There are themes hidden beneath Play Misty For Me, a psychological thriller directed by first timer Clint Eastwood, but they are expertly shrouded in the maniacal performance of its leading lady Evelyn, played warmly and with a voracious efficiency by Jessica Walter. The most striking theme is certainly the effects of fandom, and what some fans will do — or think they are permitted to do — for their celebrity heroes. This is a chilling movie, painted simply but with garish strokes. Sometimes the simple ones irk us the most, like The Wicker Man (1973), because they are so disarming in their approach.
Evelyn is the fan. She listens to Dave Garver’s radio channel, KRML, every night and always requests “Misty”. Dave (Clint Eastwood) is the station’s graveyarder with dreams of making it big. His show includes poetry interludes and casual monologues. His guess is, and so is mine, that not many people listen to the radio at 3 in the morning, and even if they do, poetic preachings will seem like lullabies.
The town of Carmel is so small that even Dave rises to stardom. He drifts from bar to bar, collecting free drinks. His favourite has Don Siegel as the barman. Seemingly by coincidence, he meets Evelyn there. She’s endearing. He’s alone. They spend the night together. No strings attached.
The next morning, Evelyn turns up at Dave’s house with groceries and a smile. Was she invited? Dave struggles to remember. No, she wasn’t. What is she doing here? “Just because we said no strings doesn’t mean I can’t come back for more”, she chuckles. Fair enough. And then it happens again, and again. She grows possessive and delusional. She snaps at other women and yells bloody murder, seconds before shrivelling up in apology. She duplicates Dave’s house key without his knowledge and traipses in and out as she pleases. Before long she’s wielding a knife. How do you deal with a woman who grows stronger and more determined with every obstacle she bashes through?
Eastwood assumes the role of Dave with ease. Dave is a bit like the quintessential Eastwood hero on valium. He is tough and brave all right, but he is also quiet and slow to act. His attention is more focused on Tobie (Donna Mills), the old flame who returns to his life at the most ill of times. He wants to repair past damages by beginning anew with Tobie. Tobie’s agreeable, but she needs time, time Evelyn is not willing to afford Dave.
There is something inherently sinister about the sweet-faced, eager-to-please psychopath. In many killer films, the killer looks like a killer. Either they wear masks, cart chainsaws around or are seen scheming with diabolical eyes. The plots killers usually find themselves in require them to run and chase victims incessantly, and the movies usually end with a fight. But look at Evelyn here. Look at Norman Bates. They make even more successful killers because they know perfectly well how to use their smiles and charm to their benefit. They could be the friendliest people in the world, but say something wrong and you might find them standing over your bed in the middle of the night, eyes ablaze. Walter is so good here that she nearly upstages Eastwood, who maintains his calm and composure and finds the time to have sex with Tobie in the woods, under a sky that looks about ready to devour them.
Play Misty For Me works superbly as a thriller because its plot is natural and its actors are in harmony with each other. It works also because its setting is familiar: The small town with few people, with tucked away little houses and misleading scenery. The town of Carmel behaves like a prison for Dave. He could easily flee, but he is driven to stay, chained and disadvantaged. He wants to overthrow this danger and walk out with the right girl.
A case study can be made of Evelyn. Where does she come from? She can’t be local because no one in Carmel knows who she is. Is Dave her first victim? I doubt he is. If he’s not, why isn’t she locked up? How does she know what Dave looks like? Perhaps she has been following him for years. But then why does she choose to act now? She is truly skilled at what she does, and there’s no getting inside the mind of a psycho.
Best Moment | The climax.
Worst Moment | Nope.