Clint Eastwood is 78 years old and seems incapable of slowing down. His output this decade puts most of his fellow (younger) filmmakers to shame, both in quantity and quality; his latest, Gran Torino (which he both directed and starred in), boasted the biggest box-office opening of his career. He's never really faded from the spotlight, but his latest burst of productivity (Gran Torino followed his previous directorial effort, Changeling, by about two months) has raised his profile even further, which presumably pushed Universal to respond with the Clint Eastwood: American Icon Collection. This bargain-priced set repackages their previous releases of four Eastwood-starrers from the late 60s and early 70s; he directed two himself, while the remaining pair were helmed by his mentor, Don Siegel.
All four are worth seeing, but the highlight of the set is Play Misty For Me, Eastwood's 1971 directorial debut. He plays Dave Garner, a jazz DJ in Carmel, California who frequently takes requests from a female caller who asks him to, well, you know, the title. One night after his shift he meets said caller, Evelyn (Jessica Walters) at a bar; they end up in bed together, after agreeing that it's a "no-strings attached" situation. Then he finds out there are strings. Boy, are there strings.
Misty's stalker storyline has been told several times since, but seldom this directly and effectively. Much of its success is due to Walters (later to achieve immortality as "Lucille Bluth" on Arrested Development), who is just plain superb, effortlessly toeing the line between sexy and crazy. She's terrifyingly real. Eastwood's acting is grounded and believable, and his direction is assured, particularly for a first-time filmmaker. His compositions are tight (watch how he uses the bar mirror in their first meeting) and the pace is spot-on, so that when the violence comes, it is startling. His camerawork is expert (particularly the occasional jittery, handheld photography), though, in typical early-70s fashion, he overdoes it a little on the zoom shots. Eastwood also shows nice restraint in the sparse score and makes fine use of the Carmel locations--he lived there for decades and served as mayor in the 1980s--even giving us a nice set piece at the famous Monterey Jazz Festival.
Supporting performances are also sharp, particularly Clarice Taylor (later Cliff's mom on The Cosby Show) as a cleaning woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, and John Larch, very good in the required cynical cop role. Aside from a dull performance by Donna Mills, Misty's only real flaw is that it is somewhat dated, and not just in the obvious, cosmetic ways (dig the groovy 70s font and music in the opening credits). But some of the attitudes are a little discomforting, particularly the embarrassing treatment of a gay supporting character (a recurring problem in the set). That period qualm aside, Play Misty For Me is a taut, brutal little thriller, and kudos to Eastwood for not screwing around at the end with a bunch of fake-outs and bullshit.
The set's second title is a bit of an oddity. The Eiger Sanction, from 1975, is based on an espionage novel, and sets itself up as a good, old-fashioned spy yarn--six minutes in and some dude's getting iced for a microfilm. It has a globe-trotting plot, stunts-aplenty, a flamboyant head of a secret government agency, and... Clint Eastwood?
Eastwood stars as Dr. Jonathan Hemlock, a smooth-talking, mountain-climbing, bed-hopping art professor (and collector) who finances his collection by working as a government killer. To put it plainly, it's a little strange to see strong, silent Clint as a James Bond-type character, especially since those elements of his character are kind of abandoned halfway through the film, leaving us with a sometimes-uneasy mix of a Bond-style story with Clint's bareknuckle-brawling tough guy.
As an actor, he may be a little out of his element here, but as a director, Eastwood is in fine form in the sturdy, well-crafted action sequences. He's also enough of a sport to let George Kennedy barrel right in and all but take over the picture, though the extended middle sequences (in which Hemlock trains for a dangerous mountain climb) are a little goofy. The film also engages in some disturbingly casual chauvinism (particularly an ill-timed, ill-advised rape joke that made this reviewer cringe) and homophobia (especially via Jack Cassidy's character), but hey, it was a different time, I guess.
The film picks up steam heading into the third act, however; it quickly and skillfully sets up some conflict with the rest of Hemlock's mountain-climbing team, and the climbing scenes are convincing and suspenseful (aided by Eastwood's occasional but effective use of the subjective camera). The only trouble there is, we get so wrapped up in the minutiae of the climb that we lose sight of the primary story. But this is a film that works best on a scene-to-scene basis anyway; enjoy the pieces for what they are.
The next film in the set is the 1968 cop flick Coogan's Bluff, directed by Don Siegel, who would later cement Eastwood's icon status by directing Dirty Harry. In some ways, Coogan's is a prototype for Harry, with its "ask questions later" take on police work and sneering dislike for big-city bureaucracy, but it is a funnier, more laid-back picture.
Eastwood plays Deputy Sherriff Walt Coogan, an Arizona good ol' boy who is sent to New York City to pick up a fugitive and bring him on back. The film gets most of its comic mileage from its fish-out-of-water elements, whether Coogan is encountering squirrely taxi drivers, big-city tough guys, or goofy hippies. The NYC police are primarily represented by Lee J. Cobb's hard-nosed Lt. McElroy, and while his character is a bit of a type, he manages to imbue it with some personality. Susan Clark provides the requisite romantic interest as probation officer Julie Roth, and while some of their interludes are a little on the dull side, she is a bit of a spark plug who puts an interesting spin on her dialogue.
Action sequences are solid, with a spirited, messy pool hall fight and a solid motorcycle chase as highlights. Its impressions of the hippie scene, on the other hand, feel more than a little out of touch--yes, I know there was a band called Strawberry Alarm Clock, but "Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel" still sounds like a forty-something screenwriter's idea of what a hippie club would be called. So Coogan's Bluff is a flawed, minor Eastwood picture, but still interesting, primarily for its place in his iconography; we see him tinkering with his image, moving away from the cowboy image of his television work and Spaghetti westerns and into a more brutal, urban landscape.
The final film in the set is a vivid, strange slab of southern Gothic melodrama called The Beguiled. Released in 1971 (the same busy year as Dirty Harry and Play Misty), this Eastwood/Siegel collaboration was something of a bust at the box office, but it is a fascinatingly atypical detour in their filmographies. Set in the waning days of the Civil War, the story concerns Cpl. John McBurney (Eastwood), a badly wounded Union soldier who finds refuge in a small Confederate girls' boarding school. They take him in to bandage his wounds and plan to turn him when the next patrol comes around, but McBurney takes stock of the situation and sets about conning his way into all of their good graces (and some of their beds).
The film is thick with atmosphere and a general sense of unease, aided greatly by cinematographer Bruce Surtees' restless, roving, almost twitchy camera. As a viewer, we're not sure where Siegel is taking it, but we know it's nowhere good. A scene of late-night room hopping, for example, has the makings of a bedroom farce, but it has a much more frightening outcome; the resultant grisly third act (including a blood-curdling scene of "period medicine") is sometimes difficult to watch, but seems inevitable. Not all of Siegel's contrivances work (the "inner dialogues" of the young women are unintentionally funny), and yes, it often goes over the top. But it goes all the way there, and doesn't seem to care whether its viewers will follow or not.
The performances help. Geraldine Page is excellent as the head of the school; she's no pushover, and watch her very carefully in the terrific scene where she shakes off three soldiers who stop in late one night, offering to help "look after" her girls. All of the younger actresses are solid as well, with Elizabeth Hartman and Jo Ann Harris standing out. And Eastwood is quite good in a very risky performance that doesn't afford him his usual restraint. It's a bit of a curio, but The Beguiled is remarkable in its own way--sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, never boring.
Universal presents the four films of the Clint Eastwood: American Icon Collection over three discs, with one each for Play Misty For Me and The Eiger Sanction, while Coogan's Bluff and The Beguiled share the fourth (one-sided, dual-layered) DVD. The three discs are housed in a single, standard-width hinged black keepcase, with no inserts. All of the discs have apparently ported over the transfers and special features (or lack thereof) from the previous stand-alone releases of these films.
All four of the films' anamorphic transfers look surprisingly good, particularly considering their age. Misty has some fine grain and a bit of shimmering, but overall, the 1.85:1 image is quite solid. Eiger Sanction sports the set's only 2:35:1 transfer, and it is also a strong one--again, a bit of grain (particularly in a couple of opening credit shots) and some occasional softness, but the blacks are deep and the overall saturation is very good. The 1.85:1 transfer for Coogan's is also top-notch; this is the oldest film of the bunch, and while it is just a bit rougher, with a tad more dirt in the frame, it's still mighty sturdy. The Beguiled (also 1.85:1) has noticeably more grain than the other films, but the image is still crisp and the autumn-flavored color palate is richly reproduced.
All four films sport simple 2.0 stereo mixes, which do their job efficiently and effectively. All of the tracks are lively (particularly The Eiger Sanction and Coogan's Bluff, with their vibrant scores by John Williams and Lalo Schifrin, respectively), with dialogue clear and audible. My only regret is that we all got spoiled by those terrific, enveloping 5.1 mixes on last summer's re-releases of the Dirty Harry films; maybe one day we'll be lucky enough for a similar revisiting of these titles.
All four titles also include a French language track, as well as English subtitles.
The bulk of the extras come on the Play Misty For Me disc, which was previously released as a stand-alone special edition. Chief among them is "Play It Again... A Look Back at Play Misty For Me" (49:20), an in-depth featurette examining the production from start to finish, including interviews with Eastwood, Walters, Mills, producer Robert Daley, and others. It's quite detailed and well-assembled, with emphasis on the development of Walters' character and Eastwood's directing style.
"The Beguiled, Misty, Don and Clint" (6:13) is a nice dual-interest featurette, with Eastwood, Daley, and film historian Richard Schickel drawing parallels between the two films (with minor spoilers, so don't watch this one until after seeing The Beguiled) before examining the two men's collaborative relationship. "Clint Eastwood on DVD" (1:26) is a brief interview snippet, in which Eastwood voices his support for the format. Next are three photo galleries: a "Photograph Montage" (3:54) of wardrobe shots and production stills, "Clint Eastwood Directs and Acts" (2:03), a montage of Eastwood at work, and "The Evolution of a Poster" (2:38), consisting of photos from the poster shoot and mock-ups for the poster (including those with the much-worse working title, The Slasher). The special features are rounded out with text-only Production Notes (remember when every disc had those?) and the original Theatrical Trailer (1:43), which is fairly effective, in spite of some strange music choices.
The rest of the titles are basically bare-bones, though Eiger and Beguiled also include Production Notes and Theatrical Trailers (Coogan's has no extras at all). The Beguiled's spoiler-heavy trailer is worth a curiosity glance, for no other reason than to see marketing gone wrong; predictably, it plays up the sexual angle, most egregiously in a ridiculous voice-over that sounds like it was lifted out of an old AIP trailer.
The Clint Eastwood: American Icon Collection is full of entertaining, interesting films, showcasing the evolving persona of one of our cinematic legends. What's more, it's one of the best DVD values in recent memory; as of this writing, Amazon's price for this four-movie set is a mere $13.99. That'd be a good price for the Play Misty Special Edition all on its own. For both the quality of the product and the bargain of the price tag, this three-disc set is Highly Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.