With two new films playing in Australian cinemas it seems only right that Cinema Autopsy should dedicate an entire post to the iconic actor and great filmmaker that is Clint Eastwood.
1. He is The Man With No Name
The Italian director Sergio Leone, famous for his “Spaghetti Westerns”, made six truly great films and three of those stared Eastwood as The Man With No Name character. The first of these was A Fistful of Dollars (1964), a western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo (1961). A Fistful of Dollars established Eastwood’s steely gaze, witty one-liners and capacity to burst into action at any moment. His seductive, unpredictable capacity for sudden violence means that you can’t take your eyes off him. Eastwood dominates the screen and continued to do so in For a Few Dollars More (1965) and then The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), the film that leaves no doubt about the greatness of Eastwood and director Sergio Leone.
2. He became the urban John Wayne
Along with Leone, Eastwood often credits director Don Siegel for being an early inspiration to his career as a director. Siegel directed Eastwood in 5 films, including Coogan’s Bluff in 1968. In Coogan’s Bluff Eastwood is a cowboy hat wearing Deputy Sheriff from the Arizona desert who is brought to New York to extradite an escaped killer. Siegel established Eastwood as the classic lawman type from the Western genre but over the course of the Coogan’s Bluff relocates him into a contemporary urban setting.
Eight years later Siegel directed John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist (1976). Wayne plays J.B.Books, an aged, legendary gunfighter whose past glories are behind him. Books is dying of cancer and The Shootist would be Wayne’s final film as he himself died of cancer three years later. The Shootist is about the old cowboys dying off, leaving the stage for the next generation to take over. It is an ode to Wayne’s legacy and the end of the classic Western.
Coogan’s Bluff took Eastwood out of the desert and put him in the city. The Shootist was the death of the old school gun slinging Western. Between these two films Siegel made the film that established Eastwood as an urban lawman with the attitude and temperament of the type of Western hero that Wayne would have wanted to share a whisky with.
3. He is Inspector ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan
Harry Callahan is still Eastwood’s most recognisable character and the original Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971) is a brilliant and gripping film about an unorthodox cop who has little time for formal procedure and less time for the rights of the serial killer he has been assigned to track down. He is dry witted, a crack shot with his beloved .44 Magnum and portrays a demeanour of cool that is beyond comparison. Despite its dubious demonising of the 70s San Francisco counterculture, the politics of Dirty Harry are not nearly as clear-cut as many would argue. Many saw it as a rightwing attack on a justice system that was increasingly regarded as more concerned with the rights of the criminal than the right of the victim. Certainly the inferior, yet still highly enjoyable, sequels offered little more than the vicarious violent thrill of seeing Harry mercilessly trample over anybody who gets in his way, but the original Dirty Harry is a far more ambiguous film. The shot in the football stadium when Harry tortures Scorpio is a dramatic pull back up into the night sky as if the audience are hastily being pulled away from the horror of the moment in recognition of Harry’s brutality. The film also ends with Harry throwing his badge away in disgust, in homage to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), a film known for its strong liberal politics and anti-blacklisting allegories.
4. When he reinvented himself, he made a masterpiece
As far back as 1976 Eastwood starred in and directed The Outlaw Josey Wales, a terrific Western that depicted vengeance as a soul-destroying act. It wouldn’t be until 1992 that Eastwood would return to these ideas to fully explore the devastating results of revenge and violence, which had otherwise mostly appeared in his films as entertaining spectacle. The result was Unforgiven, his best film to date as director and actor, and one of the all time great Westerns. With echoes of John Wayne in The Shootist, Eastwood plays a lone aged gunslinger who reluctantly goes into battle once more and obliterates whatever humanity he has left. It is a meditation on the impact that violence has on a person’s conscience, the mythology of the Western, redemption and sacrifice, the treatment of women and aging. It is both a classical Western and a revisionist Western. Unforgiven is Eastwood’s masterpiece.
Many of the films Eastwood directed after Unforgiven continued to explore some of its various themes. A Perfect Word (1993) demonstrated that the difference between what constitutes a good guy and what constitutes a bad guy is rarely clear-cut. Mystic River (2003) showed how devastating, destructive and misguided revenge can be, Million Dollar Baby (2004) confronted issues concerning death and quality of life and Changeling (2008) depicts a society where women are treated with contempt. Gran Torino (2008) is in many ways a suburban Unforgiven but with a more hopeful message of redemption.
5. He made two of the best ever war films
Depicting the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima in two different films, one from the point-of-view of the Americans and one from the point-of-view of the Japanese, was a bold move. Nevertheless Eastwood succeeded in making two incredibly powerful films that each stand on their own. In Flags of Our Fathers (2006) Eastwood contrasts the scenes of young men dying on the battlefield with scenes depicting the cynical and exploitive propaganda machine that waited for them once they returned home. In Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) the Japanese soldiers are fully developed characters, many of which are bewildered, frightened and having trouble identifying with the nationalistic rhetoric fed to them from their home country. Eastwood vividly depicts the chaos and carnage of war without ever falling into the trap of making the graphic scenes into entertaining spectacle. Unlike so many films that claim to be antiwar because they depict the causalities on their own side, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima are true antiwar films. They show the loss of lives on both sides of the conflict to be equally tragic.
Clint Eastwood has been a part of some of the best war films, cop films and Westerns ever made. He commands your attention when he is in front of the camera and he thoughtfully crafts every moment of a film when he is behind the camera. He makes the kind of films that he wants to make with the conviction that only a truly talented filmmaker can get away with. He is compassionate, socially conscious and not afraid of controversial subject matter. Finally, you always know that no matter how old he is he is always capable of kicking your ass. There is something eternally reassuring about that.