Synopsis: A brief fling between a disc jockey and an obsessed fan takes a frightening and perhaps even deadly turn when another woman enters the picture.
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills, John Larch, Jack Ging, Irene Hervey, James McEachin, Clarice Taylor
Director: Clint Eastwood
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: After seventeen years as an established star in Hollywood, by 1971, Clint Eastwood was looking to take more ownership of the work coming his way. Conquering television and film in several now-legendary high-profile projects had made him a household name, but Eastwood sought to try his hand behind the camera and be his own director. Forming his production company with the profits he made from the spaghetti westerns he churned out in Italy in the late ‘60s eventually allowed him to front the bill for a different type of movie audiences were accustomed to seeing.
With 1971’s thorny The Beguiled yet to come out, a psychological thriller like Play Misty for Me might have seemed like a far reach for Eastwood on his first outing, but it turned out to be precisely what he needed to cut his teeth as director/star. Filmed practically in what would become his literal backyard (on location in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where he would serve as mayor between 1986 and 1988), watching the movie today, you can see how modern films about obsessive love (think Fatal Attraction, Obsessed, or Swimfan) took key cues from Eastwood’s efficient playbook.
Eastwood (The Mule) stars as Dave Carver, an easy-going evening DJ with a fan who calls in nightly, asking him to “Play Misty” for her. When that same fan shows up after his shift at his local watering hole, he takes her home for the night, a one-night stand that gives Evelyn (Jessica Walter, Home for the Holidays) the wrong impression of his interest. Now, she keeps showing up unannounced at his sprawling (and not very secure) home by the ocean, ready to continue the relationship. At first, her advances seem pushy but sincere in their intent for something serious. However, when Dave clarifies that he is trying to rekindle a romance with former flame Tobie (Donna Mills, Nope), who has recently returned and is willing to give him a second chance, her true borderline nature and tendency toward violence is revealed.
Like most of these types of thrillers involving females stalking a male they can’t have, there comes a point when all the male must do is tell enough people the truth about what is happening, and the problem will be solved. By speaking up for his part of the crossed wires, he can get her help and, in turn, help himself out of an increasingly dangerous situation. Yet they never do. There is always a reason why they feel the need to keep secret, and it often comes with bloodshed.
The screenplay from Jo Heims and Dean Riesner lets Eastwood’s character off the hook for far too long, allowing him to play a dogged semi-hero while Evelyn is a crazed schizoid (which, admittedly, she is, played beautifully by Walter), but it rarely takes him to task for his aloof silence. He ignores his new flame to placate Evelyn, then puts Evelyn off for Tobie and lets someone else entirely foot a horrific bill for that insult. It’s only during Play Misty for Me‘s tense finale that penance gets paid by all parties, and the result is, appropriately, satisfying.
For his first run behind the camera, Eastwood demonstrates how much he’s learned from watching the greats until then. (He even cast his frequent director, Don Siegel, as a bartender to have him close by!) He nabs a nifty supporting cast (Clarice Taylor has a golden cameo as Carver’s no-nonsense housekeeper) and has a good eye for visuals. The movie meanders like early ‘70s films often do, taking its mellow time to move between action. Two long walks between Eastwood and Mills seem more like travelogues for Carmel-by-the-Sea than anything to do with the movie, and the infamously random sequence shot at the Monterey Jazz Festival can almost be skipped entirely.
Where would we be today without Play Misty for Me? Would Eastwood have gone on to direct so many memorable movies, winning multiple Oscars not just for himself but for the actors who starred in his films that came in under budget and on schedule? Walter was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work, teeing off a new stage of her career that kept her working until her passing in 2021. Now more than fifty years old, the film holds up well when the suspense kicks in and plays as an obvious model for the movies it has inspired since. Play it for the first time, or play it again.