The Films Of Clint Eastwood, Director: A Retrospective

Features
by The Playlist Staff
October 22, 2010 6:38 AM
10 Comments
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On May 31st this year, Clinton "Clint" Eastwood reached 80 years of age, and he's been acting for 56 of them. Remarkably, since TV show "Rawhide" made him a star in 1958, he's been at the top for almost all that time, having had major box office hits in every decade since the '60s: most recently, "Gran Torino," which surprised most pundits by taking in over $250 million worldwide. There's never quite been an acting career like it, and a retrospective on Clint Eastwood: movie star, would show the breadth and depth of his career.

But in recent years, Eastwood's been better known as a director, and has major movie stars like Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Angelina Jolie falling over themselves to be involved in his projects. He's able to pick and choose from the very best writers and collaborators (Oscar winners Peter Morgan and Dustin Lance Black wrote his two most recent projects), and film festivals, most notably Cannes, where he's something of a favorite, fight for the chance to premiere his latest films. With his latest directorial effort, "Hereafter" expanding to a wider audience today, it seemed like as good a time as any to look at Eastwood's work behind the camera.

We have to admit, we've had our reservations in the past about Eastwood as a helmer: his recent output seems to have suffered from the no fuss, let's-keep-it-to-one-take-so-we-can-be-on-the-links-by-five approach that actors in his films have reported (normally in a positive way, it should be said). But in putting this piece together, we've found a renewed appreciation. For an actor who fits into certain stereotypes fairly easily, his directorial work is varied and unpredictable, and even when the films don't work, they're pretty fascinating.

And when they do work, and there's several stone-cold classics on this list, there are few working in American cinema who can match him. We haven't included everything, particularly in Eastwood's fallow period in the 1980s (mainly because no-one really wants to read 300 words on "Firefox"), but the significant films are all here after the jump, and it's enough to make even those of us who haven't been on the Eastwood train of late eagerly anticipate next year's "Hoover." And for everything that'll follow that too...

"Play Misty For Me" (1971)
The premise for Eastwood’s directorial debut might seem absurdly comical today but hey, it was the ‘70s so cut the guy some slack. The film follows Eastwood, playing a radio DJ who meets a woman who, at first, seems to be a playfully obsessed female fan. She constantly calls into his radio show requesting Errol Garner’s “Misty” and soon Eastwood is curious enough to meet her. They have a one night stand and Eastwood thinks that’s it for her, but as these sorts of stories go, she won’t let him get away that easy. The film has a breezy sort of charm, a few genuine thrills that make it an easy watch on a late night. But the film is also anonymously directed, completely forgettable, and kind of dumb. In many respects it's a “First Film” through and through, with all the imperfections that come with the territory. One to get under your belt and get those muscles moving and to that end, it delivers what you might expect. If anything, the film served as an announcement by Eastwood to his fans, that “Hey, I like jazz music, okay?” and well, mission accomplished. [C]

"High Plains Drifter" (1973)
This might be Eastwood's most overlooked Western and also his most interesting, especially when it's read as a horror Western, instead of just a straight-up gunslinger tale. Eastwood plays The Stranger who defends a small mining town against a bunch of bloodthirsty villains, which is typical Western fare. But the movie has a surprisingly raw edge, especially for populist entertainment in 1973, with strong violence and sexuality. But the genius of "High Plains Drifter" lies in its supernatural overtones, replete with numerous biblical references -- the town Eastwood defends is initially called Lago but is re-titled, in a swath of red paint, as Hell -- and there's a nasty dwarf, played memorably by character actor Billy Curtis, named, biblically, Mordecai. The movie is, visually and thematically, indebted to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel (whose names appear on tombstones in a graveyard sequence in the film), with a much stranger tone that's more akin to modern day revenge epics (Tarantino borrowed heavily for the second half of "Kill Bill" and Edgar Wright is an admitted fan) and ghost stories, than the spaghetti Westerns Eastwood was so well known for. If you've never seen it, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. This is one of the highlights of his entire career. [A-]

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10 Comments

  • Marrz | February 22, 2014 9:06 PMReply

    You guys don't know what Eastwood's cinema is all about.

  • functional | October 24, 2010 12:59 PMReply

    GREAT retrospective, everyone! I love these articles so much. Don't agree 110% on all of the grades, but it made me add a bunch of unseen jawns to my Netflix list.

  • TheoC | October 24, 2010 5:45 AMReply

    Great read, now I really want to see The Gauntlet. I do have a soft spot for the absolute stupidity of absolute power though.

  • KitCon | October 24, 2010 1:11 AMReply

    While Changeling should have ended earlier, I thought it was a much better movie overall than Gran Torino. I also like Letters from Iwo Jima and thought it was original and insightful.

  • MishuPishu | October 23, 2010 6:08 AMReply

    Thank goodness someone recognized the wonderful nature of "A Perfect World". Loved that movie when it came out but it got such bad press that I began to question my perspective on film.

  • Brett | October 23, 2010 2:49 AMReply

    Knocking Changeling for not providing humor? Jeez, I could say the same thing about Schindler's List I guess.

  • cirkusfolk | October 23, 2010 2:48 AMReply

    I think the grades for The Changeling and Gran Torino should be switched. Torino was dreadfully cheesy and since when should a movie about a child serial killer be humorous?

  • Rashad | October 23, 2010 1:53 AMReply

    Changeling a D?

    Oh my word

  • John Bury | October 22, 2010 10:40 AMReply

    Eastwood is a master craftsman. Even when cliched and unsubstantial, his films are almost always totally watchable. He knows how to tell a story, which I think is worth more than it's given credit for these days. The arthouse too often overlooks it, and Hollywood by and large seems not even to grasp the concept. He may not be a Frank Gehry, but Eastwood builds sturdy, comfortable houses for the average moviegoer to live in for a couple hours.

    And while I agree with you that Unforgiven is his peak, I'm with Ryan that "Letters" deserves much better.

  • Ryan M., Atlanta Movies Examiner | October 22, 2010 10:03 AMReply

    First, full credit for recognizing "A Perfect World" as Eastwood's second masterpiece behind "Unforgiven."

    Second, "Letters from Iwo Jima" is easily one of the best war films ever made, and its "C-" rating here is less believable that Jeff Daniels' serial killer in "Blood Work."

    Finally, though I probably would have had the same rating for "White Hunter, Black Heart" after my first viewing, subsequent viewing have moved it up considerably in my estimation, and I now consider it a great film to stand along Eastwood's best.

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