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The Films Of Clint Eastwood, Director: A Retrospective

Features
by The Playlist Staff
October 22, 2010 6:38 AM
11 Comments
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"The Eiger Sanction" (1975)
As was revealed recently, Eastwood was offered the role of James Bond by the Broccolis after Sean Connery left the franchise. While it's almost impossible to imagine Eastwood in that iconic role, "The Eiger Sanction" perhaps offers the best guide as to what he would have been like. And quite frankly, it makes us glad that bit of casting never came to pass. As mild-mannered art professor Dr. Jonathan Hemlock, who's actually a retired CIA assassin, called out of retirement for the proverbial one last job, Eastwood is woefully miscast, but his performance is genius compared to the film around him. Thayer David is reasonably good value as Hemlock's albino ex-Nazi boss, but even that character description gives a good sense of how nonsensical and badly told the plot is. Furthermore, there's a nasty streak of unreconstructed homophobia running through the film that would send Vince Vaughn running to the nearest GLAAD fundraiser, and there's a sadistically violent streak that would recur in many of the "Dirty Harry" sequels. Probably the only bright spots are the well-staged mountaineering action sequences, but even those were obtained at a high cost: there were a number of accidents during filming, including the death of body double David Knowles. Cameraman Frank Stanley, who was badly injured in another fall, criticized Eastwood as "a very impatient man who doesn't really plan his pictures or do any homework. He figures he can go right in and sail through these things." It's almost extraordinary to think that Eastwood could go from this black mark to one of the very best films of his career, but that's typical of the man... [D]

"The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976)
The Western made Clint Eastwood, and Eastwood made the Western-- time and time again. The term "revisionist Western" is practically synonymous with Eastwood, and "The Outlaw Josey Wales" happens to be his anti-war Western. Like many Westerns, Eastwood uses the safe space of the past to express the trauma and anger felt in the post-Vietnam era. That's not to say that this is some peace loving, pacifist tale. With Eastwood at the helm? No sir. His Josey Wales is the epitome of the cool, skilled gunfighter character, an outlaw because of his violent vendetta against the corrupt Union Army "Red-Legs" who brutally murdered his wife and child. Wales joins a Confederate guerrilla group, spills a lot of Union blood, and earns himself a bounty on his head in the process. Against all odds, he ends up accumulating a diverse band of strangers to serve as his de-facto family, including an older Cherokee (Chief Dan George), a young Navajo woman, a gun-toting granny, and an innocent-yet-sexy hippie chick. The action-packed Western is vintage Eastwood, but it's not vintage Western. Eastwood uses the language and symbolism of the Western to turn the genre on its head and tell his own moral story. He presents character archetypes well-known to the audience versed in the traditional Western, and then plays them out in unexpected ways. Ultimately, the audience comes away with a sense of the moral corruption of war, the love of a family (traditional or not), and the power of the individual. Oh, and the truly awesome motto, "dyin' ain't much of a livin', boy." [B+]

"The Gauntlet" (1977)
A movie that has its fans (it was recently reissued on Blu-ray, so somebody's got to still dig it), and is fairly entertaining in a down-and-dirty, genre-picture-made-in-1977 type of way, but it's in no way as memorable as its macho-overload poster designed by the one and only (and dearly departed) Frank Frazetta. That image, an oversized depiction of the movie's extended finale, in which an alcoholic Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood) escorts a loudmouth prostitute (Sondra Locke), who also happens to be a witness in a huge corruption case, through the titular gauntlet of corrupt cops. The poster betrays an atmosphere of post-apocalyptic devastation, which suggests a much more interesting and vibrant movie than Eastwood actually delivers. While the plot moves quickly along and Eastwood stages the action sequences with the appropriate amount of flair, "The Gauntlet" is hamstrung by Eastwood's decision to cast Locke (who Eastwood was dating at the time) in the prostitute role. She was supposed to be initially grating but ultimately likeable, but with Locke in the role she's just out-and-out irritating. Ultimately "The Gauntlet" is fun while you watch it, but not all that memorable. And it can't hold a candle to that poster. [B-]

"Pale Rider" (1985)
Clint Eastwood's work both in front of and behind the camera throughout the 1980s has never earned quite the critical acclaim of his '70s output, nor his "renaissance" period in the early '90s. But the '80s represent an important turning point for Eastwood, and 1985's "Pale Rider" aligns itself with 1980's "Bronco Billy" as a subtly political film; if the latter took the nation's temperature after its defeat in Vietnam, 'Rider' was the movie for a moment that saw Ronald Reagan begin his second term as president. The film's plot plays like a capitalistic take on Akira Kurosawa’s "Seven Samurai": A small settlement of gold miners in the California foothills call upon a mysterious, unnamed stranger to protect them from the tyranny of corrupt authorities. Eastwood plays the Unnamed Stranger, a preacher/gunslinger and a symbol of honest American values. His presence offers not only physical protection but spiritual motivation, as his character hones the same message of courage and accountability "Bronco Billy" cannily directed at a nation fresh off Watergate. This underlying complexity helps distract from the film's sometimes sloppy scripting (corniness plagues so much of Eastwood's work, this being no exception). Further, Eastwood's gift for crafting evocative imagery—including a unique take on "The Searchers'" iconic doorway-framing shot which uses a darkened interior and lit exterior as a potent visual metaphor for his character's shrouded past and chance at eventual redemption—makes this one of his most striking and sturdy Westerns. [B+]

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11 Comments

  • RNL | June 21, 2014 1:25 PMReply

    That Changeling writeup is very silly, guys. Has the writer never seen a solemn film about serious issues before? Bergman, Dreyer, Bresson, etc? Not exactly a laced with comic relief, were they?

  • 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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