Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Dirty Harry:" The thing about fascists

Title: Dirty Harry
Released: 1971
Genre: Rogue cop story
Notable for: Taking Clint from star to icon
Coolest thing Clint does: Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?

A certain segment of movie critics squirted a big stain on Clint's career by calling "Dirty Harry" a fascist film.

Our guess is many of these critics were motivated by resentment because they spent the better part of a decade dismissing Clint as a bad actor who made bad films that appealed to stupid audiences. "Dirty Harry" instantly transformed Clint into something bigger than a movie star.

The movie had such cultural impact that in Brad's day, perhaps half the young males alive could recite Clint's speech about the .44 magnum being the most powerful handgun in the world. If a buddy tried to take a man's last beer, or commit some equally objectionable offense, there was a good chance the man would warn him off by saying, "Do you feel lucky, punk?" That wasn't even the real line from the film, but, like "Play it again, Sam," it should have been.

"Dirty Harry" is first and foremost a great cop story with lots of action. Harry kicks major ass. Scorpio, the villain, is so weirdly evil he is almost a comic-book character, but that's OK.

The main storyline follows Clint's pursuit of Scorpio, a demented serial killer who tries to blackmail the city of San Francisco into paying him. Eventually the gutless mayor wants to pay. Clint, a homicide cop, surmises Scorpio will never stop killing because he enjoys it too much.

Along the way, Clint stumbles into random situations like a bank robbery and a suicide attempt. Humor is thrown in, like the famous early scene where Clint keeps munching a hot dog during a shootout with the bank robbers.

Dirty Harry Callahan is not a sensitive cop. For one of many examples, he prevents the potential suicide by explaining to the guy what a mess he'll make -- arms and legs everywhere -- after he jumps off a ledge. He is disgusted to learn his new partner, Chico, has a sociology degree. It is fair to say Dirty Harry was politically incorrect years before the term was invented, but that's a far cry from fascism.

The fascist charge was perhaps based partly on a false premise that Dirty Harry is a racist. Early on, a fellow cop explains that Callahan hates everyone equally -- and then he elaborates with a long list of racial slurs to describe all the people Harry hates. But Clint never uses any slurs except when he calls Chico a "spick," and that seemed a test to see how he would react. He really does treat everyone equally.

The main evidence cited for fascism is Dirty Harry ignores constitutional protections like Miranda warnings, search warrants and the right to an attorney in his pursuit of Scorpio. By the end, Callahan violates direct orders to stop "harassing" Scorpio.

If the movie deserves criticism on this political ground, the real offense was making the law-enforcement system appear neutered by its concern for the rights of the accused. After Clint catches Scorpio, a prosecutor and judge lecture Harry for violating his rights. They say Clint contaminated all the evidence with illegal police methods so Scorpio is released. "I couldn't convict him of spitting on the sidewalk," the judge says.

This is bullshit.

For one thing, Scorpio shot Chico, a crime worse than spitting on a sidewalk, and Clint contaminated no evidence in that case. More importantly, anyone who knows anything about the American justice system knows no cop-shooting serial killer would have been released in 1971 (or now), even if excuses for police misconduct had to be, shall we say, fashioned imaginatively.

The worst thing Clint does to Scorpio is step on a wound to force him to reveal where a young girl was buried alive. The prosecutor calls this "torture" but in real life damn few prosecutors would refuse to look the other way under those circumstances.

Dirty Harry did none of those things for the sheer thrill of applying police force. He did it to stop Scorpio, with or without search warrants or the blessing of his bosses.

In the final scene, Callahan even resigns from the police state by throwing his badge away, clearly unaware four sequels were coming.

Stupid audiences grasped the true lesson of "Dirty Harry:" A real man is guided by his sense of right and wrong, not orders from above.

That, as the records from Nuremberg show, is the opposite of a fascist.

Next up: "Joe Kidd."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

"Play Misty for Me" and the invention of the homicidal psycho-stalker bitch

Title: Play Misty for Me
Released: 1971
Genre: Knife-wielding psychotic suspense
Notable for: Clint's directorial debut
Coolest thing Clint does: Face-punches deranged chick through a window and over a cliff

Three-quarters of the way through "Play Misty for Me," serious analysis was suspended for a bitter fashion dispute that separates men from boys.

It happened when Clint was chased from bed in his underwear by a knife-wielding stalker. He wore white cotton briefs. You could almost see grapes and apples on the elastic waistband.

"Haa!" Andrew snorted. "Tighty-whities are for wuss bags."

It made no sense to counter by pointing out that in 1971 every man wore briefs. It made no sense to explain that until the Bill Clinton administration, when the annoying question "boxers or briefs?" was invented, society assumed no men wore boxer shorts. It made no sense to develop well-reasoned arguments.

"Pussies wear boxers," Brad said.

"You can't be serious, old man," Andrew said. "Tighty-whities are ridiculous. No one younger than, like, 80 wears them."

"Do you know what's ridiculous?" Brad asked. "It's ridiculous that any man can wear boxer shorts four inches higher than his pants without realizing only a pussy wants other people to see his underwear. What kind of man even cares about underwear? A metro-sexual wanna-be gay guy, that's what kind."

"Make sure we put this in the blog so everyone can realize how old and stupid you really are," Andrew said.

Done and done!

The movie itself was received more enthusiastically in our living room. It is the first Clint Eastwood suspense film, and we say he pulled it off well.

"Play Misty for Me" was first received by critics as a mediocre attempt at Hitchcockism, but its reputation has grown over time. It is now often credited for inventing the "Fatal Attraction" genre. Jessica Walter's marvelous portrayal of the spurned lover turned psycho-stalker reminded Andrew of Kathy Bates in "Misery." Bates won an Oscar and she had nothing on Walters in the scary-freak department.

The storyline is simple.

Clint plays a radio disc jockey and Walter is a big fan. After a couple romps of what Clint believes is meaningless sex, Walters shows herself to be deranged. She gets weirder and weirder until, inevitably, she tries to kill Clint and the woman he really loves.

By his measure, Clint's character is a wimp. After Walter ransacks his house and nearly kills his housekeeper, he never even gets a gun, for God's sake.

On the surface, this is similar to "The Beguiled" because Clint is attacked by a woman scorned. But it is a far more conventional film. In "Play Misty for Me," Clint does nothing to deserve retribution. He even tries to turn down sex with Walter when he meets her, saying he does not want to "complicate my life,"

"Neither do I," Walter responds, "but that's no reason why we shouldn't sleep together tonight."

Well, what do you expect a man to do? Clint is clearly the good guy and the good guy wins in the end.

"Play Misty for Me" was the first film Clint directed, and we have just two quibbles. The movie is set in Carmel, California, the town where Clint lived and was later elected mayor, and it includes an interlude at the Monterey Jazz Festival with no apparent point except to impress the Chamber of Commerce. Also, Clint interrupted the flow of his suspense story with a prolonged love sequence set to the entire song "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Except for the side-boob shots, we found this sappy. But it launched singer Roberta Flack to stardom, so maybe we are wrong.

Walter was marvelous, but one point should be made about the character-type she invented: The murderous psycho-bitch is big in movies, not real life.

Men share stories about nutty ex-lovers, but usually they involve acts like cutting up his underwear (boxers or briefs) and decorating her Christmas tree with the shreds. When real-life love leads to murder -- especially murder-suicide -- it is almost always the man who turns homicidal.

Still, Clint's message for manhood is pretty obvious here. Watch out where you take your pleasure, boys, because some of these ladies are crazy.

Next up (drum roll, please): "Dirty Harry."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

"The Beguiled" and the, um, limitations of human nature

Title: The Beguiled
Released: 1971
Genre: Uh, passion play, maybe?
Notable for: A cornucopia of sexual taboos
Coolest thing Clint does: Gets juices flowing inside every woman in sight (sorry, there's slim pickings for coolness here)

We theorize that decades before cell phones were invented, current texting jargon originated with movie audiences that watched "The Beguiled."

Millions of Clint Eastwood fans walked out of theaters, looked quizzically at each other, and said, "WTF?"

WTF, indeed.

Before The Clint Eastwood Project, we never heard of "The Beguiled." As we watched the film for the first time while enjoying morsels of beef-like material from Arbys, we could only assume Clint intentionally tried to shock and perhaps disturb his audience.

It is a dark movie in every way, including the literal one. So many scenes were shot in near-complete blackness that we worried something was wrong with our TV.

Sexual repression and violence are the themes, with elements of taboos including pedophilia, incest, lesbianism, wanton promiscuity and a three-way sex fantasy. Considering the era, we should probably include inter-racial lust, too.

It may not be a bad movie, but we were too puzzled to know for sure. With all that sex, it certainly held our interest.

The story is set in the Civil War, and it starts when a 12-year-old girl discovers Clint, a severely wounded Union soldier, behind enemy lines in the South.

Sixty seconds into the film comes the first scene that is probably too pervy to be shot today. Hiding in bushes with the girl, Clint -- who was 40 when the movie was made -- declares her "old enough for kisses" and plants a big one right on her mouth.

Shreds of Arbys fell from the corners of our lips as we sputtered in disbelief.

Clint's rescuer takes him back to a girls' school where she lives. The school turns out to be full of females who ache for a man inside their lions.

As he is nursed back to health, Clint acts like a man-whore -- in other words, a man -- by encouraging every female possible, including the 40ish schoolmarm whose previous sexual experience was with her brother.

"Why should I have to deny myself after all I've been through?" he asks.

Non-denial is a monumentally bad game plan.

After Clint is caught in bed with the resident slut, the schoolmarm takes revenge by sawing off his leg. The amputation is is not shown onscreen, but the sawing noises are revolting.

Clint is pissed off to lose a leg for no good reason, so he really makes the ladies angry. They feed him poison mushrooms and in the final scene sew a bag around his dead body.


Despite some imagery comparing Clint's character to a Christ figure, there is not a good person in the movie. The only exception may be a slave woman who tells Clint he must kill her before he screws her. Clint is weak, both physically and in self-control, from beginning to end. He's no Christ.

Andrew surmises the message of the film is this: The human race is no good.

"It captures so well the horribleness of people," he says.

It is an overtly sexual movie, so Clint should have a commentary on masculinity somewhere in there.

Maybe it's this: A real man should not count on the goodness in anyone, including himself. Maybe not, but that's the best we can do here.

Next up: "Play Misty for Me."

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Two Mules for Sister Sara" and the unexpected appearance of a heart of gold

Title: Two Mules for Sister Sara
Released: 1970
Genre: Western with a woman
Notable for: Clint gets hot for Shirley MacLaine
Coolest thing Clint does: Orders woman to light afire an arrow stuck in his shoulder and run it through to cauterize the wound

Pairing Clint Eastwood with Shirley MacLaine in an "African Queen" with saddles is an idea that should never have worked. First off, MacLaine had a reputation as a headstrong and temperamental actress, the sort with whom Clint supposedly hates to work. On screen and off, they do not seem a likely couple.

That's the magic of movies. Sometimes things work that shouldn't. This film combines action, humor and lust (romance is not quite the right word) in a way tailor-made for Clint.

"Two Mules for Sister Sara" takes Clint's Western tough-guy character, complete with cigars, and experiments by giving him something close to a heart of gold.

Clint grunts, squints and kills dozens of people on the range, as usual. He is, as usual, motivated by money, this time as a mercenary in Mexico looking to profit from freedom-fighters resisting French occupation. As usual, he has a mysterious past. The only thing revealed about his background is Clint fought in the U.S. Civil War and considered himself a sucker for it. His life's goal is to set up a big gambling saloon in San Francisco.

So much usual stuff provides a nice comfort level to Clint's usual fans, like us. We don't know much about Mexico's fight against the French, but we can tell good guys from bad.

The story starts with Clint, a lone rider on the Mexican range, encountering three scumbags preparing to rape MacLaine. Clint kills the scumbags, then discovers MacLaine is a nun. It ruins his plans for the night.

MacLaine joins up with Clint because they share a mutual interest in toppling a French garrison. MacLaine is sympathetic to the Mexican cause and Clint is working with the Mexicans to capture a safe from the French.

"If they pay me off in tortillas, I am going to shoot them right in the eye," Clint says, explaining the depth of his commitment to Mexican freedom.

Action and adventures follow in rapid-fire style as Clint and Shirley travel toward the garrison. The nun is surprisingly handy to have around on the range. They pull a dead man from his grave, cut off the head of a rattlesnake, are attacked by Indians, blow up a railroad bridge and eventually have a huge battle at the French garrison.

MacLaine talks like a nun but obviously is not what she seems. She sneaks off to smoke cigars, shows fondness for booze, and says "ass" and "god dammit."

It's sort of a buddy movie with rising horniness. Between action scenes, Clint asks MacLaine about her sexual desires, which she claims to suppress with prayer. Shirley asks him if he wants a woman and children, and he claims he does not. Along the way he admits he would like to give her a good poking except she is a nun.

Conveniently for Clint's sexual desires, MacLaine turns out to be a whore disguised as a nun. Isn't it great when that happens?

After he secures the French safe, Clint jumps MacLaine in a bathtub. In the final scene, they ride off together, presumably headed for San Francisco.

The factor that separates "Two Mules for Sister Sara" from all previous Eastwood Westerns is Clint's tough character is undeniably a good guy. It works.

A real man can have a heart of gold, and even be won over by a woman, as long as he is not a wimp about it.

Next up: "The Beguiled."

Friday, June 4, 2010

"Kelly's Heroes" and the blurring of greed, duty and simple-minded anti-war statements

Title: Kelly's Heroes
Released: 1970
Genre: Anti-war war movie
Notable for: Ensemble cast overshadows Clint
Coolest thing Clint does: Gets a Nazi colonel blind drunk as an interrogation technique

"Kelly's Heroes" is without doubt the leading Clint Eastwood movie of all time for featuring 1970s TV stars. This led to frequent annoying interruptions in our viewing pleasure.

"Hey! Do you know who that is?" Brad asked excitedly. "No," Andy answered. Why, that's Archie Bunker! That's Kojak! That's Don Rickles, you hockey puck. That's the captain of the Love Boat. Even Donald Sutherland -- Jack Bauer's daddy, as Brad explained -- deserved honorable mention as the original Hawkeye Pierce from "MASH."

Clint received top billing, but it was not his movie. It's not even his style of movie, despite the pleasure of frequent action scenes.

"Kelly's Heroes," set in World War II, is one of those anti-war movies like "MASH" and "Catch-22" often described as offbeat. What makes them offbeat is comedy originally meant to highlight the absurdity of war and, we suppose, condemn the Vietnam War.

Message aside, the creators of "Kelly's Heroes" also attempted to deliver a good dose of mainstream appeal with frequent battle scenes and a leading man, Clint, who played it straight.

We like battle scenes. We like large explosions. We like this movie. It is entertaining, despite one significant problem.

The story revolves around Clint's discovery that $16 million in German gold is kept in a bank behind German lines in France. He organizes a caper to break through and steal the gold.

Recruiting volunteers is easy because almost every soldier is swayed more by personal greed than stamping out Nazis. His particular band of brothers has fought hard since D-Day and feels mistreated by the Army brass, which is portrayed as unrelentingly incompetent and foolish.

Moral underpinnings of the gold caper (and the movie) are established early on when the soldiers declare they might die any day, so they might as well risk death to get something for themselves.

Between battle scenes, the movie is a comedy, but without Clint's participation. He is his usual, tight-lipped self. If he had a single joke, we missed it. This makes Clint seem out of sync with his own movie. Sutherland steals the show with a his portrayal of an eccentric tank commander who is, inexplicably, a hippie.

Clint's boys eventually get their gold, of course, leaving piles of dead Germans in their wake. Even the incompetent commanding officers notice all the fighting, and a blustery general rushes to the front lines to give medals to the thieves.

The plot has several holes -- for example, how do front-line soldiers expect to carry or conceal 14,000 gold bars for the duration of a war? -- but that's OK.

Here's the biggest problem: World War II was not Vietnam. We all know that now, even if it confused movie makers in 1970.

Near the end of the film, one lone but unbeatable German tank stands between Clint's guys and the gold. Don Rickles saves the day by suggesting the German tank commander should be bribed to stop fighting and join the heist.

"We're all soldiers," Telly Savalas tells the German. "We don't even know what this war is all about."

That's just idiotic. Almost a whole generation of Americans risked their lives fighting World War II and they knew what it was about. To have Rickles, a Jew playing a character who appears Jewish, suggest going into business with a Nazi soldier is worse than simple-minded.

Clint's message in this movie is that a real man looks out for himself instead of being a tool of others in power. That's fine, except a real man should also know that once in a while the people in power are not wrong.

Next up: "Two Mules for Sister Sara."