Clint Eastwood stepped well outside his comfort zone for his first feature film as a director, setting aside the action genre for a psychosexual thriller, and although his casting in the lead was inevitable—trading acting for opportunity is how most stars get their first directing gigs—it’s admirable that he took on the additional challenge of playing a textured role. Instead of incarnating his usual tight-lipped tough guy, Eastwood portrays a man who makes his living by talking (a radio DJ), and instead of battling some formidable male equal, he squares off against little Jessica Walter.
The story is basically the same as that of Fatal Attraction, which was made more than a decade later—a man has a fling with the wrong woman, and then pays for his misdeed when he tries to dump her and thereby invokes her violent wrath. Eastwood plays Dave, a radio personality based in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the quaint Northern California enclave that, incidentally, has been Eastwood’s offscreen home base for decades. One of Dave’s regular callers is a sexy-voiced mystery lady who asks him to play the smoky jazz standard “Misty” every night. The woman, Evelyn (Walter), soon appears in Dave’s real life and offers herself to him. Yet while Dave made it clear all he wanted was a one-night stand, Evelyn has different ideas. She becomes obsessed, intruding into every aspect of Dave’s life, making public scenes that hurt his career, and eventually threatening the real object of Dave’s affection, his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Tobie (Donna Mills).
Play Misty for Me is a straightforward stalker picture, and the best parts of the movie illustrate how easily Dave falls into Evelyn’s trap and how impossible it is for him to extricate himself. He’s complicit in his own crisis. Screenwriters Jo Heims and Dean Riesner carefully foreshadow Evelyn’s dark side even in the character’s first scenes, and the script emphasizes that the only thing preventing Dave from sensing Evelyn’s danger is his arrogance. Well, that and lust, since Dave is a swinger whose relationship with Tobie is forever being tested by his extracurricular conquests. Like Fatal Attraction, this movie is a warning to men who play the field—as Dave’s fellow DJ, Al (James McEachin), says with a wink, “He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.”
The last hour of the picture pays off the premise nicely, with several vivid scenes of suspense and violence, and Walter devours her role, creating a memorable movie monster grounded in believable, if deranged, emotions. Many of Eastwood’s directorial tropes manifested in this first effort, notably dark lighting and languid pacing, and the only major flaw with Play Misty for Me is that it sometimes meanders—for instance, was the indulgently long scene at the jazz festival really necessary? Still, this is well-executed popcorn entertainment, and it’s touching that Eastwood cast his directorial mentor, Don Siegel, in a minor recurring role as Dave’s favorite bartender.
Play Misty for Me: GROOVY