Eastwood is something of a cinematic oddity. An iconic performer who remains the only individual in Hollywood who can actively remember working within the studio system. He is liberal (to a degree) in his social views, and will often cast non-‘conventional’ performers alongside him, but personally, often portrays highly authoritarian individuals. He is an accomplished melodic composer, often providing the main themes to his movies. He unfussily produces movies (not always a benefit – J. Edgar (2011) in particular would have benefitted from a few extra takes), and over nearly fifty years, directed a body of meticulously enjoyable films. He also remains one those actors who I love as much as my dad, and that bond is something quite special.
So here we go, my top five Clint Eastwood films that he either directed or starred in.
- Play Misty for Me (1971 – Clint Eastwood)
Eastwood’s directorial debut prefigures every unsettling friend request, every unwanted text we have ever received in our lives. It’s a profoundly disturbing film as it explores the unintended consequences of a single rash decision. It’s a warning note to impulsiveness. I have a huge amount of affection for Eastwood’s hair in this film, but even that is second to the magnificently disturbing portrayal of irrationality and obsessiveness by Jessica Walter. Always seek out the more unhinged U.S. cut if possible.
- Pale Rider (1985 – Clint Eastwood)
The only decent Western of the eighties, Pale Rider is Eastwood’s second attempt at playing an avatar of death after his sophomoric directorial effort High Plains Drifter (1972). Eastwood’s symbolic portrayal within the genre in Leone’s Dollars trilogy is venerated, but in his own directorial efforts, he sought to show how hollow many of the assumptions of the genre were. The landscape was decayed and individuals were without honour. By playing Death, Eastwood was underlining how the genre only really operated on the casual cruelties individual selfishness wrought upon burgeoning societies. There is a bittersweetness to this film, one that transcends Unforgiven (1992), in the decision to have a young girl (Sydney Penny) fall in love with Death, a piercing demonstration of the hopelessness of our attractions.
- The Beguiled (1970 – Don Siegel)
I’ve written about this film before (https://asidesteps.com/2016/04/01/the-beguiled-1971-don-seigel/) but feel I fouled up in my condemnation of the sexual politics of the film (and placed far too much anticipatory faith in Sofia Coppola to redeem it in her own version). Whilst it can be distasteful at times in its portrayal of women, they are all presented with agency and intelligence, two characteristics that cannot substantially be attributed to Eastwood’s creepy Union soldier. His initial flattering of Mae Mercer’s Hallie turns quickly to sexual intimidation and bigotry once he loses his position of power. It reveals the shaky foundations (and lack of real conviction) that fuel many ‘progressive’ campaigns. In itself, this a relationship of real complexity and interest, however superficially frustrating it may appear, and the film deserved better than my ‘woke’ original condemnation.
- The Eiger Sanction (1975 – Clint Eastwood)
Eastwood’s seventies spy thriller rises above the grungy aesthetics and dodgy sexual politics of its decade on the strength of its final third. There is something about rock climbing that is utterly terrifying on the big screen – think of the opening to M:I-2 (2000 – John Woo) or the closing sequence of For Your Eyes Only (1981 – John Glen). Perhaps it is the knowledge that genuine risk is involved in the production. Perhaps it is that cinema has always had a powerful depth-of-field and that this is only enhanced with heights. Nail-bitingly terrifying, Eastwood’s ascent is a sequence you cannot tear yourself away from.
- The Bridges of Madison County (1993 – Clint Eastwood)
Often overshadowed by the admittedly towering achievement of Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County stands testament to complete mastery Eastwood has over the form. Where the former film relies on Eastwood’s iconicity as a movie star, Bridges brings together his plaintive simplicity of melody, his mastery of tension within drama, and his quiet everyday control of restraint performance. The moment where he sits in his car, the rain battering the windshield, desperately deciding whether to throw away his life or live with regret is burned into my memory. I can recall his hand clutching the door handle as vividly as I recall many of my birthdays. It is a moment so understated that most directors would mess it up. But Eastwood has an understanding of how tiny gestures of movement and expression are explosive on the big screen.
(A Perfect World (1992) – relies on a similar control on performance, this time from Kevin Costner, and is just as affecting.)