A Look at Clint Eastwood’s Contribution to Cinema – Part II: Behind the Camera

Clint Eastwood – From Behind the Gun to Behind the Camera

Clint Eastwood’s directorial output is unmatched by any other living American filmmaker (with the exception, perhaps, of Martin Scorsese); 1971 saw the release of Eastwood’s first venture into directing. Set against the backdrop of trendy ‘70s California, and accompanied by a smooth jazz soundtrack, Play Misty for Me was completely new territory for the fresh-faced director, and signalled his immediate yearning to conquer further genres. Despite Eastwood’s inexperience in the psychological thriller, his instinctive talent and tireless diligence brought out a startlingly frightening performance from his co-star Jessica Walter, in a manner reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, stylistically, Eastwood’s debut film is shot in a form akin to Psycho, and the climactic ending certainly takes influence from Hitchcock’s earlier masterpieces. Play Misty for Me, notwithstanding its timid reviews upon release, introduced the world to Clint Eastwood, not as a cigar-puffing gunslinger, but as an artist.

His next motion picture was the visually-stunning High Plains Drifter. It was not the typical shoot-‘em-up Western that cinema audiences had grown accustomed to over the years; this film, which also starred Eastwood as the lead character, The Stranger, was a mysterious, violent picture with a haunting aura of the supernatural. The filmmaker’s directorial finesse captures brilliantly the inhumanity and pain of a mortal’s suffering, though the film won no awards, the ambitious and visionary merging of two completely contrasting genres gave the Western the revamp it needed.

In 1976 came Eastwood’s second foray into the Wild West with a film that is widely regarded as one of the director’s crowning achievements: The Outlaw Josey Wales. It was adapted from Forrest Carter’s novel The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, and it is set during the cruel and merciless days of the American Civil War. The director again also stars as the eponymous Wales and offers a rare insight into a legend mainly known for ruthlessness and vengeance. Indeed, the film saw Eastwood firmly in his stride as a director, and this epic Western was critically acclaimed at the time for its strong characterisation and daring entwinement of two opposite storylines. The Outlaw Josey Wales broke the major rules of the Western; a film in the genre usually depicts a loner or a leader, never both. To mix the two roles together was practically unheard of prior to 1976. Eastwood’s Wales begins his journey as a loner and ends it as a leader; he finishes the film as a father figure to his unlikely band of drifters, the father figure he used to be to his family, before they were slaughtered. Such was the film’s importance that it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress in 1996.

Unforgiven is a similarly unsettling look at the volatile nature of the human mindset; Eastwood’s 1992 picture smashed boundaries for the Western with its resonating darkness and undertones of an almost mythical nature. When Unforgiven was released, the general conception of the ‘classic Western’ was that of celebrated violence, unlikely heroics and glorified loveless sex. This masterpiece of ‘90s cinema however brought about a change in the tide of the audience’s cinematic ideals, not just in consideration of the Old West, but people started to universally question whether or not such flagrant immorality should be put on a romanticised pedestal for the silver screen. The way in which violence and murder are depicted is through the eyes of a corrupt mind-set, performed by men who are devoid of a conscience. There are no heroes in Eastwood’s film. Broodingly beautiful shots, as a result of Eastwood’s endeavour as director, are a constant throughout the picture, and show with an uncompromising degree of realism life in 19th Century America. In terms of critical recognition, Unforgiven collected four Academy Awards, rightly including the gongs for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (for Gene Hackman’s tour de force portrayal of ‘Little Bill’ Daggett, in a brilliant display of crookedness and barbarity), Best Editing and of course, Best Director.

Mystic River came as a huge breath of fresh air in 2003, adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, the 24th motion picture in Eastwood’s directorial career became the first film since Ben Hur in 1959 to win Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. What the director required from his cast was a powerhouse of acting performance, and the cast, led by an anguish-ravaged Sean Penn, well and truly delivered. Such was the picture’s impact that it was repeatedly compared to a Greek tragedy; the fruits of Eastwood’s labour resulted in perfect portrayals all-round; the whole film ran like a well-oiled machine of vehemence and remorse. The audience’s revelation of the characters’ true personalities at the end of the film can be compared to earlier Eastwood flicks such as Unforgiven and 1997’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, where a single good man is the victim of the injustice, and everyone else appears fraught with deceitful intentions and downright repulsiveness. Mystic River is today regarded as a modern classic.

With beautiful cinematography rarely seen in a War picture since Terrence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line, and gruesomely realistic images far more graphic than anything seen in Mel Gibson’s We Were Soldiers or any other similar Hollywood-type fare, Flags of our Fathers is a remarkable achievement of film directing. The subtle way in which Eastwood projects the expansiveness and anonymity of the U.S. Marines’ assault on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in World War II, is reflected in the most genial and peaceful of the film’s scenes. In terms of the grand vision of the-then 76-year-old director, Eastwood’s film not only questions the ethical basis of war-time decisions (including the decision to use soldiers as money-making vehicles), but that of life in general.

Seen from the point of view of the Japanese soldiers, the second film in Eastwood’s Pacific War Canon, Letters from Iwo Jima, is a boldly elegant journey through the human soul in times of intense strife. It is moreover a film that questions the nature of loyalty and of the innocence and the fundamental similarities between two opposing sides. It is not often that Hollywood produces War flicks that are favourable to the enemy country, such pictures have only been attempted by audacious filmmakers, with Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron being the prime example. It is clear in Eastwood’s film that the attacking Americans are depicted not as the valiant heroes that we have grown used to, but as marauding ants, overwhelming the honourable and devoted bastion of doomed Japanese infantrymen. The normal Hollywood cinema audience is not accustomed to their own soldiers depicted as heartless barbarians, indeed, each time in the film when sympathy emerges from the U.S. ranks it is cancelled out by some act of brutality that we are more comfortable associating with enemy troops. Eastwood’s astounding piece of work from 2006 is more like an epic poem than a Hollywood flick, and indeed this cinematic daring and richness is reminiscent of the man’s whole career.

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