Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Play Misty For Me

I made my first trip to the central coast of California in 2001. I was visiting my girlfriend/wife-to-be who was attending grad school in Monterey, and really did fall in love with the place at first sight. It’s difficult to put into words what made me seriously consider not returning to Florida that time. Beyond the obvious beauty of the coastline and terrain was a certain feeling, a vibe, a calm that is certainly not the norm where I live. It was as if I had at last arrived home. Like all my previous years were spent in some foreign land.  Should you get the opportunity to visit, I challenge you, invisible audience, to feel otherwise.

Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, 1971’s PLAY MISTY FOR ME, perhaps by default is one of the best travelogues I’ve seen for the area. I did not really notice this during my earlier viewings. While watching it last month, I was seriously distracted from the movie's business by the landscape. And Carmel resident (and later mayor) Eastwood seemingly effortlessly brings across that serenity, even as some pretty disturbing events play out onscreen.

This time, he plays a bit against type as a deejay named Dave Garver who fills the night shift at a jazz station. He has that perfectly velvety FM voice and even reads poetry between needle drops on Bird and Coltrane selections! Back during the days when radio allowed free form creativity. In real life, you may know, Eastwood was/is a huge jazz aficienado.  He even includes a lengthy sequence at the Monterey Jazz Festival late in this film. Greats Cannonball Adderly and Joe Zawinul are glimpsed on stage.

There's a chronic caller to Garver's station, a female who always requests the song “Misty”.  After a shift one evening, the DJ meets an attractive woman at a bar and picks her up, soon realizing her identity. The expected one night stand takes unexpected and ultimately nasty turns.  Evelyn (Jessica Walter) is revealed, through increasingly alarming and antisocial behavior, to be quite a psychopath. She will manage to upset Garver's personal and professional life almost irrevocably.

Walter’s performance is an impressive dynamic of sexiness and psychosis. Sometimes,  she's also quite hilarious as she lashes out at strangers. She never overdoes things. Eastwood again shows what a formidable screen presence he has. He’s one of the few directors to truly understand his unique persona, and to successfully direct himself (he also gives his mentor Don Siegel a cameo). His character is more laid back than many of his others, though he does get to punch someone in the face. 

Eastwood also expertly creates a feeling of near constant dread, of unease in PLAY MISTY FOR ME. He's surprisingly deft in handling the terror genre, including the final confrontation at the business end of a long knife. Though I have to give 20 demerits to the director for an embarrassingly cheesy romantic interlude/sex sequence that plays out on a beach and in a forest.  So common in many early '70s pics.  It stops the film cold, beautiful as the scenery may be.

And that Carmel/Monterey vista is just as much a star in PLAY MISTY FOR ME as anyone else. It's so alluring you may well forget all that palpable dread and the unpleasantness of the plot.
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