The Hard Way Film: Actor and director Clint Eastwood has been tireless and deadly quick on the draw when it comes to making and remaking his own myth.


If you see him around town, you may be surprised. So powerful and forbidding on screen, Clint Eastwood, who is starring in and directing "Absolute Power" here this June, is a somewhat more human figure in the flesh.

He's tall and spindly and strangely high-waisted. He's one of those spidery guys, like the great basketball player George Gervin, with abnormally long arms, a kind of concave spine and a head that seems large for the wiriness of the frame that supports it. It's the framing of the lens that gives him that lean, mythological look; that turns his eyes to lasers and his mouth into a grim statement of mayhem; without it, he's another man who slips into his pants one leg at a time, just like you and me, brother. That's at least the impression that has lingered since I spoke to him at length four years ago when he was advancing "Unforgiven," his Western classic.

In any event, with the big guy hanging out, trying to find parts of Baltimore that look like the Washington setting for his film, it's possibly time to look at the whole, contradictory Eastwood thing, and his impressive journey from hired killer to pantheon director, from farthest exile to avuncular insider, feted by the American Film Institute, cover boy for Film Comment.

There's no doubt that luck and genius are equal parts of it; but there's also no doubt that Eastwood's career represents a learning curve of the very highest order. He's never been content to do things the easy way, even when and especially when an easy way presented itself; his career is based on a great, almost heroic effort at finding deeper things within the facade of his manhood and expressing values in complete opposition to the initial forces that made him a star.

But a star he is. And who would have thought it? If you saw an

early screen appearance -- as a gawky fighter pilot, all Adam's apple and vacant eyes, in 1955's "Tarantula" (giant spider attacks Phoenix but Clint and his squadron of F-80 jockeys hit it with napalm and save the town, possibly the only pro-napalm movie ever made) -- you'd hardly forecast a career of the sort he was going to have. You'd hardly forecast any career.

He was just another lanky pretty boy in a jungle of B-movies, earnest, handsome in an uninteresting way, with an unformed face and that pointy Adam's apple dominating his scrawny presence like a nosecone. Failing to impress in features, even at the B-level, he segued to the tube and did a batch of unexceptional seasons as second banana on "Rawhide," from 1959 through 1965. Career lowlights: 1962 appearance on "Mr. Ed" as "himself." 1963: Released the LP "Rawhide's Clint Eastwood Sings Cowboy Favorites." It didn't look good.

Think of the other faces of the TV Western era: only Steve McQueen became a star and the rest are a litany of forgotten names, like Nick Adams and Wade Preston and Clint Walker and Eric Fleming and Pernell Roberts. Gone, either from showbiz itself or exiled into its farthest slums as TV pitchmen or dinner theater Lotharios.

Spaghetti Westerns

But the fortune that was to dog Eastwood struck first in 1965, when he accepted an invitation to journey to Rome and there make something unheard of -- an "Italian" Western.

One of the great unplumbed mysteries of the Eastwood career is his relationship with Sergio Leone, the visionary Italian who was about to change the movie world with his stylized, ritualized, almost fetishized versions of American Westerns, the direct beneficiary of which was Eastwood.

Reviled by mainstream critics at the time, the spaghetti Westerns all but reinvented the genre and certainly reinvented Eastwood. Who was responsible? Was this Eastwood, bringing a private vision of the Western hero as existentialist to the screen, or was it Leone, freighting his American blank slate with 30 years' worth of European intellectual theory? I asked Eastwood five years ago and his response was somewhat noncommittal, even disappointing. In any event, the results were staggering.

In the first of their three collaborations, "A Fistful of Dollars," Eastwood strode across the screen in a whole new vision of hero. He was lean and mean and a killing machine. But at the same time, he was undeniably sexy and dangerous in a way an American never had been. His cowboy didn't stand for fair fights and justice but for the narrow agenda of the self. You could argue that this was the beginning of the subversion of the American value system, that the European egoism that was at the heart of the Italian Westerns was the first step off the slippery slope that brought on such social catastrophes as the anti-hero, the hero without a code, the hero without a cause, a community, a history. Maybe he was Lee Harvey Oswald reimagined as John Wayne. On the other hand, fiction isn't in service to the nostrums of the culture; it means only to entertain.

And "A Fistful of Dollars" had an odd heritage that may have partially explained the moral outrageousness: It was an Italian version of a Japanese version of an American Western, and its secret coding may have been more Japanese than either Italian or American. The ur-film wasn't so much "High Noon" or any classic Ford Western, with their communal values and sense of familyhood, but Kurasawa's great "Yojimbo," about a free-lance samurai who cynically plays two warring factions against each other and walks out of town with everybody dead and a boodle in his sash.

Surely the radical iconography of Eastwood's Man With No Name had a lot more to do with the great star of the Kurasawa film, the nameless samurai played by the great Toshiro Mifune than with any American cowpoke. He's certainly not the tower of rigid rectitude of the Wyatt Earp Henry Fonda played in "My Darling Clementine." Mifune was something no American hero could have been: He was scruffy, an unkempt cynic with three days of itchy fur on his skin and a squint-eyed hawk's vision for opportunity. Moreover, his blinding speed with the sword gave him an arrogance of total power and his contempt for the losers that faced him, reflective of a feudal warrior society's contempt for lesser men; he had a psychotic intensity. He killed without warning or without remorse.

So, in the Italian version, when Eastwood ambles into the street and calls out four gunhands, stares them down from behind his squinty eyes, low hat and a serape that gave him the profile of Mifune's warrior-hobo, then drew and blew them away with the speed and nonchalance that were staggering, it sent shock waves through the lumpenproletariat of real movie goers and undergraduate film addicts, while professional critics hit the roof: The traditional iconography and the underlying chivalric assumptions of the ritualized gunfight had been stood on their head. Here was hero as psychotic killer, unrepentant, unbowed. A terrible beauty was born.

On to Dirty Harry

Eastwood, alone among American stars until Arnold Schwarzenegger came along, really built his identity on killing. He had the lanky frame and stone face and low, gravelly voice of a man at home with violence. He reminded me of D.H. Lawrence's assessment of the American character: "stoic, isolate and a killer."

And he prospered. Other films built on this image: It's a strange fact that for all the killing he did in Westerns, he actually left more bodies on screen as an OSS operative in one of his first post-Italian American films, "Where Eagles Dare," where all he did was kill while Richard Burton got to deliver the fruity speeches. (Laurel and Hardy they weren't, as a screen team.)

The apotheosis of the killer films came in 1971's "Dirty Harry," to this day as powerful, incendiary and controversial as it was in the year of its release. Playing the irascibly reactionary Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department, he was every liberal's nightmare and the disgruntled masses' hero: a cop who thought all the Supreme Court decisions favoring defendants' rights were crap, who represented the pure white male use of reflexive force as a way of keeping the law. "When I see a naked man with a butcher knife chasing a woman," he said to a hated administrator, "my policy is to shoot the bastard."

Harry was a kind of pre-Rush Limbaughian figure: He articulated the fantasies of masses increasingly shut out from a press liberalized by Vietnam and at the same time was a flash point for superior, "informed" elitist opinion. Pauline Kael, in The New Yorker, denounced "Dirty Harry" as a "fascist work of art."

Eastwood himself can't have believed in the character. Though the great old director Don Siegel had helmed the original "Harry," Eastwood made a number of sequels, including one as his own director ("Sudden Impact," 1983), and none of them came close to reaching the intensity, the fever dream of justice denied and then delivered, the sheer conviction of the original. They remain among the worst of the films he has starred in and directed.

The director

But hold on, partner: What's all this about directing?

It's that as a very shrewd businessman, Eastwood understood from the very beginning that he who controls the means controls the ends. Thus he moved at an early stage of his career -- 1968, after his European success but actually before his American -- to take over almost all responsibility for the films by forming his own production company. Thus, unlike almost all stars, he is pretty much completely responsible for his own film image.

Did he really have a gift for directing or did he just do it to save an extra salary once his production team at Malpaso was in place? This is another question for which no true answer exists. It is true, however, that the early films he directed were somewhat shaky. He starred himself in 1971's "Play Misty For Me," a fairly routine boo! of a movie that offered shallow gooses to an audience but represented nothing particularly interesting.

His early inclinations as both director and star were fairly mercenary. They solidified his rep as America's greatest killer and they gave the masses that for which they hungered: thinly imagined reactionary fantasies of revenge, in such movies as the weird "High Plains Drifter" (1972), "The Eiger Sanction" (1975), while at the same time starring in paeans of violence directed by others, like "Two Mules for Sister Sara" (1969) and the much underrated "Kelly's Heroes" (1970).

But there was soon to appear a contradictory side to Eastwood, almost subversive. It was as if in making his millions as the killer angel of angry middle-class America, a part of him rebelled at being so simply classified. A look at a film he directed -- a totally rotten piece called "The Gauntlet" -- suggests perhaps how unfulfilled and disinterested he was in that shooter's role; another part of him yearned for expression.

It could be argued, from one point of view, that he sold out his initial audience and the millions of believing Americans who made him a star, in pursuit of the approval of elite audiences and critics. Or, it could be argued, that this secret self was being asserted even as he was losing interest in his savage self. Again, no clear answer can be determined.

But as early as 1973, he chose to direct "Breezy," a love story with mismatched lovers William Holden and Kay Lenz. It was the first of many surprising choices he would make, indicative of a restless mind and an urge to do the unusual while clinging nevertheless to his mainstream image.

He's shown a real adventurousness as a director. In 1982's "Honky Tonk Man," he revised the image of the country-western singer; in "Bird" (1988), he studied the life and death of jazz great Charlie Parker; in last year's "The Bridges of Madison County," he cast himself against type and opposite powerhouse Meryl Streep and came off credibly in a less stupefying version of the Robert James Waller kitsch classic.

His strongest work, however, has always been in the dying genre of the Western. He has directed two authentically great American movies, "The Outlaw Josey Whales" (1976), by far the most assured of his earlier films, and the revisionist "Unforgiven," which seemed to invert the role of the killer that had made him so successful and subject it to withering scorn and contempt, while perhaps at the end cutting himself a bit more slack. But that doesn't mean every Western he's directed has been spectacular. "Pale Rider," a 1985 version of "Shane," somehow came out too politically correct (cheaply pro-environmental) to be worth much. In its stylizations, it too was closest to the Leone films that had originally spawned him.

It is said in Hollywood that he's an extremely proficient director but somewhat lacking in story sense: He can't fix a bad script, he can only film it. Thus, with great scripts, he can deliver great movies, as he showed in the two great Westerns; with flawed scripts, like "A Perfect World" (1993), he is helpless to see the flaws in the narrative structure and the thing just dies there, on the screen, sinking in a swamp of millions of wasted dollars.

But the most important thing about Clint Eastwood may not be an issue of talent but of character. He could have had such an easy life and he elected instead to really test his great good fortune, to reach out and more than once risk a great deal to commit some shred of original vision to the screen. Whether or not he enjoys his time in Baltimore and whether or not "Absolute Power" succeeds absolutely or fails pathetically, you have to say this for the big guy: He tried like hell.

Pub Date: 5/30/96

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad