’s skill on both sides of the camera. It’s a film that’s achieved cult status worldwide and was also the inspiration for the blockbuster hit Fatal Attraction. Regardless of the box office receipts, this one is easily the better film. As a cautionary tale on the benefits of monogamy or as a straight ‘psycho-girlfriend-from-Hell’ thriller, it’s worth your investment of time and money.”

“I could’ve easily gone without the Jazz concert bit. Felt trivial, self indulgent or/and there to ‘kill time’. Overall though Play Misty for Me was a tight, suspense laced little ditty that sported a couple of nasty surprises along the way and ended it off in a refreshingly grounded fashion. No overlong and flashy finale for this film! It capped off the way it should; “to the freaking point”. You going to Play Misty For Her or run for your life? This bitch is nuts!” writes John Fallon at Arrow In the Head.

Earl Cressey at DVD Talk writes, “Even though Play Misty for Me is highly regarded as one of the top films in the suspense thriller genre, I had overlooked it until now. However, when it came up for review, I was glad to correct this oversight. And it’s a good thing, as Misty is a terrific film. Though it was Eastwood’s first time directing, viewers will be hard pressed to notice, as everything looks and comes together great. The acting is all top-notch as well, especially on the parts of Eastwood and Walter. Though the movie slows down in the second half, it really is a great film that no fan of the genre should miss.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Cult favorite · Femme fatale · Music · Psycho killer · Small town · Woman in jeopardy

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pat Evans // Aug 4, 2008 at 4:41 am

    For a freshman directing debut this film gives great indication of Eastwood’s promise. He and Walter also give virtuouso performances. It really was the start of greater things to come from him while holding up well on its own. The only bit that misfires is the slo-mo/cigarette ad love interlude with Donna Mills.

  • 2 shahn // Aug 6, 2008 at 8:09 am

    Although the languid pacing is not to my taste (which is why I’m not a big fan of movies from this period), I loved watching this on television when I was young. For some reason, it was often shown with THE MEPHISTO WALTZ- or maybe that’s a false memory/fantasy double-bill.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Aug 6, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Patricia: What impresses me about Eastwood as a director is how free form and improvisational a lot of his films are. There’s stuff that doesn’t work – like the cigarette ad or the jazz concert in this one – but sometimes he captures lightning in a bottle, like casting Jessica Walter. You get the feeling though that he’s trying things, and if they work, great, and if not, he’s moving on to something different. There aren’t many box office stars who would make a movie with an orangutan.

    Shahn: Wow, from visiting your site I would have thought that languid, artistic pacing would be in your wheelbarrow. I could see how Misty would make an impression on you as a kid though. Jessica Walter frightens me and I’m grown.

  • 4 the communicatrix // Jan 9, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    How have I not yet commented on this, one of my all-time favorite movies?

    Everything you said, Joe, and more. Eastwood was so smart to set this in Carmel and environs, an area he both loves and is thoroughly familiar with. The sense of place is palpable in Misty; it might be another reason this movie has held up so well over time. (It’s also really similar in this regard to another of my fave films, Jackie Brown, whose action Tarantino moved from Miami to the South Bay of Los Angeles County, an area he’s intimately acquainted with. Never discount the positive impact of that kind of shorthand, I guess the lesson might be.)

    Misty is also really stripped down to the bone: everything there to tell the story properly, and no crazy bells and whistles. Without spoiling it for anyone lucky enough to have not seen it yet, in the special features of the DVD, Eastwood reveals his very specific and deliberate reasons for having both the dreamy love interlude and the Jazz Festival sequences, and I think his decision was spot-on.

  • 5 VIDEOWEBB // Mar 4, 2010 at 12:35 am

    Let’s not forget that even though the title of the film was “Play Misty For Me”, the star of the movie’s soundtrack was Roberta Flack’s moving performance of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. And as an African American, let me take this opportunity to applaud Mr. Eastwoods conscientious efforts to consistently include pivotal roles for actors of color in his films.
    You’re a Good Man Clint Eastwood!

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