In Play Misty For Me (1971), Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, he plays Dave, a late-night disc jockey who has a fling with a crazy bitch (Jessica Walter) named Evelyn Draper. Fatal Attraction (1987) ripped the film off, but Misty predates a slew of stalker films. It is not a deep movie — just one of the scariest.
If you think there is a subtext (like the “fear of the OTHER”), you are welcome to it. No longer oppressed in the early 70s, Evelyn arguably stands for the every-woman who takes charge in, and takes vengeance on, the heretofore man’s world. Dave, you could say, deserves her wrath. Tossing babes out of his life just as easily as he seduces them, he’s a bit of a player. After he and Evelyn sleep together, and she goes after him and his lady friends, Evelyn (you could say) holds a mirror to his ways — but is more honest about her intentions, more vicious. Even the tomboy haircut she has plays into this idea that she has turned the table on Dave. You could also argue that she is the free-love easy-come-easy-go ethos of the 70s and the late 60s turned back on itself. Finally, you could say that all of the foregoing points are complete and utter bullsh*t. I do, and I bet Clint did too. Evelyn is not a self-empowered victim. She is crazy. Dave coasts; he sort of grooves along on his laid-back cool. He’s happy to bed her, but I don’t think he leads her on. Evelyn is delusional. She thinks that the night they shared was something special; that she alone has the rights to his bed. Dave disagrees, but it is no matter. She seeks to devour him anyway. She is a monster.
On the surface Eastwood’s directorial technique is relaxed, is unimposing. It disarms the viewer. Lite jazz and pop treacle dominate the soundtrack. No ersatz Bernard Herrmann and no intentionally creepy musical cues arrive. From Evelyn on down, none of the women are bubble-headed Barbies waiting idly for sex and death. And Dave is just a guy, not a saint, not a sexist pig. Eastwood’s style, his not cutting the characters from cardboard, permits him to scare us — because Evelyn stomps all over the film with her fits of discord, slipping into and out of scenes and shots unexpectedly, and generally disturbing the surface of things. Augmenting the effect is Eastwood’s refusal to explain her behavior, or to excuse any of the characters. Because he doesn’t sermonize and he doesn’t go out of his way to humanize, he has the viewer in the palm of his hand. He sets a bad situation in motion and he traps you in the role of a helpless observer.
Of course, none of this would matter if Jessica Walter were less of a dynamo. She’s gorgeous. And her good looks and her (initially) endearing attitude are functional to the degree that they make her a beautiful object. They disarm Dave, and they disarm the viewer. When she starts to act out, the disconnect between her beauty and the ugly way she behaves is genuinely frightening. Walter, though, inhabiting the role, does another thing. She makes the sad, pitiable Evelyn the scariest Evelyn.
One common piece of criticism I have seen leveled at the film concerns Dave’s supposed inability (or reluctance?) to do more to protect himself and others before the climax. I don’t submit to this point. Shocked and dismayed, and ultimately wrung dry by a female force of nature for which most of us in the real world have no precedent, Dave reacts the best he can in the moment. Maybe he is a bit overconfident. Maybe he thinks things won’t get out of hand; that Evelyn is just a weird chick who won’t return, over and over, to damage his life. She does, though, and so — we have ourselves a movie.
Two scenes fumble: the beach- and wood-walking montage with Donna Mills, and the scene where Dave visits the Monterey Jazz Festival. They mark time. They act as a respite, giving the viewer a chance to breathe before Evelyn strikes again; but they are too long. They’re insignificant to the action. Eastwood should have trimmed them. That aside, drives inexorably to the only end it can.
The movie is as tense and straightforward as thriller films get.