The Evolution of Eastwood: THE EIGER SANCTION

THE EIGER SANCTION (1975)

You think it’s so awful the other side has a germ formula? It’s against the Geneva Convention, isn’t it, and they stole it from us. Well what the hell are we doing with it in the first place?” – Dr. Jonathan Hemlock

As a director, Clint Eastwood’s first three films showed remarkable diversity. Play Misty for Me was a tight and focused domestic thriller; High Plains Drifter was a gritty and haunted western; and Breezy was an understated and intimate romance.

The Eiger Sanction was unlike anything he’d helmed before and was unquestionably his most ambitious work yet as a director. It is part spy thriller, part adventure story, part murder mystery, and features some of the most challenging (and dangerous) location shooting in which Eastwood had yet been involved (in front of or behind the camera). The overall effect is exciting and entertaining, but the ambition does undermine the coherence in places.

Eastwood plays Dr. Jonathan Hemlock, a former assassin who currently holds a job as an art professor who has amassed a small fortune in confiscated paintings. Coerced by his former employer into completing a final job (called a “sanction”), he learns that to seek revenge for the death of a former colleague, he must train and prepare to join a mountain climbing exhibition in which one of his teammates is also an assassin. Not only is the assassin’s identity a secret, but the mountain he will be forced to climb is one Hemlock had tried and failed to climb twice before. Motivated by revenge for his friend and the prospect of life-long freedom from the assassination profession, Hemlock agrees to train for and complete the “Eiger Sanction.”

To a lesser degree than his previous film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (which Eastwood did not direct), The Eiger Sanction also has an episodic quality. The film could almost be broken into three very distinct acts which have their own internal climaxes and conclusions. The first act (featuring a brief assassination by Hemlock) is a relatively interesting subplot with good introductions to the major players of the film’s narrative. The third act, wherein the actual “Eiger Sanction” of the title takes place, is easily the most suspenseful and thrilling section of the film. It is the middle section, wherein Hemlock is training for his climb up the Eiger cliffs while simultaneously evading the threat of an eccentric opponent, that threatens to wear out the film’s welcome.

Eastwood had grown disdainful of extensive rewrites to scripts and it’s easy to recognize that the script for The Eiger Sanction could have used some tightening. The middle act certainly has merit, there are decent character moments for Eastwood and for George Kennedy (who Eastwood had befriended on the set of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and specifically sought out for this film). But it is far too extended given our awareness that the actual Eiger climb is still pending and occasionally offensive in its treatment of the character of Miles Mellough (played by Jack Cassidy) as a caricatured homosexual spy. There are even a few cringe-worthy lines in Hemlock’s seduction of a romantic interest that would likely cause significant controversy today.

Eastwood’s performance is solid as always, but also not tremendously impressive. There’s something to be said for those performers who are so skilled at their craft and so natural within their niche that if they are always “good,” they are perhaps rarely “great,” and this appears to be the case with a lot of Eastwood’s early film work. He is so dependable as a performer that he rarely seems stretched within the narrative and does not explore character possibilities very often.

The scenes on the Eiger climb, however, are breathtaking. This section makes up a mere thirty minutes of the 2 hour plus runtime, but it is a rather intense thirty minutes (I’m actively resisting using the punny word “gripping”). Eastwood performed all his own stunts without the aid of trick photography or special effects, which makes the sequences all the more nerve-wracking. One tragic element, however, is that a crewman died during one of the excavations following a sudden rock slide. Eastwood is on record as having considered cancelling the production entirely out of respect for the crewmember but claims to have been encouraged to complete the film in his memory. The resulting footage is spectacular and one can imagine how jaw-dropping it must have been on the big screen.

Despite the head-scratching plot conveniences (of which there are several) and the patience-testing middle act, The Eiger Sanction still represents an assured and noteworthy achievement for Eastwood and an entertaining film overall. To tackle such an ambitious project with only three directorial credits behind him must have seemed intimidating. But then again, this is Clint Eastwood we’re discussing, so… perhaps not.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT

THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974)

“You know somethin’? I don’t think of us as criminals, you know? I feel we accomplished something. A good job. I feel proud of myself, man. I feel like a hero.” — Lightfoot

Until this point, Eastwood’s films are easily identifiable by style and tone as being within a particular family: westerns, cop dramas, romances, etc. The only exception thus far would perhaps be The Beguiled, but there’s a case to be made for its place in the psychological horror club. But you’d be excused, should the conversation arise, for not quite knowing how to categorize Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.

It begins with elements of screwball comedy and buddy-road movies before shifting to the realms of introspective drama and heist films. It isn’t until the final few moments of the film that you realize you’ve actually been witnessing the life cycle of a friendship: the rare drama which centers around a relationship between two men which is intimate without being sexualized and affecting without being manipulative.

When we first meet the titular characters of Thunderbolt (Eastwood) and Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), Thunderbolt is posing as a small town preacher trying to lay low while being pursued by three of his former heist partners. A coincidental encounter forces Thunderbolt on the run again, directly crossing paths with the affable and carefree young Lightfoot. The two of them embark on a road adventure attempting to flee Thunderbolt’s old partners, eventually being overtaken by them and coerced into one last payday heist.

There is an episodic quality to the narrative, which was scripted and directed by Michael Cimino (who had previously impressed Eastwood with a written draft of Magnum Force and would go on to win an Academy Award for The Deer Hunter). Each new plot wrinkle has a distinct flavor, ranging from comedy to thriller and back down to drama, culminating in a climactic heist with irrevocable complications. At first viewing, these shifts in tone almost seem disjointed and unfocused, and I’ll admit I walked away from that initial viewing somewhat unimpressed.

But a bit of reflection, particularly on the film’s surprisingly emotional conclusion, produces a kind of retroactive appreciation for all that you’ve seen before it. You thought you’d been watching a disconnected menagerie of moments and sequences with little to no discernable relationship. But it is precisely the relationship between Thunderbolt and Lightfoot that has been the focus of the story: two friends from different walks of life colliding and irrevocably changing each other in ways they couldn’t possibly have predicted. What we’ve seen – the humor, the adventure, the suspense, and the melancholy – have been the rhythms and seasons of all the best friendships in their time.

Eastwood himself delivers a strong performance, balancing toughness and tenderness with ease as the narrative calls for it. Jeff Bridges, however, — in an Oscar nominated performance – is the heart and soul of the story. Lightfoot relates to Thunderbolt as father-figure, older-brother, and best bud all at once as the two of them explore, escape, and enterprise together. Likewise, Thunderbolt takes Lightfoot under his wing and you can easily track a steadily growing affection between them that the two actors capture with effortless verisimilitude. There was apparently some disappointment on Eastwood’s part when the Academy recognized Bridges but not him. However, despite Eastwood’s sensitive and appropriately anchored performance, Bridges is the unquestionable scene-stealer, especially as the film draws towards its inevitably heart-tugging finale.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a strong film, but very of its time. It’s saturated with the sensibilities and thematic concerns of the seventies, and is likely to distance some viewers with its episodic nature. But for those who appreciate films which take their time developing their disparate ideas and trust their audience to go there with them, there are some genuine rewards to be had in the journey. I saw this film in a marathon with three other Eastwood features and after a week’s reflection, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was the one to which my heart and mind kept returning.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: MAGNUM FORCE

MAGNUM FORCE (1973)

“I hate the —— system! But until someone comes along with changes that make sense, I’ll stick with it.” – Harry Callahan

It was barely two years after Dirty Harry that Eastwood would strap on the signature .44 Magnum once again as Harry Callahan in Magnum Force. The results can’t help but be measured up against the original, in both positive and negative ways.

Picking up sometime shortly after the events of Dirty Harry (a fact only identifiable by a single reference from Harry about his last partner), Harry Callahan (Eastwood) has been relegated to stakeout detail by the stubborn and irritable Lt. Briggs (Hal Holbrook). However, someone in the city is taking justice into their own hands by murdering accused criminals who escaped the system through wealth or technicalities. When the evidence begins to point towards a group of vigilantes on the police force, Harry determines to uncover the truth and bring them to justice himself.

The film was largely an extension of unused material from the first film and a response to some of the criticisms and controversy that film generated. Eastwood wanted to make it clear that Callahan’s character was not a lawless vigilante, so building upon an idea first introduced by Terence Malick into his version of the Dirty Harry script, a script was commissioned by future director John Milius, with eventual rewrites by Michael Cimino. Eastwood was offered the director’s chair, but declined, which was a puzzling choice given what would become on-set tensions between he and Ted Post, someone who had directed Eastwood multiple times on Rawhide and had helmed the solid western Hang ‘Em High.

The final film caused considerable tension among its creators regarding the finished product. Writer John Milius all but disavowed it, citing the changes to the final act and the heightened violence from his original drafts as veritably ruining his original intentions for the story. In addition, director Ted Post cited multiple conflicts with Eastwood, who he claimed was frequently disputing who was truly in charge on set. Post accused Eastwood of exerting ego and leveraging control on set rather than allowing him to do his job. When the two of them had last collaborated, Eastwood’s star was only just rising in America and his directorial confidence didn’t exist yet. Although Eastwood himself had actively turned down the director’s duties for Magnum Force, it would appear that letting go of the role was harder than initially expected. Post and Eastwood would never work together again.

When viewed on its own merits, Magnum Force is a perfectly entertaining police thriller. The performances, particularly by Eastwood and Holbrook are strong as well as a solid showing by Felton Perry as Eastwood’s new partner. It also features a who’s-who of sorts for soon-to-be stars of the 70s including David Soul, Tim Matheson, and Robert Urich. It also effectively highlights Harry Callahan’s skills as a detective, something the original film didn’t emphasize as much as his boldness or attitude. In direct contrast to the vigilantism of which Callahan’s character was accused in the original, there is a deliberate and occasionally heavy-handed emphasis in this film to show that Callahan IS a part of the system and has no tolerance for predatory vigilantism (I’ll leave it to others to determine the level – if any – of hypocrisy at play in these assertions).

What’s sadly missing, unfortunately, are the strong senses of style and suspense that Dirty Harry had in spades. Magnum Force, for all its narrative merits, feels very paint-by-numbers stylistically. This isn’t wholly unexpected when considering that the bulk of Post’s directorial work had previously been for television, where a somewhat formulaic template might be seen as a necessity of continuity. The film’s major reveals will largely be guessed long before they are revealed, making their ultimate result feeling rather inevitable as well, which undermines the suspense factor.

There would be three more sequels in the Harry Callahan world, all of which would suffer from the common sequel problems. But as far as sequels go, Magnum Force isn’t bad. Eastwood even later cited it as his favorite entry in the franchise (which is interesting given that Eastwood eventually directed one of them). If you’re hoping to experience the same level of fascination and compelling storytelling that Dirty Harry brought, you’ll likely be at least slightly disappointed, but if you’re feelin’ lucky… give it a shot.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: BREEZY

BREEZY (1973)

“Breezy, there’s no us. There never could be. Did you really think we could happen into something?” – Frank Harmon
“I thought we already had happened.” – Breezy

Eastwood’s third directorial effort is one of the most atypical for anything in his filmography yet. It was so utterly unlike anything his fans had ever seen from him as to be almost alienating. And while it isn’t perfect, it’s a sensitive and often lovely romance.

Frank Harmon (played by William Holden) is a lonely man staring down the autumn of his life following a bitter divorce. He isolates himself in his work and in the occasional one-night stand. But when a 19-year-old free spirit named “Breezy” (played by Kay Lenz) stumbles into his world, he finds himself opening up to possibilities he’d believed were long behind him. The transitions are not wholly smooth, and his own internal barriers are firmly entrenched, but the pair of them begin a romance flavored with spontaneity, laughter, and the melancholy that can only come with love’s inevitable uncertainty.

Eastwood was approached with the script for Breezy (written by Jo Heims, who wrote Play Misty for Me) with an idea that he might portray Frank Harmon. While he considered himself too young for the role, he felt that he understood and related enough to the story to be able to do justice by it as director. At first glance, the story and tone of the film appears completely unusual given Eastwood’s collection of action thrillers and westerns on which his fame had been built. But when considering the types of characters that he had portrayed already, things begin to appear much more synchronous.

The characters that most frequently populate Eastwood’s filmography (at least through the 60s and early 70s) are primarily lonely and isolated men. The “man with no name”, “Dirty” Harry Callahan, and even the wanderers of High Plains Drifter and Two Mules for Sister Sara are all men who prefer solitude and play by a set of rules which naturally alienate them to the larger community of the world in which they reside. While occasionally these characters have found love or even peace (in Paint Your Wagon or Play Misty for Me) they’re never truly free of the melancholic loneliness which hangs over them like a storm cloud (and indeed Breezy’s nickname for Harmon in the film is “Black Cloud”).

It isn’t difficult to recognize a pattern between those individuals and the character of Frank Harmon. William Holden, synonymous with romances stretching back to the 40s, delivers a nuanced and complex performance. Eastwood’s instincts were likely on point to recognize that he was not yet in a position to portray Harmon because even in his strongest performances, he has yet to tap into the deep and abiding sadness that Holden brings to the role, which is an essential element to making the romance in Breezy believable. Kay Lenz is appropriately naïve and sweet, not to mention lovely, to convincingly enchant both the audience and Frank Harmon. She balances fragility and strength almost effortlessly, showing the early sparks of what would fuel an Emmy-winning career.

While the age difference between the two of them (Harmon is in his 50s while romancing a 19-year-old) is alarming and at times slightly uncomfortable, it is never unbelievable, thanks in large part to the sensitive tone and the strong performances. The film skirts right up to the edge of wearing out its welcome, but always redirects and reconnects the audience just in time with a well-written or powerfully performed scene.

Without the deeply rooted melancholy Holden brings to his performance, the stakes for the romance between he and Lenz might have felt innocuous, even boring. But the romance, as it is instead, is achingly sad and ultimately rather touching. We can feel the longing lying dormant in Harmon to rekindle what he feels he’s left behind him. You can see that he’s tried before with others and has never had the courage to pursue it to fruition, nor has he met someone as tenacious as the free-spirited Breezy. The film even ends on a note indicating that maybe he’s still not quite ready, but perhaps he’s willing to try.

This was Eastwood’s first attempt to helm a straight-forward story in which there are no gimmicks or surprises, just pure character and drama. The film has little to offer the casual Eastwood fan, as there is literally no suspense or action, but to the fan of bittersweet, melancholic romance, Breezy is well worth a look.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER

HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973)

“It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid.” – The Stranger

It’s highly appropriate – almost poetic – that Eastwood’s second directorial feature would be a western. What is even more bold and provocative is for it to have been High Plains Drifter, a brutally bleak and gritty story that is grim, violent, offensive, and – perhaps literally – haunted. It’s also deeply compelling and remarkably effective.

The film opens with a horizon shrouded in a blurry heat. Suddenly, not so much emerging as fading into view, a single rider makes his way into the town of Lago, with every public townsperson standing in suspicious awe as he rides through. Within minutes of his arrival, he has killed three men and raped a woman in broad daylight. The next day, this same stranger is commissioned out of desperation to protect the town from the impending threat of three former residents who will soon be released from prison and make their way back to town to enact revenge on those who imprisoned them. He accepts the offer and begins to make every use of his newfound power, rattling every complacent and corrupt citizen’s routine existence into chaos. By the time the three villains do arrive, a deeper and darker purpose behind the stranger’s presence in the town begins to fully reveal itself.

Eastwood returns to his old familiar character, this time a literal “man with no name” as his identity in the film is never confirmed (his character is even credited as “The Stranger”). His performance here is as volcanic as it has ever been, and it is surrounded by a host of equally compelling performances under Eastwood’s strikingly assured directorial hand. The script was fashioned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Ernest Tidymen from a 9-page treatment pitch. It is saturated in mystery and soaked in dread: a quality mirrored in the film’s shadowy visual aesthetic and ethereal musical score. Indeed, the overall tone of the film and the feelings behind some of its individual moments are far more akin to ghost stories than to western legends.

It is difficult to discuss this film, filled as it is with such unflinching ugliness, as a recommendation. But it is also difficult not to recommend a film so confident and coherent in its vision, and so utterly effective in its impact. It should be clarified that there are no real “good guys” in this film. As a textbook example of the revisionist western, wherein good guys and bad guys blend together as shades of grey, this film makes no pretense about its foggy moral complexity and its disturbing view of human nature. Keep in mind something that I mentioned earlier: that the supposed “hero” of our story, within the first fifteen minutes of the film, commits a blatant act of sexual assault. Roy Rogers, this ain’t.

Yet, the film is also surprisingly vocal about matters of conscience, infusing scattered observations about hypocrisy and injustice into its cinematic dna. The film seems to be making sweeping statements of morality such as bystanders who do nothing are never “innocent” or that you can never fully bury your transgressions in the sand. But it does so without allowing the audience the reprieve of a saintly hero. Instead, we get almost the living embodiment of willful vengeance. The premise could be seen as analogous to, “what if a day of reckoning came to certain members of a corrupt society, but instead of a righteous avenging angel who brought justice, it was the Devil himself?” (an analogy further substantiated by the fact that in the film’s final third, The Stranger paints the town blood red and paints the word “Hell” on the entrance sign). Vengeance is at the very core of the film, although on whom and why is not revealed until nearly the film’s final act. But there are hints speckled throughout the narrative that this stranger did not arrive by accident and that every inhabitant’s desperate attempts to control their own fates have merely been the movements of pawns orchestrated by a sinister puppet master.

Not everyone will be on board for this level of moral ambiguity, and rightfully so (John Wayne himself penned a tasteful but derisive letter criticizing the film’s philosophy of humanity and its perspective on the western era of history). But those who can quickly acclimate to this bleak and unyielding revenge tale will likely find themselves highly rewarded, as the film is so effective it almost dares you to try to dismiss it.

As a sophomore effort by Eastwood as a director, the achievement is astounding. He has channeled the muses of both Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, whose works so clearly informed his emergence as a performer, blending both their penchant for grandeur with their haunting storytelling sensibilities. Their names can briefly be seen on the gravestones in the town into which Eastwood’s stranger rides, but it’s only two of many implied ghosts that haunt the tale of the High Plains Drifter. This is a disturbing and provocative film, not to mention powerful, and while its content is likely to distance more than a few audience members, its impact is undeniable.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: JOE KIDD

JOE KIDD (1972)

“You get to a church right now and you pray I don’t see you again before this thing is done.” – Frank Harlan

Eastwood returns to the genre that made him a star after a 4-film gap, and this time, the pedigree of talent is significant. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about the film.

The script for Joe Kidd, penned by the legendary Elmore Leonard, was given to Eastwood as a star vehicle for him. Cementing the pedigree behind the film’s production was the addition of not only Eastwood as the titular star, but Robert Duvall as a villainous landowner and director John Sturges, who had helmed such acclaimed classics as The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven.

Set in the early 1900s, the film centers around a former bounty hunter named Joe Kidd (Eastwood) who is reluctantly drawn into a land dispute between the rebellious Luis Chama (played by John Saxon) and the greedy land-peddler Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall). Loyalties are tested and sides are flipped as the contest develops, culminating in Kidd taking matters into his own hands to settle the conflict for good.

On a surface level, there’s a lot to appreciate about Joe Kidd. There is a simple, direct narrative with a crisp and steady pace. The performances are unanimously strong (which is to be expected given the interplay of Eastwood and Duvall). Overall, the film is entertaining enough, particularly for fans of standard western genre fare. The problem is that it’s largely unremarkable, which – when the pedigree of its production is this high – is no small detriment to the film’s commendation. It’s also relatively short for most of Eastwood’s catalogue, clocking in at a mere 87 minutes, which could be a compliment to its economy of storytelling if its individual elements were more compelling.

Eastwood as a performer seems a bit pedestrian this time around, lacking either the stony subtlety of the “man with no name” or the fiery passion he brought to previous westerns like Hang ‘Em High or Two Mules for Sister Sara. On-set information indicates that he was struggling with several health complications, which may have contributed to a lackluster performance, and even at his worst he delivers the appropriate gravity and charisma to be consistently watchable. Duvall is compelling, as always, but relatively under-used, with the bulk of his dramatic moments peppered through his grand introduction to the story. The characters are rather painfully underdeveloped, with stereotypical behaviors and confusing shifts in motivation.

But Joe Kidd is still pretty good. At least, it’s good enough for a Saturday afternoon diversion if you’re a fan of westerns and haven’t checked it out yet. There are some elements to enjoy and certain moments that are undeniably entertaining (like the rather outrageous climactic moment involving a train barreling through a saloon). But the film is ultimately very benign, and given the talent driving its creation, it could – and probably should – have been excellent.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: DIRTY HARRY

DIRTY HARRY (1971)

“Being that this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya, punk?” – Harry Callahan

There are two roles for which Clint Eastwood is most prominently known: the “man with no name” from the Sergio Leone westerns and “Dirty” Harry Callahan.

It’s ironic, then, to consider that he not only wasn’t the first choice for the role, he wasn’t even among the first 10 choices. The role was offered to stars like John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, and even Frank Sinatra (who was attached to it for the longest period of time prior to Eastwood). The script (originally titled Dead Right) had been bouncing through development for several years and under several different talent packages before (rumor has it) Paul Newman recommended that Warner Brothers reach out to Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood was in post-production on Play Misty for Me when the original script was sent to him, but by that time the script in development had been in several hands (including a draft by John Milius and one from Terence Malick) and Eastwood did not like the new versions as much as the original. He also insisted that Don Siegel direct the film and even approached Universal executives to get Siegel loaned out for the director’s chair.

Dirty Harry is about a San Francisco police officer (and dedicated to officers who have died in the line of duty) whose nickname comes from the fact that he’s always handed the “dirty” jobs no one else wants to touch. He also has a reputation for using unconventional tactics – which frequently get him and the police force into trouble – to bring criminals to justice. When he begins to close in on a serial sniper wreaking havoc throughout the city, tensions escalate and the department comes under immense scrutiny to both catch the killer and abide by the procedural guidelines. Harry is caught in the crossfire of these two objectives, and you can easily guess which one of the two he cares most about achieving.

Dirty Harry is not only a landmark, signature entry in Clint Eastwood’s career, it is a landmark entry in the crime genre at large. Of the five collaborations Eastwood and Siegel had as director and star, Dirty Harry is easily Siegel’s most stylish film, exploring interesting setups of shadow and color as well as experimenting with differing suspense techniques as well (which would be mimicked by countless police thrillers that followed). The character of Harry Callahan provides an opportunity for wry moments of dark humor for Eastwood (“Well do ya, punk?”) and the violence is heavily intensified from his previous cop-drama, Coogan’s Bluff (which Siegel also directed).

The film stirred substantial controversy in its initial release due to its perceived “ends-justify-the-means” philosophy and the violence (both of which were reasons cited by offered stars for turning down the role). But the film also sparked significant conversation about victim’s rights, which was a major reason why Eastwood wanted to make the film in the first place. The social dialogue intensified around police brutality and questions of procedural responsibility as well.

And although those concerns remain vital points of conversation almost 50 years later, it’s hard not to be plainly and simply impressed by how affecting of a film Dirty Harry is. While other crime thrillers from the same era have disappeared into the status of “relic”, there is a vitality and a potency in Dirty Harry that still thrives. Much of that is owed to Eastwood’s assured and confident performance (strapping back on the gun he left behind for two films – and taking an upgrade while he’s at it), but a tremendous portion of why the film works so well is creditable to Don Siegel’s approach to the picture. By this point, he and Eastwood were such a formidable collaborative machine that it’s quite surprising that they wouldn’t make another film together for 8 years.

It is now pretty widely known that Eastwood himself directed at least one prominent scene in Dirty Harry, and he possibly stood as a secondary directorial surrogate for Siegel on other scenes as well. But whatever cocktail this pair of creatives had drank down, it was electric by this point.

1971 saw three collaborations between Siegel and Eastwood (two of which Siegel directed and Siegel also played a small, bit role in Play Misty for Me) and all three of them are fantastic. The Beguiled is disturbing and fascinating and Play Misty for Me is a nail-biting suspense thriller, but easily the most culturally iconic (and objectively best) of the three films is the indomitable Dirty Harry. It’s a standard-setting film in the cop-thriller genre and one that should not be missed by any remote fan of that brand of story.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: PLAY MISTY FOR ME

PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971)

“I hope Dave likes what he sees when he gets here. Because that’s what he’s taking to Hell with him.” — Evelyn

Eastwood’s second attempt in 1971 to move away from his stereotypical role was his boldest and most revolutionary career-wise: he stepped behind the camera to direct his first feature film.

He had spent more than 17 years in front of the camera (with nearly 8 of those years in feature films). He had actively learned the processes of production and scripting while leaning on the expertise of directors he admired (most prominently Don Siegel) and felt that he was finally ready to tackle the job himself.

As a first feature, Eastwood was very strategic. He did not want an ambitious war film or even a cop drama or western with their necessary attention to production design and detail. Instead, he chose a very simple domestic thriller, with only a handful of characters and familiar locations, and made Play Misty for Me, which is still regarded today as one of the greatest suspense thrillers of the 70s.

The story is of a radio DJ named Dave (Eastwood) who specializes in classic Jazz and receives a call every night from a fan named Evelyn requesting that he “Play ‘Misty’” for her. When Evelyn tracks him down at his favorite local night spot, the two of them have a one-night stand. The very next week, Dave reconnects with his ex-lover and wants to try to pursue something more serious, but Evelyn has become immediately and violently territorial about her affection for him and she will stop at literally nothing to ensure that Dave is hers and hers alone, even if it kills him.

As a suspense thriller, Play Misty for Me is outstanding. More iconic future entries like Fatal Attraction and even Misery owe a great deal to Play Misty for Me’s premise. Eastwood wisely allows the tension to steadily build rather than try to evoke danger from the onset. Evelyn (played to terrifying perfection by Jessica Walter of Arrested Development fame) begins almost endearingly, as though she were little more than a persistent eccentric. But suddenly – jarringly – she displays outbursts of rage or coercive manipulation. Her shifts in behavior and language are not merely shocking to Dave, they’re shocking to us as the audience, timed with a near perfect cadence for maximum effect. And with each new escalating tactic, the stakes and the threat grow ever more dangerous for Dave and for the people he cares about.

It may not have the cinematic flourishes of other thrillers, but for suspense-lovers, it is a triumph. Eastwood not only manages the directorial duties deftly (adopting techniques and style from his friend, Don Siegel, who plays a small role in the film), but he also delivers a highly compelling acting performance as well. He originally wanted the role to go to Steve McQueen, who it is rumored declined the role because of how much stronger Evelyn’s character was than Dave’s. Following McQueen’s decline, Eastwood decided to take on the role himself and he balances both jobs with the ease of a pro.

As with The Beguiled, Eastwood is again playing a rather vulnerable character, not crippled this time but undeniably trapped and held prisoner by a woman with a sadistic and relentlessly possessive mentality. Eastwood’s excellent balance of disgust, fury, and terror display some of his best range yet as a performer. But unlike The Beguiled, Play Misty for Me was a massive success, both financially and with audiences. It revealed that Eastwood was a director of effective economy: that he could handle the various elements of a film set while still delivering a compelling and effective story and an admirable performance. He would eventually handle much more ambitious material both narratively and thematically, but as a starting point for a directorial career, it’s hard not to be extremely impressed with how effective Play Misty for Me is and how well it holds up nearly 50 years later. It’s an exciting and rewarding entry for suspense fans, and a classic film for anyone else.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: THE BEGUILED

THE BEGUILED (1971)

“You must understand that it was the wine that turned loose the devils in me.” – Corporal John “McBee” McBurney

For nine films (and years of network television) Clint Eastwood had been “a man with a gun”, whether that was in a war film, a western, or a police drama. At this point in his career, he was genuinely concerned about being overly typecast and he made two calculated choices to try to perform against type. The first choice was this Civil War drama, The Beguiled, and his second choice was to finally direct his first feature film.

The Beguiled is a unique entry in both the catalogue of Clint Eastwood and of Don Siegel, its director. At this point, the pair of them had collaborated twice already and had become good friends as well as a veritable mutual admiration society. The opportunity to try their collaborative magic at something quite different appealed to them both. Eastwood himself was a major force behind the project’s inception, having read and become captivate by the original source novel, A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan. The script went through a few different iterations (including one with a straight-forward “happily-ever-after” ending) before ultimately landing with the results for the final film.

The premise revolves around a badly wounded union soldier (Eastwood) during the Civil War who is discovered and taken in by a group of young ladies at a boarding school. The headmistress is rigid and occasionally oppressive, but the soldier’s presence sends the entire group of young women into distrustful disarray, inciting desirous intentions and deceit, eventually erupting in violence and disturbing behavior as the soldier rejects and accepts certain advances (while making one or two of his own at the same time). The tension and threats escalate to an irreversible degree and the soldier soon realizes that he must find a way to escape or he will be trapped there forever, if not dead.

One of the earliest shots in the film, immediately following the soldier’s being taken into the school, is of a raven tied by a sequence of thread to an upstairs bannister. We discover that this bird had a wounded leg and is being held there while it heals, but we occasionally witness the bird’s frantic attempts to break free of the restraints and fly away. This steadily increasing dread and ever-deepening threat extend throughout the film, and the result is both disturbing and compelling.

It is often a very uncomfortable film in its extremist depictions of relational desire. There are moments involving sensual advances by teenagers and even an incestuous thread (albeit by flash-back). The soldier, too, presents an unsettling attitude towards desire and entitlement, although his perspective is frequently portrayed within a survivalist context (i.e. he’s doing what he ordinarily might not do because of the pressure of his circumstances). This all makes it challenging to openly endorse or recommend the film, but the performances (particularly by Eastwood and Geraldine Page – who plays the school’s headmistress) are exceptionally complex and often captivating.

But the most prominent element of the film is its exploration of the discomfort of gender roles in positions of power. Siegel is quoted as having stated that the film contained in its central theme “the desire of all women to castrate men.” This makes for several outright emasculating qualities to the narrative, which is about as drastic of a departure for Eastwood as you could imagine, even more so than when he sang in Paint Your Wagon. The film disturbingly treats women within certain stereotypes and does no favors for any conversation about equity of value within relationships or society. But the film-craft at work through the production and performances are enough to maintain a highly compelling viewing experience.

The film is also frequently frightening. The narrative plot may be a period drama, but stylistically and tonally, this is a horror film, and nearly everyone is – at one time or another – a monster. It is a strong opportunity for Eastwood as a performer to play a variety of emotions, including ranges of terror and vulnerability that he had literally never shown before. And without tipping too heavily into spoiler-territory, I’ll vaguely mention that there are at least a couple of devastating predicaments in this film that his character doesn’t escape without irreversible consequences.

But the film was not terribly well-received by audiences (although critics praised it rather highly). Eastwood would eventually blame mishandled marketing on the part of Universal Studios and a sensibility from his fans that did not like to see him so vulnerable. Time has been much kinder to it in general (and renewed interest was sparked when Sofia Coppola remade it in 2017). But The Beguiled is a bleak, unsettling, southern-gothic thriller and it is very, very effective. With the disclaimer that there are some highly uncomfortable thematic elements and a few disturbing moments, it still comes with a pretty strong recommendation.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: KELLY’S HEROES

KELLY’S HEROES (1970)

“Sergeant, this bank’s not gonna fall into the hands of the American army. It’s gonna fall into our hands.” – Kelly

When Eastwood originally signed on to lead Kelly’s Heroes, he did so because it was supposed to be helmed by Don Siegel who, following Two Mules for Sister Sara, Eastwood considered his personal friend and favorite director. However, Siegel was bogged down with post-production on that film and unable to fit the production schedule. Meanwhile, Eastwood was unable to back out of his contractual obligation.

Directorial duties then fell to Brian G. Hutton, who had previously helmed Where Eagles Dare. In a few ways, Kelly’s Heroes is quite similar to that film. it features a troop of soldiers on a mission behind enemy lines, but unlike the weighty and twist-filled Where Eagles Dare, this mission is of a more personal nature and the tone is much more light-hearted and direct.

The 34th Infantry Division are disgruntled, frustrated, and overwrought. Their captain is glaringly selfish and whenever he decides to lead his men at all, he frequently positions them either in the way of harm or of boredom. When Private Kelly (Clint Eastwood) learns from a captured German officer about a bank filled with millions of dollars in gold bars, he resolves to travel behind enemy lines to break in and steal the loot. Enlisting the aid of his fellow disgruntled officers, along with a ragtag group of misfits from other divisions, the group cross into enemy territory and begin a series of adventures in misdirection in an effort to obtain the gold.

Eastwood carries top-billing this time, but he’s a bit dwarfed by the rest of the impressive cast. The cast includes the brutish and intimidating Telly Savalas, the apoplectic and hilariously obnoxious Don Rickles, and – in one of his most delightfully eccentric performances – the hippie-zen-warrior “Oddball” played by Donald Sutherland. The cast also includes Carol O’Connor as a naïve commander and Gavin Macleod as a perpetually furious army mechanic. Eastwood anchors the chaos with a steady and assured performance that is by no means a step backwards, but is hard to find impressive amidst such a colorful and entertaining collection of co-stars.

The film deftly balances some genuinely exciting action sequences with a constant thread of sardonic humor. But it is the most cynical film in Eastwood’s filmography thus far, often criticizing without any subtlety the hazards and pointlessness of wartime conditions. Not only is the mission at the plot’s base a mission of profit and desertion, but along the way, the “heroes” of the title enlist the help of nearly every disillusioned soldier, including at least one Nazi. The cynicism becomes perhaps most apparent when the soldiers – essentially on a bandit’s mission – are mistaken for bold and devoted patriots who are making an advance against the enemy (prompting the joke of the film’s title).

There is an utterly chilling moment when, following a particularly significant victory, a Nazi solider who has joined their treasure hunt instinctively gives the Nazi salute, momentarily stunning Private Kelly into remembering who they were before this mission. Once this shocking instinct is realized, the same Nazi alters his posture into a military salute, letting his mouth drift into a self-righteous smirk. It’s a provocative moment of glaring indictment against the whole enterprise that is unsettling and unforgettable.

But despite these alarmingly biting elements, this film manages to be highly entertaining and paced like a bullet, displaying once again Hutton’s talent for handling wartime mission narratives. It is often laugh-out-loud funny and occasionally poignant. It also contains possibly intentional echoes of Eastwood’s collaborations with Sergio Leone, most noticeable in a climactic scene where he, Savalas, and Sutherland face off against a Tiger Tank in a fashion unmistakably reminiscent of a western showdown. With strong characters, a simple and direct narrative, a steady pace, and a sharp tone, Kelly’s Heroes is an easily recommendable war film, whether you enter it with or without affection for that type of film.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.