Is Play Misty For Me one of my favourite films of all time, or do I just want to live in the house where Clint Eastwood lives in Play Misty For Me? I don’t think the answer is quite clear cut. I definitely think Play Misty For Me is the best film about a stalker I have ever seen, with – from Jessica Walter, better known for her much later role as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development – the most memorably frightening big screen embodiment of unhinged obsession I have ever seen, and I definitely think that Clint Eastwood’s house in it is at the very least in my top five film houses, but I also don’t think it is a perfect film, and I don’t think the house is perfect, either. That messy sort of gold wallpaper behind Clint’s bed, for a start. That needs to go. It’s letting the rest of the decor down. I have better wallpaper than that in my house and it only cost a tenner from a junk shop in Norwich in 2013.
Here is the plot, loosely, of Play Misty For Me: Clint Eastwood is Dave Garver, a DJ in the town of Carmel-by-the-sea in California. He drives along the misty coast road from his sea front ranch house in a 957 Jaguar XK 150 Drophead Coupé along the semi-deserted coastal highway underneath impossibly beautiful mountainous terrain then plays smoky jazz and funk for a late night listenership to be, in his words, “very nice to each other by”. A mystery caller repeatedly asks him to play the 1954 Erroll Garner song, ‘Misty’, for her, and soon reveals herself in person at a neighbourhood bar. They kiss, in a way that really doesn’t look very comfortable. That night Dave makes the beast with two backs with her, but isn’t really interested in coming back for seconds, which, as we learn from his conversations with his work colleague Al and his barman friend (played by Don Siegel, who’d already directed Eastwood in Dirty Harry, Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules For Sister Sara and The Beguiled by this point), tends to be his MO. But the caller, Evelyn (Walter), won’t take no for an answer, and seems, despite Dave’s rebuffs, convinced they are in a passionate love affair which will last for eternity. Further complications arise with the return of Tobie, Dave’s ex-girlfriend, to Carmel. I won’t spoil the rest but let it suffice to say you’ll probably never quite think of balconies or cinammon-based drinks in the same way again.
When I rewatched Play Misty For Me a few days ago – on what, weirdly, turned out to be the eve of Walter’s death – I saw the same film I’d seen when I watched it as a teenager, but more and less of a film too. Walter seemed as compellingly crazy as ever, a rare female psychopath with a psychopath’s voice. The film seemed shorter, a little less agonising in its inflictions of worry on the viewer, and I interpreted the pestering, terror and claustrophobia Evelyn puts Dave through less as a knife being slashed through the fabric of a perfect life, but as punishment for his complacent and spoilt outlook. We soon learn Dave has cheated on Tobie several times, and seems to feel in some way victimised by the scanty nightwear her revolving door cast of young female housemates have worn in his presence. He’s also a bit grumpy, not very receptive to the good humour, encouragement and charm of Al, or virtually anyone else he encounters, apart from the big time producer who is poised to further his career. He seems to be in top physical shape but in his fridge we see nothing but beer: about as much as you could reasonably fit on the shelves without the door failing to close properly.
Where is this world, where you get to live in a clifftop house like Dave’s, with a walled yard and the hot salty fogs and mystical drama of the Pacific directly below it, on the salary of a smalltown disc jockey, and spend your weekends hanging out watching Cannonball Adderley and Johnny Otis at the Monterey Jazz Festival? The answer is of course “cinematic California, in 1973”. But even seeing this apparent Utopia, where the panoramic overhead shots display a seamless symbiosis between landscape and architecture, where people live unhurried lives unbullied by technology, lounge around – in actual “lounging pyjamas” in Evelyn’s own description – in uplifting domestic spaces flooded with light, receive the benefits of wheeled motor vehicles but not yet all of the aesthetic corporate blight that goes with their growth as an industry… seeing all this is accompanied by a bittersweet feeling. As beautiful as Play Misty For Me is – and, even if you’re not fully down with the narrative and tension, you can watch it just for its beauty – what you feel you’re watching is some kind of unrepeatable apex. We know Eastwood still looked great many years after this, but, as for Garver, one suspects it’s not going to be long before the beer and uncharitable outlook start writing themselves on his physique. Also, you can guarantee he’s not recycling those bottles. That house? Someone will have put a crap new kitchen in it before long, thrown out the sexy lamps and replaced them with something bland and up to date from Home Depot, maybe, cottaged it all up, with no sympathy for the original layout. There’ll be a new executive development of mock somethings nextdoor, a strip mall on the highway, a couple of new KFCs and a Dunkin’ Donuts. One of the reasons Garver’s world is such a cool place to live is that it’s in the early stages of ruining itself: the central problem with any fantasy set in the 60s and 70s, the time when the ruination of the planet was getting hard underway beneath hugely exciting and stylish cultural events. The climax makes you aware that nothing will ever be the same again for its main characters, but there’s a bigger version to that which made me finish the film with a greater ache inside of me. Everything – for everyone, not just the characters we have got to know – can only go downhill from here. There’s simply no logical way it could turn out otherwise.
My new book has just been published. It’s called Notebook and you can order a copy from the independent bookshop, Blackwells, here. (They also deliver inexpensively outside the UK.)
My novel, VILLAGER, is now up for funding. I’d be delighted if you were able to help with its funding by reserving a signed first edition hardback – with your own name printed in the back – here.