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.

In Dirty Harry, Eastwood is assigned a new, Hispanic working partner, who (rashly) asks why the inspector is called Dirty Harry. A colleague says: ‘That’s one thing about our Harry: doesn’t play any favourites. Harry hates everybody: limeys, micks, hebes, fat dagos, niggers, honkies, chinks, you name it.’ The new boy wonders how Harry feels about Mexicans. Harry says ‘Specially spics’, and winks at his older colleague. We can say that the wink doesn’t make any difference, especially as the new partner doesn’t see it; even fascists have been known to make jokes about fascism. What we can’t say is that the wink isn’t there: we have to argue, so to speak, for the difference it doesn’t make. There’s a similar complication in the well-known line about feeling lucky. Harry interrupts a bank robbery and wounds one of the robbers. The man glances at the gun lying close to him, and Harry says: ‘I know what you’re thinkin’. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell the truth in all the excitement I kinda lost count myself.’ There is a cut to the man’s face in close-up as Harry says this; then back to Harry’s face from the man’s point of view. ‘But bein’ as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you gotta ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?’ The man gives up all thought of the gun. When Harry walks away the wounded man says: ‘I got to know.’ Harry comes back, points the gun at him; there is an empty click. Harry’s smile now is almost friendly, light-hearted, not smug at all. If he didn’t know the gun was empty, if he wasn’t bluffing all along, he is a psychopath. Conversely, he can hardly be gambling at the end of the movie when, wild with rage, through clenched teeth, he says his whole speech again, just before he kills the killer he has finally caught. This time he knows he has a bullet left. He’s crazy if he hasn’t – and he’s in the wrong movie. The luck is a kind of game: it feels like luck (or not) to the victim, but Harry knows better, he’s kidding, even when he’s angry.

More fanciful feelings swirl around the most famous of all Eastwood’s movie remarks, the laconic ‘Make my day,’ which appears (twice) in Sudden Impact, the fourth Dirty Harry movie, directed by Eastwood himself. Cut loose from the film, freely circulating in the world as a kind of mock-proverb or axiom, it seems to mean something like, ‘Give me an excuse to kill you, which I shall do without the slightest hesitation or remorse; with delight, in fact.’ The immense popularity of the phrase probably says something about how much we would like to kill (some) people, if we could cope with our consciences; but the stylish and slangy indirection of the words, our sense of what they don’t mention, as well as the fact that their popular use is always in a joke, suggest a doubt about the sheer extravagance of the fantasy: a killing that would not only not be wrong or difficult or likely to perturb you but would be a positive tonic, like a stiff drink or a stroke of unexpected luck. In the film, the situation is even more involved since when Harry actually uses the phrase, he is threatening a hoodlum who is holding someone else hostage. Harry is inviting the criminal to kill his victim so that he, Harry, can kill the criminal. That’s pretty far out, even for a vigilante. It’s true it’s in line with Harry’s general view of hostage situations. He doesn’t agree with making payments, and when a killer places a victim in front of himself as a shield, the sign of a familiar impasse in most movies until recently, Harry just blazes away, wounding the killer, missing the captive. He never hits an innocent, even when, as in The Enforcer, he drives a car through a shop-front.

The Eastwood character is also considerably more liberal than he usually lets on. In the Westerns, Harry Callahan’s wink becomes a benign social policy, and Eastwood is exaggeratedly polite to Indians, blacks, Mexicans, a dwarf, indeed to anyone who is not Anglo and average size. Such gestures belong to a certain kind of Hollywood piety, of course, but not all movies make them, and they intersect rather oddly with the ostensible politics of Eastwood’s movies, and even with what we know of his own. Or rather, they show how liberal, in a carefully patrolled sense, many conservatives like to think they are. White women don’t often fare any better than white men in this scheme of things, and in High Plains Drifter the stranger’s idea of a lesson in manners far the woman who has rudely accosted him in the street is to rape her in the barn and afterwards to insist she enjoyed it. This is the fellow who is about to give large jars of sweets to two Indian children and a pile of blankets to a diffident old Indian man. Later in the same movie, in a wonderful stew of moral confusion, the same character sleeps with another woman and raises her ethical awareness in the process. Now she realises that what the town did in the past was wrong, she can no longer live with the misdeed, and she is leaving. Amazing what sex with a stranger will do. It’s hard not to sympathise with her husband, a cringing, no-account bad guy, when he says. ‘Your damn conscience. I must say it’s taken a hell of a while to bother you.’

With Eastwood the director the question of violence remains, of course, but tends to be distanced into art rather than worked into gags or irony. It’s as if Harry Callahan had become a highbrow photographer, skilled but a little cautious. The great danger is that these films will turn into stately tableaux, sequences of wonderfully shot, overly meaningful images. Eastwood likes (or at least he often gets) the frozen feel of old-fashioned beauty, in spite of what he says about this in an interview: ‘Sometimes the imperfection of things is what makes them real. Many times I’ve seen movies that are beautifully composed, beautifully laid out, but there’s something dead there.’ Et tu, Clint. He probably lets his excellent cameramen (Bruce Surtees for a long time, now Jack Green) have too much of a free hand, but he seems a little low on narrative drive himself. The gravest offender in this respect is Pale Rider, a movie so painterly and so interested in its Biblical and ecological symbolism it can scarcely attend to its plot.

With a good story, though, Eastwood can get all these things to work for him. The artifice of High Plains Drifter reinforces its eerie, reflective theme, and The Outlaw Josey Wales, languorous as it seems, is perfectly paced. It’s full of long shots and wide angles, of space and movement; it creates a sense of time passing, of a world within which photographed people can be something more than mere shapes in front of a camera. Orson Welles said that if Eastwood had not directed The Outlaw Josey Wales, everyone would have called it a classic. Everyone would probably have been right. The film hangs in the mind for all kinds of reasons, and it gathers, as only the best movies do, its style and its preoccupations into a single thought. America here is not a place people die for, it’s a vast, beautiful, shifting landscape that people keep dying in, killing each other out of sheer smallness of mind, or for reasons they can’t remember.

It’s often said that Westerns are about the battle between good and evil. More precisely, and more often, they are about a choice of violences. Our violence against theirs, or the violence of saviours against the violence of destroyers. That’s why the gunslinger has to ride on: so we can rewrite the story as a battle between good and evil. There are all kinds of ways of treating this situation: heroically, cynically, shiftily, piously, mindlessly, and Hollywood has done all of them. What’s interesting about the Western is the purity with which it addresses and permits its violence. Purity used to be easy, of course. It was a favourite virtue; it was a word the House Un-American Activities Committee used unstintingly. Then we realised (we thought) that all purities were stained or compromised; we understood the darkness of even the purest hearts. We abandoned simplicity, even in simple movies, and tried to live with complication. Except that we kept longing for purity again, for the stark old struggle between us and them, when we knew who we were, and they could go to hell. The great old Westerns never quite gave us this purity, or rather they gave it to us and took it away. The newer Westerns gave it to us with an edge of mockery, putting style and irony where faith used to be.

Eastwood’s Italian Westerns went brutally for the old purity, and showed Americans what they could do with their own myths. They also showed, more dangerously, that violence could be elegant, and even funny. The movies Eastwood made with Leone are not so much stylised, although they are all of that, as emptied: Leone drains the American West of everything that might clutter his shoot-’em-up world. It’s like a child’s dream view of the genre: just the violence, all the best bits, without any of the sermons or the domesticity. In A Fistful of Dollars there are virtually no inhabitants of the Mexican town of San Miguel, just two feuding families and a few pall-bearers, and the fact that the whole thing is essentially lifted from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo adds to the sense of abstraction. For a Few Dollars More, the most wildly camped up of the three movies, simplifies this situation still further: there are only bandits and bounty-hunters. When Lee van Cleef slips his gun back into its holster with a flashy western twirl, Leone cuts to Eastwood’s admiring but faintly mocking face: pretty good, it says, just like in the movies. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has Lee van Cleef again, more sinister and saturnine than ever, and a manic performance by Eli Wallach. This is the best and busiest of the three, and shows some real affection for the world of the American Civil War. But it too is about an empty world, a world emptied by and for killing. The most populated place in the film is the cemetery, an immense western graveyard, brilliantly picked up in a series of fast, almost hysterical panning shots which seems as if it will never end – as if the whole war was a Western, just a means of getting a lot of people killed. The best gag in the film involves a group of captured Southern soldiers playing and humming an unbearably sentimental tune, crying on to their violin and harmonica as they go. The music is all travesty, and the composer, Ennio Morricone (who also wrote the music for In the Line of Fire), is obviously having a wonderful time. The sequence is intercut with scenes of Eli Wallach being beaten up, and at one point we return to the music, but not to the tearful faces of the Southerners. This time we see the sour mug of their Northern guard. He says: ‘More feeling.’

This is toughness which is also a parody of toughness, and a version of it is at the heart of Eastwood’s presence in the movies. The toughness is real enough, but the parody keeps it human. And yet there is a difference. The killing in Leone’s movies is perfectly ritualised, a matter of film form. You can’t ask any questions about it, except why you are watching the movie in the first place. With Eastwood the questions are the movie, they are what the movie is about. The question for the Eastwood character is often not whether you feel licensed to kill, with or without a badge, but whether you can live with the killings you do. It’s a question implicit in a lot of Westerns, and indeed often talked about; but it is usually buried again pretty quickly. We need the romance of killing without consequences, the one endorsed and erased by the law or the Army or the West. The question is buried again even in Unforgiven, which talks about little else.

Unforgiven counts the cost of the Western ways of living and dying, though it’s not clear how the sums come out. William Munny, played by Eastwood, is a former gunman who has settled down, found the ways of righteousness through the love of a good woman. His wife is dead now, he has two small children, a farm, a yard full of mud and unmanageable hogs. He decides to return to his old life for the sake of the reward put up by a group of prostitutes in Big Whiskey, Wyoming. One of the women has been badly cut up by a cowhand, and her companions have put their money together and are offering $1000 to anyone who kills the cowhand and his accomplice.

There is a raw but touching comedy about Munny’s setting out. The scenes are always on the edge of bathos but never quite lapse into it. Munny’s horse is not used to being ridden any more, and he is not used to riding, falls over when he tries to get on, and doesn’t dismount, only tumbles off. He gets his gun out, and in traditional Western style, practices with a can perched on a fence. It’s a very large can, but he still can’t hit it with his revolver, even after practice. Grumpily, he goes into the house, fetches his rifle, with which he can easily blow the can away. His son is dismayed by this lack of prowess, and Munny’s daughter just looks disgusted. ‘Did Pa used to kill people?’ she asks. We can hear shock, bewilderment, all kinds of things just offstage here, in the words if not in the voice, but the little girl is wondering, with some scorn, how this incompetent could ever have managed something so difficult.

Meanwhile bounty-hunters are gathering in Big Whiskey, and the sheriff, Little Bill, alias Gene Hackman, is sorting them out. Little Bill is tough but he’s tired, he wants to finish building his house and watch the sunsets. His weariness is part of what makes him mean, and he gets more and more into thuggery as the movie goes on. He beats up a particularly presumptuous bounty-hunter, delivers a sermon on the drunken, unheroic truths behind the legends of the Old West; another sermon on how hard it is to kill a man, a scene plainly offered to us as the film’s moral centre. This is pretty preachy, and the film proves him wrong in any case, since Little Bill accidentally kills Munny’s pal Ned by torturing him a little too much. Perhaps Bill just means it’s hard for other people to kill a man; if you’re not up to it, not tough enough.

More persuasive on the subject of killing are the scenes where Munny and his friends catch up with the offending cowhands. Ned won’t shoot, can’t bring himself to use his rifle. The boy who calls himself the Schofield Kid can’t see to aim because he’s hopelessly shortsighted. Munny himself is still not much of a shot, even with a rifle, but he does manage to wing one man, and finally to wound him enough to make him die. This is pretty grisly, and Eastwood the director really puts us through it. These are assassins, not heroes. The dying is slow and nasty. The other cowhand is shot and killed while squatting on the john, and the Kid, who this time was close enough to do it, gets sick and shivery and weepy over the deed. He has been boasting throughout the film about what a killer he is, but he hasn’t killed anyone before. He and Munny have a jerky conversation about how appallingly easy it is to kill a man. You just pull a trigger, and he’s gone. Trying to console himself, the boy says, ‘I guess he had it comin’.’ Munny says: ‘We all have it comin’, kid.’ It’s a good line because it says both that we all die and that we all deserve to die. It’s harsh, but Munny is a haunted man now. He has a fever, and starts to see the ghosts of people he killed in the old days. He wasn’t a professional then, it seems, just a hellraiser, mostly drunk, he didn’t care about the life or the death of the men he blew away. Seen this way, setting out to kill a couple of men for money looks almost virtuous, a way of providing for the children, a twisted return to the straight Puritan path, and this is the dream that is now crumbling for Munny. Killing is just killing, he realises, once you’re sober or able to think about it, once you see the human at the other end of the gun. The reward or the motive doesn’t make any difference.

What happens now is the most interesting thing in the film, and has caused the most confusion. We have been shown persuasively that killing of all kinds is bad news, but this is a Western, it has to end in violence or we shall feel cheated. It’s not that we’re bloodthirsty folks, it’s that we know the rules of the genre, and we know what we want. We go to the opera to hear people sing, not praise the virtues of silence, real as those virtues may be. Of course, there is a question about our desire for screen violence; but whatever else, that desire is not the same as wanting actual violence.

In one sense this is a traditional dilemma of the Western. Gunslingers are always trying to quit and live a quiet life, before they are finally forced, out of sheer virtue, to do what we wanted them to do anyway. We were not foxed by the idea of virtue; it was an alibi, like Harry Callahan giving the criminal a chance to go for his gun. But we liked to have some sort of alibi, and Unforgiven takes even that away. What is Eastwood to do? How is he to deliver the violence we need? His solution is both bleak and elegant, although it is not what he talks about in his repentant interviews. I’m not sure either how far the solution was intended by Eastwood, how fully he controls the film’s continuing contradictions, its bitter inconclusiveness. It may be that the genre wrote the ending, cut across the moralising, and that Eastwood got lucky. But then we should give hint credit for hanging on to his luck.

When his friend Ned is captured and killed, Munny has a new motive. Rage, revenge. Complicated no doubt by guilt for dragging Ned along, taking him away from his wife and his retirement. But rage and guilt can hardly justify what Munny is about to do, and the movie has strongly suggested that the motive for killing doesn’t matter anyway, that no motive is enough. Munny arrives in town, and pausing only to indulge in a little taut dialogue, mows down Little Bill and most of the other people in the saloon. Reprimanded, halfway through the process, for killing an unarmed man, he snarls, ‘He shoulda armed hisself.’ This is wilder than anything Eastwood has done, even in the Dirty Harry movies. We have got what we wanted, the rule of the Western has been met. Are we happy? Eastwood rubs salt into our wounds by having Munny ride away unharmed, and later reported by rumour to be living in San Francisco selling dry goods. He also photographs the threatening, avenging Munny as an icon, a horseman in the rain, a soaked American flag waving behind him.

We can moralise all this if we feel we have to. Once a killer, always a killer; the fact that Munny gets away with it is a horrible irony, and won’t save his soul. Or we can see the whole thing as cynical. This is a shoot-em-up Western which plays at having a conscience, but it’s still just a shoot-em-up, it delivers the final violence as surely as any movie by Leone or anyone else. Having flirted with the liberals (and the feminists) it just hands the territory over to the fascists. These views are too abstract, I think, not close enough to the experience of the movie, and they don’t include our role in these things, our collusion in all the killing and the anxiety about it.

Partly we want Munny to do something because we want him to get his skill back, to redeem all those misses of that large can on the fence, and his falling off the horse. This piece of the story is not really about violence at all, but about knowhow and determination and competition – we think of Marlon Brando getting the speed to return to his broken hand in One-Eyed Jacks. Munny doesn’t get any skill back, he just gets a big gun, and takes the town by surprise. We are also not displeased to see Little Bill get blown away, because he is a law officer and he has been beating up a black man. Our memories are short but not that short. But what about all the others in the saloon? We can only say, I think, that we wanted Munny to do something which wasn’t mere assassination, we were clinging to the distinction between justified and unjustified violence. At the end of a Western like Unforgiven, we don’t want everybody dead, we want everything over, we want someone to have terminally done the right thing at the right time, which is how Eastwood himself defines the ‘romance’ he specialises in. What’s at work in this movie, I think, is not what Newsweek called Eastwood’s ‘sorrowful view of human nature’, but a wry, if confused sense of what violence feels like when you’re trying to give it up; a sense too of how baffled anyone can get when the time is all wrong for what used to be the right thing.