Clint is 80, and I must rhapsodize. That’s right, Clint Eastwood, probably unrivaled as the cinema’s greatest living icon, turns 80 today—a mere thirty-four days before the senior Mrs. Bradley—and I can’t think of another filmmaker who, as both an actor and a director, has been involved in so many excellent films, including a disproportionate number of my personal favorites. That remains true even if you remove #1, Where Eagles Dare (in which he played the Army lieutenant whose name appears above), from the equation, and I won’t bother cross-referencing them all with my B100 posts, although it should be noted that you can see five of them today in TCM’s 24-hour marathon; you do the math.
No, I’m not going to enumerate every Eastwood movie (I’m working partly from memory here, so if I get a historical fact or two wrong, please bear with me), and no, I don’t love all of them, but man, when he’s on, he’s really on. Even from its seemingly inauspicious beginnings, Clint’s career was special, since in 1955 he made early uncredited appearances, including his screen debut, in two of the SF films that set Jack Arnold ahead of the pack in the 1950s. In Revenge of the Creature, he was Jennings, the absent-minded technician with a misplaced white rat in his lab-coat pocket, and in Tarantula, his face concealed by a flight mask but his voice unmistakable to alert ears, he led the jet squadron that napalmed the titular arachnid.
As one of the last generation of Universal contract players, he continued making don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-’em appearances in the likes of Away All Boats (1956), but later made his first step toward stardom on television. Eastwood appeared as Rowdy Yates opposite Eric Fleming on Rawhide (1959-65), and during that successful show’s lengthy run, he accepted a part that had been turned down by other up-and-coming sagebrush stars such as Charles Bronson and James Coburn, who presumably kicked themselves forever after. That role was, of course, the lead in a low-budget Italian Western originally entitled The Magnificent Stranger, an uncredited reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo (1961).
A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was a watershed in many ways, not only establishing Clint and director Sergio Leone as forces to be reckoned with but also cementing the success of the spaghetti Western. Joined by the great Lee Van Cleef, they completed the “Dollars Trilogy” with For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), and although we could debate whether he was the same character in all three, or if the “Man with No Name” actually had one or more names, to me it doesn’t matter, with Clint, Leone, and composer Ennio Morricone working their magic. We could also debate (as some of us have) whether Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) would have been better with Clint in the Bronson role, but again, it is what is, and that’s a classic.
Even without a fourth Leone film, 1968 was a banner year for Clint, beginning with Hang ’Em High, the first of what we might call his macaroni-and-cheese Westerns, i.e., American films that seemed in one or more ways (whether intentionally or not) to be emulating Leone’s, with mixed success. Later variations on this tale of a lawman avenging his own botched hanging include High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985), with Eastwood directing himself as increasingly mysterious, perhaps even supernatural, gunslingers. But its historical significance lies more in the fact that it was the inaugural film of Eastwood’s production company, Malpaso (Spanish for “bad step,” as his agent warned him Fistful would be).
Then came Coogan’s Bluff, the fish-out-of-water tale of an Arizona cop pursuing an escaped prisoner in Manhattan, which marked the first of five collaborations with Don Siegel, a major influence on Eastwood’s own directorial career. The others were Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), a mac-and-cheese Western initiated by Budd Boetticher (famed for his many films with Randolph Scott); The Beguiled (1971), a Civil War psychodrama in which Clint bravely played against type; Dirty Harry (1971), about which more later; and Escape from Alcatraz (1979), a true story pitting him against obsessive and repressive warden Patrick McGoohan (see “Dutch Master”).
And then came Where Eagles Dare, his first of two films with otherwise unremarkable director Brian G. Hutton, the other being Kelly’s Heroes (1970), both action-packed World War II adventures (how appropriate is it that his birthday falls on Memorial Day?) and among my all-time favorites. Interestingly, each offered another facet to kick it up a notch: the former was an espionage yarn created for the screen by that master of the form, author Alistair MacLean, while the latter was a WW II caper comedy with a Vietnam-era sensibility (it’s admittedly a small niche). Each also satisfyingly sublimated Clint’s nascent superstardom by making him, respectively, second banana to Richard Burton—and you could do a lot worse—or part of an amazing ensemble that included Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, and Don Rickles.
In 1971, Eastwood made his directorial debut on the thriller Play Misty for Me (Siegel had a good-luck cameo as a bartender) and first played Police Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan, yet as much as I like the original, with Edward G. Robinson’s son Andrew brilliant as the slimy serial killer, the series is not in my personal pantheon. Magnum Force (1973)—which, like Hang ’Em High, was directed by his Rawhide colleague Ted Post—was a solid sequel with a memorable catchphrase, “A man’s got to know his limitations” (perhaps an attempt to equal the original’s “Do ya feel lucky, punk?”). But in The Enforcer (1976), he was saddled with a female partner who inevitably got gunned down; the catchphrase for Sudden Impact (1983), “Make my day,” now has unfortunate associations; and The Dead Pool (1988), featuring an amusing early appearance by Liam Neeson, was just plain silly.
Speaking of unfortunate associations, in Sudden Impact, Callahan took a back seat to a vengeful rape victim played by Eastwood’s inamorata du jour, Sondra Locke, and I’m sure that disastrous relationship makes their films as tough to watch for him as they are for those of us who were never in her fan club. This Locke Period also includes The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), on which Clint controversially replaced screenwriter Philip Kaufman as director; the supremely silly actioner The Gauntlet (1977); the comedy Every Which Way but Loose (1978); the sequel Any Which Way You Can (1980), which—like The Dead Pool and Pink Cadillac (1989)—was directed by Eastwood’s longtime stunt coordinator, Buddy Van Horn; and the offbeat Bronco Billy (1980).
Eastwood initially continued to appear in other people’s work, e.g., John Sturges’s Joe Kidd (1972) and Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), but has not done so since Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire (1993). He has been mostly a one-man band for decades, and my favorite among those efforts I’ve seen is his justifiably Oscar-sweeping Unforgiven (1992), a script by David Webb Peoples of Blade Runner (1982) fame that Clint stuck in a drawer for a decade until he felt he was mature enough to play it. Although dedicated to Leone and Siegel, it is decidedly not a mac-and-cheese Western but a mature film in every sense, with powerhouse performances by Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman and a heartbreaking score by frequent collaborator Lennie Niehaus.
Let me conclude with three reasons why I have the highest respect for Clint as a director:
*his understandably sure touch with other actors, who reportedly love to work with him and have earned an impressive number of Oscars and/or nominations under his direction;
*his no-frills-for-the filmmakers, put-the-money-on-the-screen approach as a producer, ironically said to have been inspired by wasteful excess on the sets of the Hutton films;
*his diversity of subject matter and willingness to deglamorize, poke fun at or—as in Breezy (1973), the Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), and Mystic River (2003)—place himself offscreen; he has directed five films but only appeared in one, Gran Torino (2008), since Million Dollar Baby (2004).