Let’s not overthink this
Michael Wood on Clint Eastwood
Current films are full of regrets and second chances, none more so than the recent work of Clint Eastwood. In the Line of Fire, which opened last month, has him playing an American Secret Service man haunted by his failure to protect John Kennedy on the day everyone remembers. Now another assassin, John Malkovich no less, is stalking another President: a risk for the incumbent but a chance of redemption for our hero. The regrets on the subject of violence are particularly murky. ‘Penance’ was the word Eastwood used in a Rolling Stone interview in relation to Unforgiven, his last film as star and director and one which brought him his first Oscar and a new respectability in the movie world. In conversation Eastwood made the fim sound more like a prayer then a Western. It was as if he was apologising on the screen for all his old movie misdeeds; and the film itself has at its core a long, illustrated sermon on the pain and horror of violent death. Penance here seems to mean moral confusion rather than anything like steady contrition. Unforgiven is a good movie because it doesn’t shirk the contradictions it raises, indeed it displays them with stately elegance; not a great movie because the contradictions, beneath the elegance, are a sprawling mess, a mirror of the muddle of our thoughts about violence.
There are, of course, all kinds of violence in the movies. There is killing as ballet in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, killing as opera in The Godfather III; the Toys-R-Us stuff of the Schwarzenegger films; the let’s-rub-their-noses-in-it line of Point Blank and other hard crime movies; the let’s-show-how-tough-we-are posture of films like Miller’s Crossing; the eager voyeurlence of Reservoir Dogs and its friends; the let’s-enrage-the-old-folks gesture of dozens of middling creepies; the sheer, dripping nastiness of many horror movies, designed for those who like to feel ill in the cinema. All this is sociologically significant, no doubt, and should be defended against the growling moralists, because we need the freedom to play in fiction with what scares us in fact. But it’s quite different from the long movie tradition of licensed or at least acceptable violence, the violence that the mildest of us used to hanker for. It’s not that Dirty Harry, say, had a heart; we never thought of him as our friend. But he had a mind and a history; his violent proceedings invited questions even as they offered answers we didn’t want to hear. Eastwood, in fact, as the most bankable and enduring Hollywood star of the last twenty years, is the perfect guide to these troubled territories. Off screen, he is elusive and ironic, intelligent but not much given to analysis. ‘Let’s not overthink this,’ is one of his favourite phrases. On screen, he’s still pretty laconic, but we have time to watch him, and we have his work as a director to look at too. He becomes an intricate, compact piece of movie history. He shows us how a certain kind of violence surfaced in the late Sixties and stayed with us until recently; what its famous, dry-eyed, edgy confidence looked like before it fell into the soggy swamps of apology.
Eastwood was a long time getting started in films. He did all the legendary odd jobs future stars are always supposed to have done – lifeguard, lumberjack, gas station attendant. He got a few bit parts: an anonymous Saxon in Lady Godiva of Coventry, a baffled lab technician in Revenge of the Creature. One or two of the characters he played actually had names, but it was small-time stuff, and Eastwood said of Ambush at Cimarron Pass that it was ‘even worse than the title’. Then for eight years he was Rowdy Yates in Rawhide and was discovered by Sergio Leone, supposedly because James Coburn didn’t want the job and everyone else was too expensive. Back in America after making three Italian films (in Spain), Eastwood founded his own company, Malpaso, in 1968, and has kept his independence, and a reputation for working quickly and for making expensive-looking films at a reasonable cost. He has directed 16 movies and starred in 37. Not all his films make money, but some of them make a lot, so he can afford to experiment. His comedies, Every Which Way But Loose, Any Which Way You Can, are likeable, particularly in their depiction of Eastwood’s relations with his orang-utang co-star; and his excursions into biography, Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart, are brave if lumbering. But what makes and keeps him a star, as actor and director, is a certain intimacy with screen violence, or with ways of representing violence. His Westerns and his cop movies are what continue to matter, and they provide the central features of his film identity – those works and his first film as a director, Play Misty for Me, a disturbing little story about what Eastwood calls ‘suffocation’.
The Eastwood character, whether in the Old West or in contemporary San Francisco, is as tough as they come, of course, and quite as tough as he looks; but the performances have an angle and a distance, even a muffled quirkiness, which makes them quite different from those of Charles Bronson or Bruce Willis in similar stories. Audiences, I suspect, picked up on this without thinking much about it, so that it became part of the public perception of the Eastwood character, a sort of submerged joke not about violence as a social reality but about movie violence, about imaginary violence as a solution to real problems. More than that of any other contemporary actor or actress, Eastwood’s fictional identity is caught up in his one-liners. It’s as if Bogart were to make a career out of muttering, ‘Play it, Sam.’ Eastwood says, ‘Make my day,’ or, ‘You gotta ask yourself one question, Do I feel lucky?’ He says, ‘Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy,’ or ‘We’ve all got it comin’ to us, kid.’ Eastwood is now inclined to underplay these lines – ‘I really got sick of hearing it,’ he says of ‘Make my day.’ ‘Saying smart lines and wiping out tons of people’, as he piously put it in Rolling Stone, is something ‘for the newer guys on the scene’. But Harry’s smart lines weren’t only smart, and he didn’t, as it happens, wipe out tons of people. His gags and slogans made him popular but they also made him complicated. They suggested, among other things, that wisecracks were wonderful but not enough; they were themselves a social symptom, arising from the world of violence rather than providing a detached commentary on it.