The Screaming Mini: Play Misty for Me

The Screaming Minis are a new experiment in short (well, shorter) individual reviews, as way for us to talk a little more about the other movies of note we’re watching but without the involved, in-depth discussion delivered as a duo. The name comes from The Screaming Mimi, the 1949 pulp novel by Frederic Brown that inspired Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

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Play Misty for Me 
Director: Clint Eastwood
Released: 1971
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills, John Larch, and James McEachin
Running time: 102 minutes
Genre: thriller

Before it was an MST3K joke, Play Misty for Me was a effective thriller, and Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut to boot.

KRML DJ and all around happening ladies man Dave Garver plays smoov jazz and poetry all night, at least till it’s time for bar-hopping and lady-bedding to begin. One night he picks up Evelyn, who turns out to be more than he can handle. He picks her up–or vice versa?–at his hangout, the Sardine Factory bar. Once they’re at her place, Evelyn admits that she’s the voice in the night who frequently calls to request that he play “Misty,” and that she went down to the bar purposely looking for him. Though Dave makes a token statement to the effect of being “sort of hung up” on a “good girl,” when Evelyn makes the old “no strings” play, he goes for it without hesitation. He heads out the next morning, ready to go on to the next thing. Only, Evelyn’s intent on being the only thing.

She shows up unannounced at his place some time later, and when Dave tosses “no strings at her,” she lobs back with “seconds.” Conceeding the point, Dave takes a moment to educate her on the use of a phone and making plans, then succumbs to steak and wine … and free tail on delivery. When she leaves in the morning, she’s off his mind again, for his old flame Tobie’s back in town, the one that got away, and Dave makes a play for convincing her that she’s The One, his main squeeze, and that he’s done with all the others. “I haven’t exactly been the monk of the month or anything like that, but I have been making an effort,” he tells her. With Tobie back in, Evelyn’s out, and she doesn’t take kindly to it. Evelyn escalates her bids for attention with calls, gifts dropping by, dropping by in the nude, and so on. But though Dave tries to subtly explain that he’s just not into her, he’s also just a guy who can’t say no.

I can’t help but see this as a personal film for Clint, not just because it was his first, and his chance to do it right, but because well, it’s essentially an ideal him: Silver-tongued, big-haired Don Juan tooling around Carmel-By-the-Sea in his Jag roadster, living the life of the jazzy bachelor cocksman out and about at swingin’ joints, boozing it up with with with stalwart barkeep Murphy (Don Siegel, real-life five-time Eastwood director), knee-deep in rampant totty–but still TROO IN HIS HART to the one that got away–and literally driving women MAD. As a noted serial womanizer himself, it’s hard for Clint to escape comparisons to Dave Garver and his predatory nature.

Regardless, here we have a satisfying and savvy little suspense film (later ripped off by the reactionary Fatal Attraction). Evelyn’s escalating efforts are never too aberrant, but do convincingly ramp up the tension as Dave’s selfishness and self-indulgence further confuse her feelings. Despite charges of misogyny, Misty is anything but callous to Evelyn, who comes across as funny and sensitive–and not a little bit psycho. This is thanks as much to Jessica Walter’s scarily good performance as it is to Clint’s direction or Jo Heims’ story. Clint’s Dave is also nuanced, played as detached, irresponsible, and weak, and most of all, absolutely complicit in the destruction of a damaged woman. Whether he learns from it remains to be seen.

Misty does run a bit long, however, dragging when beefed up by indulgent footage from the Monterey Jazz festival, and during a decidedly embarrassing interlude o’ love set to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time I Saw Your Face.” I cringed. The mise-en-scène is rather delightfully dated (I particularly dug the gold paint and Klute-esque shags), and though I loathe jazz, Gator Creek’s “Dirty Boogie” and some funky shocking lime titles over shots of Clint cruising down 101 make for one of my favorite title sequences. Anything but a vanity project, Clint’s directorial debut holds up forty years later, a low-risk thriller that paid high dividends.

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