The Good, the Bad & the Badass: Clint Eastwood
Last week’s column was devoted to the late, great James Garner. This week’s edition highlights his SPACE COWBOYS director, and the icon whose likeness has graced this column’s banner since it began!
Clint Eastwood's impact on modern cinema can't be overrated. Even if he had never stepped behind a camera, he'd be known for his dozens of westerns and cop movies, all of which helped define the modern action hero. But Eastwood was far more than just an action guy. Starting with 1971's PLAY MISTY FOR ME, he took a keen interest in all facets of film production, directing more and more of his star-vehicles, as well as producing them. Eventually, Eastwood would transition into becoming a full-time director working in many genres, from straight-drama (MYSTIC RIVER) to war movies (FLAG OF OUR FATHERS, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA) and even musicals (JERSEY BOYS).
For the purposes of this retrospective, we're going to focus on Eastwood's life in front of the camera. Eastwood career began on the TV western RAWHIDE, but only really picked up steam when, in desperation, he went to Spain to star in Italian director Sergio Leone's low-budget YOJIMBO remake A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. It could have easily been regulated to the bottom half of drive-in double bills before disappearing altogether, but Eastwood quickly figured out there was more to Leone and his style of movie-making than met the eyes. Together, they created a new kind of anti-hero in their iconic “Man with No Name” (although he actually had names in all three movies), reaching its zenith in the spaghetti western epic THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY.
From there Eastwood's career was off-and-running. Rather than allow himself to be pigeonholed, he took control of his career through his company Malpaso, and often used his films to explore darker themes, and the psychology of his characters, making each of his creations distinct, from the borderline crazy Harry Callahan, to the nameless, perhaps supernatural drifters of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and PALE RIDER, to the sexually confused cop in TIGHTROPE (a very strange film), to the tragic hero of OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. Truly, his has been a storied career, and it's a tribute to the man that – when writing this article – I found it impossible to only highlight five films in my top list below, so for this article only, we're doing a top ten.
I'd say this one's a tie between THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY and DIRTY HARRY. While A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was first, and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE was arguably more action-packed, THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY remains one of the greatest westerns ever made, and Eastwood's Blondie is a perfected version of “The Man With No Name” character. His motivations are ambiguous, and he probably has less screen-time than the late Eli Wallach's “The Ugly”, but he owns every scene he's in. Here's he's easily in the same league as Sean Connery was at his best in the early Bond movies, and with this supplanted John Wayne as the default western hero.
Yet, it was DIRTY HARRY that arguably made Eastwood what he is today. While the spaghetti western delayed the decline of the genre, it was inevitable and Eastwood knew it. While not his first modern cop movie (COOGAN'S BLUFF predates it) DIRTY HARRY established him as an anti-authoritarian hero for those counter-culture times. If people thought he was going to be another conservative John Wayne-style hero, DIRTY HARRY proved they were hugely mistaken. Looking at it now, DIRTY HARRY's hardly a P.C film, but its impact cannot be denied. Harry Callahan set the mode for big-screen tough guy cops, but it's the subtle things Eastwood does with Harry that makes him interesting. Harry walks a fine line between hero and maniac, and while the latter films like SUDDEN IMPACT and THE DEAD POOL arguably make him more conventionally heroic, the earlier films, especially the first one and the hyper violent first sequel MAGNUM FORCE are the most interesting.
At the same time, I'd wager Eastwood's biggest triumph as an all-around filmmaker is UNFORGIVEN. Not only is he amazing as William Munny, a gunslinger forced out of retirement to feed his children, but as a director it's without a doubt his finest work. Eastwood dedicated this to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY) and with that movie, it's like Eastood took everything they taught him about making movies, and used it to make his opus, which remains his elegiac adieu to the Western genre. It's a masterpiece in every way.
GRAN TORINO was a smash hit when it hit theatres a few years ago, and I understand why. It's fun seeing the elderly Eastwood still playing an anti-hero, but the movie – to me anyways – is only so-so. An uneasy mix between un-P.C comedy and heavy handed melodrama, it's an OK film, but not the Oscar contender people were saying it was, or any kind of classic. To me, Eastwood should have retired from acting (but not directing) with MILLION DOLLAR BABY which I think stands as one of his best performances.
There are two Eastwood movies that rarely get discussed that I think deserve special consideration. One is his first big-time Hollywood blockbuster, WHERE EAGLES DARE. While playing second fiddle to Richard Burton's James Bond-style hero, it's a really nice vehicle for his tough guy talents. As an army ranger sent to infiltrate a German castle where an American general is behind held captive, Eastwood rakes up the highest body count of his career, dispatching a stunning seventy-three Nazis. For a movie made in 1968, it's incredibly violent, but it's a real WWII classic, in the same league as something like THE DIRTY DOZEN or THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. Sadly, this one is often overlooked in retrospectives on Eastwood's career. It's a must-see, and probably the most beautifully shot film of his career, with the snow-covered mountain castle being a sight to behold in HD on the recently released Blu-ray (available on an awesome double feature disc with KELLY'S HEROES – another WW2 Eastwood adventure from the same director, Brian G. Hutton).
My other underrated Eastwood pic is another spy-flick, 1982's early techno-thriller FIREFOX. This is a strange film. Clearly Eastwood was trying to reestablish himself as an action hero after taking a few years off to make movies with Clyde the Orangutan, so FIREFOX plays like a weird mix of elements that were popular in eighties action movies of the era. Like in FIRST BLOOD, he plays a psychologically damaged Vietnam vet. His mission to steal a prototype Russian super jet, which is operated telepathically, is very sci-fi James Bond, while the aerial dogfights have SFX by STAR WARS' John Dykstra. While a box office hit (it out-grossed CONAN THE BARBARIAN, BLADE RUNNER and THE ROAD WARRIOR) it's maybe a little dated, but still a really entertaining spy yarn, and surprisingly gritty considering the PG-rating Eastwood shot for. Other ones worth watching are the bonkers-crazy THE ROOKIE, A PERFECT WORLD, and the weird comedy-western TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA.
All of the DIRTY HARRY movies follow a formula, and they always ( always) have a scene where Harry interrupts a robbery/hijacking, where he gets to utter his cool-ass catchphrase of the film. The “do you feel lucky?” scene in the first one is the best, although “go ahead, make my day” in SUDDEN IMPACT comes close.
10. MILLION DOLLAR BABY
9. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS
8. HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER
7. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE
6. WHERE EAGLES DARE
5. IN THE LINE OF FIRE
3. THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES
2. DIRTY HARRY
1. THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY
Despite being in his eighties, Eastwood isn't slowing down. While this summer's JERSEY BOYS got a mixed reaction, word has it that his Bradley Cooper action flick, AMERICAN SNIPER, is one of his all-time best. I'm even hearing rumors that despite the 2015 release date on the IMDB, it might get bumped up to compete in this year's Oscar-race.