From July 9th through the 27th, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is screening an epic film series called “The Complete Clint Eastwood,” which will showcase many of Clint’s starring roles and the majority of his directing work. This is a New-York-specific event, but what I’m about to write will hopefully be of interest to anyone who appreciates these movies.
There are few directors more prolific, few more consistent, and none as quintessentially American than Clint Eastwood. His is an astounding career, maybe the best career ever in movies. But you’ve probably heard that kind of talk from me before, so this time around I’ll do something different.
I’m going to let you know all the movies that will be showing at Lincoln Center this month, with my own quick take on each wherever I can provide it. Some of these movies demand to be seen the big screen, so this is a great opportunity to do that. If you live in the New York area, that is.
(Screening dates will be listed next to each title – find showtimes here! – and all of these mini-essays will come in alphabetical order.)
Let’s do this thing!
Absolute Power (7/20, 7/24)
This movie begins with a great illustration of “show, don’t tell” storytelling, courtesy of Clint and/or writer William Goldman. Day: Clint’s character is sitting in a museum, admiring a painting. Cut to night: Clint comes home, walks past that same painting. This is how the audience is told that he is a big-ticket thief, in images rather than words. I always remember that example, but this movie, a high-concept thriller about a thief who witnesses a crime in the White House, has a few other things worth watching, mainly an incredible cast: Clint, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Haysbert, and Laura Linney.
Bird (7/17, 7/19)
This list has a few masterpieces on it. Here’s Masterpiece #1. Clint takes his lifelong love of jazz and creates this unflinching biopic of one of Clint’s own idols, sax man Charlie Parker. It’s hardly idol worship, and as such it’s hard to watch at times. Forest Whitaker plays “Bird” in his first of many unbelievable performances to come. There are also appearances by some of my favorite character actors, including Keith David, Bill Cobbs, Tony Todd, John Witherspoon, and Tony Cox. This was Clint’s second movie with superlative cinematographer Jack Green (the first was Heartbreak Ridge) and it’s the look of the movie that you’ll remember, along with the terrific, painful performances.
Blood Work (7/23)
I actually haven’t seen this one, although I have read the source novel by Michael Connelly. Blood Work is the story of a fed whose recent heart transplant gives him special insight into an unsolved case. This adaptation was Clint’s last unloved or underrated (depending on how you look at it) flick before he began his current run of critically-adored prestige pictures. Whether it deserves a closer look or not, it is certainly notable as Clint’s first film with his current DP, Tom Stern. Stern had worked for years in Clint’s camera department, but on Blood Work he was promoted to cinematographer.
Another one I haven’t seen! To be fair, it’s not the easiest of Clint’s films to track down. A love story between a young free-spirit (Kay Lenz) and a much older William Holden, Breezy is Clint’s third feature as director, and a really interesting choice considering that the first two were a thriller and a Western. This was early proof that right from the beginning, Clint was creatively ambitious and restless, and hardly interested in heeding any expectations besides his own.
The Bridges Of Madison County (7/21)
This is a tough one. I love Clint’s work, and as I just said I love how he does whatever the hell he wants and usually succeeds at it. But I don’t love this movie. Part of that is due to the fact that I first saw this movie at an age where there was zero chance I could respond to it in any way. Part of that is due to the fact that it romanticizes an affair, and even as an adult I still don’t quite get that. But most of it is due to the fact that Meryl Streep plays Clint’s love interest, and I’m just not on that bandwagon. Obviously she’s a skilled actress but I only seem to like her in movies where she’s supposed to be cold and off-putting, such as Adaptation or Doubt. Here, she’s called upon to be earthy, warm, and alluring to a worldly guy like Clint’s character, and I don’t buy it. But the critics loved it and so did audiences back then, so what do I know?
Bronco Billy (7/16)
This is a cool little movie from the lesser-known area of Clint’s filmography. It’s the story of a travelling Wild West show run by a dreamer who refuses to march in step with modern times and who rolls with a bunch of like-minded performers. It’s one of Clint’s few comedies, although it’s not super-funny. But it is definitely sweet and charming, and it has fun performances from Scatman Crothers (The Shining) and Eastwood regular Geoffrey Lewis. It’s also interesting to look at as part of that sub-genre of movies from prolific directors that are probably about moviemaking. Scorsese has The Aviator, Woody Allen has Deconstructing Harry, Spike Lee has She Hate Me, and Clint has Bronco Billy. In that light – the troupe is a makeshift family who persevere to put on a show despite all kinds of obstacles – Clint seems to have a warm, affectionate take on moviemaking.
In my opinion, Changeling is a very underrated movie – weirdly underrated, considering how it came during a phase where Clint could do no wrong with critics and award-givers. The issue is probably that people are starting to take Clint and his remarkable track record for granted – “oh hey, there’s another really good movie from Clint Eastwood, wow, oh wait what’s that shiny object over there…?” It didn’t help that Clint’s ridiculous work ethic meant that he put out two solid movies in one year, and the one in which he starred (Gran Torino) played like a swan song from acting so it got way more attention. But Changeling is a creepy, atmospheric, and upsetting story, one which should get a closer look. Its period detail (1920s LA) is absorbing and its lead performance by Angelina Jolie – again, weirdly underrated – is deeply moving.
Dirty Harry (7/10, 7/15)
There’s really nothing I can say about this one, is there, except that if you’re a man and you haven’t seen this movie already, then I hope you enjoyed Sex & The City 2. Dirty Harry is a stone classic and a much more morally fascinating movie than even its revisionist reputation credits it for having. It was directed by Clint’s frequent early collaborator and filmmaking mentor Don Siegel, who had a long resume of tough, intelligent pictures. More than Leone even, Siegel provided the template for Clint’s remarkably diverse body of work. (Siegel even directed an Elvis Presley musical!) Dirty Harry is arguably Siegel and Eastwood’s crowning achievement as a team. Certainly, if you’ve never seen it on the big screen you owe it to yourself to do so right away.
The Eiger Sanction (7/12, 7/13)
I don’t remember this mountain-climbing adventure too well, honestly, and I’m surprised to see that Clint directed it himself (I’ve always thought of it as one of his actor-for-hire action flicks in the vein of Where Eagles Dare), but I did remember that in this one Clint co-stars with the very lovely Vonetta McGee, and that he has one of his greatest character names ever: “Dr. Jonathan Hemlock.”
Escape From Alcatraz (7/22)
Clint’s final collaboration with Don Siegel was this movie, about a real-life jailbreak from the notorious island prison. This is a fairly brutal movie (there’s a carpentry accident that remains freaky even after years of Evil Dead movies) and Clint is typically understated and excellent in it. The cinematographer, Bruce Surtees, first worked with Siegel and Eastwood on The Beguiled (and then Dirty Harry), and would go on to shoot the majority of Clint’s first several movies.
Firefox (7/16, 7/17)
Not just the inspiration for the popular internet search engine, but an action thriller about a spy on a mission to steal a state-of-the-art Russian plane. Haven’t seen it! Just never got around to it, and I guess at this point I’m worried that it will play as super-dated (the way that jokes about the popular internet search engine will, soon enough.) Again, the fact that Clint eventually directed the kind of spy thriller he used to only star in is just further evidence of his versatility.
A Fistful Of Dollars (7/10)
Recently wrote about it. Read it here!
Flags Of Our Fathers (7/24, 7/26)
A historical epic detailing the battle of Iwo Jima, and the effects of the famous flag-raising photograph on the small group of soldiers who were there. This movie has some good performances and some not-quite-as-good performances, but its sense of time and place and scale is astounding, and if you watch it as the first half of a diptych with its unofficial companion piece, Letters From Iwo Jima, it reveals itself as all the more amazing a directorial achievement.
For A Few Dollars More (7/15)
Recently wrote about it. Read it here!
The Gauntlet (7/14)
These days The Gauntlet is easily confused with Sudden Impact, since they’re both action thrillers co-starring Sondra Locke, but this isn’t actually a Dirty Harry adventure. Written by the eventual writers of Clint’s later Pale Rider, The Gauntlet is an over-the-top action flick about a cop protecting a prostitute so that she can testify. Arguably the best thing about it remains its poster by the late, great Frank Frazetta.
The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (7/22)
Recently wrote about it. Read it here! (Did I ever mention that this is my single favorite movie? And that you absolutely NEED to see it on the biggest screen possible to truly appreciate it?)
Gran Torino (7/27)
Here’s what I wrote about Gran Torino back in 2008 when I (predictably) listed it as one of my favorites of that year. I’ve gone back to it a couple times since, and while the more unpracticed performances start to wear upon repeated viewings, there’s still more than enough icon-dismantling and persona-tweaking going on here to be worthwhile. Still best appreciated as the first half of a double-feature with Slumdog Millionaire. (I don’t know why these things are, but they are.)
Heartbreak Ridge (7/17)
Another ‘80s Eastwood comedy, this one is worth seeing for Clint’s performance alone. He plays a drill sergeant with a drinking problem who has experienced war first-hand and is now responsible for training a callow brigade of young men who haven’t. Fans of badass banter will get a kick out of Clint’s character, Tom Highway – just beware the painful Mario Van Peebles “comedy relief.”
High Plains Drifter (7/12)
A laconic gunfighter rides into a lakeside desert town called Lago, where he proceeds to demoralize the townspeople in exchange for protecting them from a far worse outlaw. He appoints a dwarf the town sheriff and literally has the town painted red. It’s not all whimsical – he also rapes a woman during his first ten minutes in town. The fact that she appears to love it makes it no less disturbing and morally problematic. Clint’s second film as a director was his own take on the “spaghetti” Western (not the same as the American variety), and an intriguing and provocative take on vigilante justice. Oh, and it may or may not be a ghost story. This is one of the weirdest and most badass films of the 1970s, and it’s really memorable and awesomely eerie on the big screen.
Honkytonk Man (7/9, 7/14)
This small-scale period piece starts Clint as a country musician charged with taking care of his adolescent nephew. It’s another one I haven’t seen and in this case it’s a major gap in my Clint-ography because Honkytonk Man is reportedly one of the films closest to Clint’s heart. (A fact which seems to be confirmed by the casting of his son Kyle, now a respected jazz musician, as the young boy in the story.)
Click over here for my full-length take on Invictus. Though a biopic of Nelson Mandela’s first months in office as president of South Africa might not at first glance seem like an obvious project for the director of Unforgiven, I think that it falls right in line with Clint’s career-long interest in and understanding of heroism and iconography. It also reteamed Clint with his old pal Morgan Freeman and teamed him for the first time with Matt Damon, a hardworking and unpretentious younger star whose determined and laconic persona in the Bourne films no doubt endeared him to the man who was once “The Man With No Name.” Maybe predictably, the collaboration clicked and Clint is now in post-production on this October’s Hereafter, which again features Matt Damon.
Letters From Iwo Jima (7/24, 7/26)
If you watch Letters From Iwo Jiwa soon enough after Flags Of Our Fathers, it’s a remarkable experience. Logistically speaking, I can’t think of a more momentous technical undertaking (besides probably the Lord Of The Rings movies) in the past decade, and as a humanist undertaking, it’s even more impressive. Clint shows us both sides of the same battle from either perspective, and somehow the Japanese half of the duo rings far more hauntingly. This is Tom Stern’s finest hour on an Eastwood production to date, shot with a murky sepia palette that suggests both the darkness of the moment depicted onscreen, and the shadows of the near-future to come. I’ll have to look at Letters From Iwo Jima again, but in this moment I venture to submit it for consideration as Clint’s masterpiece #2 on this list.
Midnight In The Garden of Good & Evil (7/21)
Personally, I don’t think Clint’s at his best when adapting bestselling books, although at least this one started with some real life to draw upon. Clint doesn’t appear here; instead John Cusack plays a reporter who is covering the eccentricities of Savannah, Georgia when a murder changes the headline. Cusack is always fun to watch, Kevin Spacey is entertaining as the maybe-murderer, and I think Clint’s daughter Alison as the love interest is totally crush-worthy (is that weird?), but otherwise this movie is uncommonly slack.
Million Dollar Baby (7/25)
Clint brought back the boxing picture with this movie, and brought home a shelf’s worth of Oscars for it. As if to defy the decades of haters, Clint’s acting is arguably the best thing about Million Dollar Baby, although Morgan Freeman is invaluable as the source of some much-needed lightness in a bleak tale, and Tom Stern’s cinematography makes a powerful impression with its starkness. I’m not the world’s biggest Hilary Swank fan, but I respect the dedication she brings to her lead role here, and I think this is a strong movie, even if it’s way too depressing for me to want to return to any time soon.
Mystic River (7/23)
Clint got Best Picture for this one, and Sean Penn and Tim Robbins took Best Actor and Best Supporting. There’s a lot of good stuff here, but as a very obvious fan I have to admit that this movie is somewhat overrated amidst the Clint canon. For one thing, having read the book I could never understand why Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon didn’t switch roles. As it is, Bacon hardly makes an impression. What does stand out in Mystic River are a lot of bad Boston accents – Marcia Gay Harden and Laurence Fishburne (much as I love him) being standout examples. (Ten years ago could I have ever imagined that Ben Affleck could make a more authentic Boston picture than Clint Eastwood?) I also thought that what happens with Laura Linney’s character works in the book, but is too distracting as it occurs in the movie. Again, there are a lot of solid things about Mystic River – one being a pre-Wire performance by John Doman (better known as Major Rawls) as the scariest child predator ever – but it’s far, far from Clint’s best. You ask me, Clint’s majestic, haunting score is by far the most wonderful thing about Mystic River, and that’s like the one component that never got a single nomination. You got to say this, though: Maybe the greatest trailer ever.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (7/11, 7/14)
Masterpiece #3. Time Out New York this week refers to The Outlaw Josey Wales as “messy” and “rather ponderous” and I truly hope that you take my word for it over theirs. The Outlaw Josey Wales takes everything that Clint ever learned from Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, and everything he learned from cinema in general and Westerns in particular, and pours it all into this one glorious Western. One part revenge picture, one part Lone Ranger & Tonto picaresque (a travelling odyssey with the greatest Indian sidekick ever in movies, Chief Dan George), one part political allegory, and one part mournful hymn, The Outlaw Josey Wales is clearly Clint’s warm-up lap before Unforgiven. One more note: John Vernon, who plays Clint’s ally-turned-nemesis Fletcher, has between this, his roles in Point Blank and Charley Varrick, and Dean Wormer in Animal House, played four of the greatest heavies in film history. Respect. Thank you.
Pale Rider (7/9, 7/16)
Pale Rider is the only real Western Clint made in between The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven. (Bronco Billy doesn’t count.) Sandwiched between those two milestone bookends, Pale Rider suffers a little in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, Pale Rider is a great Western. It’s just that any Western would suffer a little when compared to those other two movies. It’s also that Pale Rider is a bit of a retread – the arrival of Clint’s mysterious drifter character “Preacher” echoes the supernatural aspect of High Plains Drifter, yes, but more obviously Pale Rider is very much an update of the classic Western Shane. It’s all about a mysterious gunslinger who rides into town to protect some oppressed farmers from the evil railroad, and he teams up with a noble rancher while eliciting the subtle adoration of the rancher’s wife and the enthusiastic adoration of the rancher’s kid – although of course Pale Rider improves on Shane by recasting the wide-eyed little boy (“Come back, Shane!”) with the dangerously pretty Sydney Penny. Pale Rider features some of Bruce Surtees’ most beautiful widescreen photography, and it’s a thoroughly satisfying movie. Well-recommended.
A Perfect World (7/11, 7/20)
One of Clint’s most underrated pictures features Kevin Costner’s single most best performance ever. Maybe that’s why Costner doesn’t get a whole lot of credit – because not a lot of people have seen A Perfect World. Costner plays a fugitive criminal who kidnaps a small boy – the kick is that the boy has a blast and the crook warms to him. That’s by far the most compelling part of the movie; the subplot with the cops pursuing him (even though Clint plays the sheriff!) can’t compete. By definition, you start to buy the friendship between Costner and the boy and you don’t want it to be ruined by reality. John Lee Hancock is still rightfully eating shit from two-fisted real-man film-lovers for being responsible for the phrase “Academy Award Winner Sandra Bullock,” but no one can ever take away from his screenplay for this movie. And the cinematography by Jack Green (doing a victory lap from his triumph on Unforgiven) is a real highlight.
Play Misty For Me (7/10, 7/12)
Clint’s directorial debut! A Fatal Attraction thriller about a radio DJ (Clint) who is stalked by an obsessed fan (Jessica Walter, now best known as Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development!) Featuring a cameo by Clint’s mentor Don Siegel! Pathetically, I’ve not seen this movie yet. Part of that is because I’ve read about it so often that I keep forgetting I haven’t seen it. And part of it is pathetic and inexcusable. I’m a huge Clint fan! I should see this movie!
The Rookie (7/19)
I don’t know. I mean, I haven’t seen this one either, but it co-stars Charlie Sheen so at the moment I’m not feeling as bad about it. I’ve actually heard that The Rookie is much better than its embattled reputation would suggest, though, so maybe I’ll see it still. Breaking news: IMDB says that The Rookie features a supporting performance by Hal Williams – best known as Lester from 227. All right, goddamnit, I’m in.
Space Cowboys (7/23, 7/24)
This story of four senior astronauts – Clint, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner, and Donald Sutherland – who are called out of retirement to save a damaged space shuttle, is frequently dismissed as Armageddon for old people. For one thing: What’s so wrong with that? For another: I find this movie to be one of the funnier of the Eastwood comedies. A little of it is unintentional (the opening scene where the old actors provide voiceover for a flashback to younger actors playing young versions of them is bizarrely hilarious), but a lot of it is classic dirty-old-man banter that I can only hope to approximate a few decades from now. Look, if you’re not delighted by the prospect of Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones talking shit to each other for two hours straight, I’m not sure I even want to know you. Bonus points to Space Cowboys for, whatever you think of the movie that precedes it, a genuinely beautiful, mournful, weirdly hopeful final tracking shot.
Sudden Impact (7/17)
This is the Dirty Harry entry that I confused with The Gauntlet, remember? It’s the first Dirty Harry entry that Clint directed himself. Probably not the best of the Dirty Harrys (that would be, well, Dirty Harry) but definitely not the worst (that one is most likely The Dead Pool), Sudden Impact is interesting mainly because it addresses a recurring theme in Clint’s work: the victimization of women, and/or what is to be done about it. See, Dirty Harry is tracking a serial killer, but the killer turns out to be a woman (Sondra Locke) who is avenging sexual violence done against her and her sister. The depiction of the subject matter isn’t exactly exploitative, but neither is it particularly complex. The Dirty Harry solution is to blow the bastards away, and so it turns out she’s his kind of girl. It must be said that this is a departure from most of the urban thrillers of that era, which did trade on images of sexual violence against women for exploitative purposes, but obviously killing off the offenders Dirty-Harry-style, while temporarily cathartic, doesn’t do the victims much good in real life. Look at me getting all intellectual… I guess the point is that Sudden Impact could be a conversation piece if looked at in that way, but realistically, that’s probably not what most people are looking for from a Dirty Harry movie.
True Crime (7/21, 7/23)
True Crime is another bestseller adaptation, but probably the best out of the ones I’ve mentioned so far. Clint plays a journalist who’s getting older but isn’t getting any better. He’s a womanizer and probably an alcoholic. He stumbles into a story that could potentially free a death-row inmate facing imminent execution, if he can just get his act together enough to care. The criticisms of True Crime are mainly due to the fact that for a ticking-clock thriller, it doesn’t feel particularly fast-paced. That’s a fair point, I guess. Clint has always been a leisurely filmmaker, or at least a deliberate one. He came up as a filmmaker during a time when longer takes were the norm and fast editing was rare, and he’s clearly never seen any reason to speed up his visual style. So maybe this wasn’t the ideal project for Clint, you could argue. But here’s what you get when Clint Eastwood directs True Crime: You get performances. You get Isaiah Washington as the accused man, and a heartbreaking Lisa Gay Hamilton as his wife. You get a brief but pivotal appearance by Mary McCormack, never more adorable. You get Denis Leary and James Woods as rival newspaper editors, blasting off one-liners like shotguns at the dueling-sarcasm firing range. And you get a craggy, charismatic performance from Clint itself, playing a guy who’s great at one thing and a sad fuck-up at everything else. True Crime is no classic or career-best, but it’s well worth a look, particularly for Eastwood completists.
Unforgiven (7/18, 7/19)
Masterpiece #4. Masterpiece. Masterpiece. I almost don’t want to write about Unforgiven, not because it’s been written about to death but because I could write about it all day (and you’ve seen the length of this article, so you can believe me.) The truth is that almost anybody could have made a good movie with David Webb Peoples’s script, but of course Clint was the best man for the job because he brought the full weight of his persona to it. He also brought out the humor in it, which is something I notice that people scarcely mention about Unforgiven. Clint’s humor is such a part of his films. As I’ve noted throughout, Clint’s humor is a light touch – gentle and breezy, so subtle you could miss it sometimes. Why would you ever think that the guy with that squinty glare was joking? It’s easy to overlook. But you’d never care about William Munny’s friendship with Ned Logan, and you’d never feel the way you do about what happens to Ned and what Will does about it, if you didn’t have those light moments of humor that pass like gusts throughout the early going. It’s maybe Clint’s greatest acting performance, as understated as ever but with vast reserves of rage and loss just beneath the surface, and every other actor in the movie rises to that level. I think I’ve already mentioned what I think about Jack Green’s cinematography in Unforgiven – it’s probably my favorite look of any movie ever. I wish that every movie looked like Unforgiven, but then I guess they wouldn’t be Unforgiven. It’s an important thing to talk about, how a movie looks. So many people write about movies, but never talk about what they look like. They talk about the script, which you can’t see, but not the photography, which you can. Movies are moving pictures, that’s what they are. Few pictures move me like Unforgiven, and yeah, in this case I know for a fact it’s because of how good the script is, but I also know that it has plenty to do with how it looks.
White Hunter, Black Heart (7/18)
We end not with a bang, but with a whisper. (Although not if you’ve actually seen this movie.) White Hunter Black Heart is maybe the most underrated Clint Eastwood directorial effort. White Hunter Black Heart is to Clint what Quick Change is to Bill Murray. If you’ve read this far, you probably get the references. This is a fictional biopic of the great director John Huston, and how he lost it for a minute there during the making of The African Queen, that classic movie starring Bogart and Hepburn. The Huston character, played here by Clint and renamed “John Wilson,” becomes obsessed with hunting elephants during the making of the movie in Africa, and nearly derails the project (and loses his own life) as a result of his obsession. White Hunter Black Heart has striking photography (again, courtesy of Jack Green) but is most memorable for Clint’s portrayal of the Ahab-esque main character. John Huston had a very distinctive voice and Clint pretty much nails it. I mean, everything about the performance is convincing, but who knew before now that Clint could do impressions? Seriously, if you’re one of those people who ever doubted Clint’s acting ability and thought all he’s about is squinting and growling and glowering, your opinion don’t mean beans until you’ve seen this movie. Then we can talk.
So that’s that. Believe it or not, there are a couple other screenings happening around this series that I didn’t cover – it’s that thorough. (Here’s the program again.) If you’re a Clint super-fan, you will want to see this festival. If you’re a student of American film, it’s a must. If you’re looking to discover some lesser-known movies, I hope I helped a little.