Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hitchcockian: Play Misty for Me

You hear the term Hitchcockian thrown around quite a bit, but what exactly does it mean? The term has a Wikipedia page that defines it as anything that has elements characteristic of a Hitchcock movie. It then lists a series of motifs that warrant the Hitchcockian designation (i.e., "strong visual use of famous landmarks," "the cool platinum blonde") and then a series of movies that can be classified as Hitchcockian (at the end I smiled as it simply says the films of Brian De Palma). 

This seems like a pretty satisfying explanation, but at the same time, I think there's another aspect that should be thrown into the discussion that's a little more general but that I think bears some importance. It's the idea that a Hitchcock movie-or at least the very best ones-always give precedence to character over style and technique even when it seems like that style and technique might overwhelm sensitivity towards the characters. In Rear Window and Vertigo, for example, we never lose sight of the fact that these are character pieces about men who find themselves in the trappings of thrillers that, despite their twists, turns, and thrills, always wind up centering on the character. Even something like Psycho packs its punch not so much because its female protagonist is killed off halfway through, but because that protagonist was given such careful attention and development before her murder.

It's one of the reasons his films are so enduring: we constantly look at these motifs, this sense of style and craftsmanship present in his best movies, but we're still, I think, most drawn to them because they're in the service of his characters. While this to me is a general component of good filmic storytelling in general, it certainly seems more impressive when it comes to Hitchcock because his movies are so stylish. If Hitchcock oversaw the importance of character, then his movies would play more like De Palma films, which are generally masterworks of technique but empty when it comes to any kind of lasting emotional impression (not to make anyone angry, I should add that Blow Out is an exception). This is fine, I should add, because a thriller does not need to do anything but be exciting to work, as long as that way it excites is thoughtful and imaginative. Hence the reason I really like De Palma's movies. But for Hitchcock, the character remains god amidst the style and the thrills, and again, I'm fairly certain his lasting power for movie watchers ultimately lies in this sensibility. 

I'd expatiate on this idea if this piece were about Hitchcock per se, but I actually wanted to take this idea as a way to talk about one of my favorite Hitchcockian thrillers out there and one of my favorite thrillers in general, Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut Play Misty For Me.

The movie starts with an expansive aerial shot of the ocean and then moves in on a beautiful house whose porch overlooks the sea. This kind of opening shot is typical for 70s films, but it's especially pertinent to the this one in its relationship to its central character. On the porch is Clint Eastwood, who plays Dave Garver, a small town Jazz radio DJ whose popularity, beautiful house, and handsome appearance suggest an idyllic life. Eastwood plays Garver as a good man who doesn't like trouble and also doesn't quite know how to deal with it, which is a perfect set-up for the story this movie has to tell because it allows it to escalate in ways that are in large part a reflection of Garver's personality. That opening shot itself both establishes the comfort and luxury in which Garver lives (what a view he's got), but also his self-imposed isolation. Here's a man who simply doesn't really enjoy being in the company of others, and any relationship he's got with the public is simply through his voice. 

The inciting incident that will drive the rest of the movie is when Garver picks up a girl at a bar (tended by none other than Don Siegel, present partly to aid Eastwood with any directorial stumbles, but who apparently was so nervous in front of the camera that he probably wouldn't have been able to assist if needed) who unbeknownst to him is a psychotic stalker already obsessed with him—she’s the woman who calls in on his show all the time requesting that he play Misty for her. Her name is Evelyn and she's played by Jessica Walter, a perfect actress for the part because she's able to oscillate between a playful, childlike amiability and contorting her face into an unhinged expression of madness. It also is important that she's beautiful, because if there's another weakness on Garver's part it’s his appetite for sexy women, which he satisfies with Evelyn even though there's another lady in his life, Tobi (who will become central to the narrative later on). Garver's initial acknowledgment of Evelyn, which is really just an excuse for a one-night stand, is for her an affirmation of his love. Walter describes the character as someone who will quite literally die if she cannot have Garver for herself.

As a result, he can't get rid of her. While her impromptu appearances initially seem like ignorance of normal social behavior (Just call first, Garver tells her) random bouts of fury, like when she screeches at a neighbor who's complaining about the noise, indicate to Garver and the viewer a deeper psychological problem in Evelyn.

But the issue with Garver is that he wants to solve the problem on his own, to gently push Evelyn out of his life rather than seeking outside help. As a man who enjoys his solitude (lives alone, works alone), outside intervention would simply impede on his peaceful way of life. He's angry with Evelyn, but is also ignorant of the severity of the situation, and as it grows more serious, he ends up becoming trapped in his need to deal with her by himself. 

This is most evident when Evelyn jealously (she's aware of Garver's romance with Tobi) barges in on him in the middle of the night and then attempts suicide. It's here that Garver should panic and call the police, but he intentionally asks that the doctor not report the incident. Later we see Garver comforting an emotionally fraught Evelyn in his bed, and the camera slowly pushes in to a close-up of his face, his eyes wide, as if he's possessed by her madness (a rare sight from the famously squinty-eyed Eastwood). The next shot is from the same angle but it's darker, time has passed, but Garver's still in the same position, wide awake, trapped by his detrimental refusal to rely on others to solve his own problems. 

This loner need to resolve problems alone is certainly a hallmark of the typical Eastwood character, which is why he fits so well into the role of Garver. But what's unique about this movie is that Eastwood had famously portrayed tough guys who thought of themselves to above social systems, but here he's playing someone who I think is more in line with the Eastwood in real life: a quiet artistic sort, a lover of jazz who likes peaceful resolutions. As tough guys, Eastwood's characters were able to solve conflicts when they did arise through violence, but here gullibility has taken the place of guns and intimidating one-liners. It's less classic Eastwood and more akin to the kinds of characters Jimmy Stewart played in his work with Hitchcock. In fact, I see a lot of Scottie from Vertigo in Garver's character: they're both the kind of solid, admirable men who deal with problems in all the wrong ways and then must face the consequences of these decisions with incredibly difficult actions. 

Play Misty For Me remains one of Eastwood's best films as a director, and also one of his most audacious. He made it for less than a million, shot it entirely in real locations, and even demanded that none of the actors wear make-up. It's got a very European feel to it, and despite a number of shocker moments, it often has a languid quality, and the frequent pauses from the driving storyline with Evelyn suggest that this is not so much a thriller about a psycho woman stalking Clint Eastwood, but a movie about a man and his way of life and how way of life is challenged by a very troubled person. A clear example would be the montage about two thirds of the way through the film when Evelyn seems to have finally disappeared and Garver can resume his life as normal. Not in the shooting script, Eastwood discovered Roberta Flack's song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," bought the rights to it, and developed a romantic montage in which we see Garver and Tobi peacefully wandering along the shore and through the woods, the gentle music suggesting a sense of closure to the scary drama that has preceded it. 

This sort of slow interlude was rare for a Hollywood movie back then, and while taken out of context it can come across as a little cheesy, it fits into the story extremely nicely. Even more audacious is the sequence that follows, in which Garver and Tobi attend the Monterey Jazz festival. Eastwood shot mountains of footage, and the result is almost like a mini documentary of the festival, capturing intimate moments of sweaty audience members and the musicians playing under the sweltering California sun. It distracts us from the film's narrative, which is key because there's a crucial bit of information that will set up the film's climax that is given in the scene but is undermined by the energy and noise of it all. Again, this was Eastwood's idea, and serves as a good reference point for anyone trying to defend his directorial abilities to those who feel his style is too workmanlike.

While there are definitely traditional Hitchcockian motifs present in the film (knives as murder weapons, a cop "checking things out" only to find something horrifying when he walks up some steps), my original notion of Hitchcock's commitment to character even when he's thrilling the hell out of the audience is why I think Play Misty For Me deserves the Hitchcockian label. Never do we feel that Garver as a character is being eaten up by the film's need to excite us. 

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