Clint Eastwood was in show business for nearly twenty years when he finally made his directorial debut with 1971's "Play Misty For Me." The shift from actor to director wouldn't have been possible without the help and encouragement of his friend Don Siegel, a filmmaker perhaps as responsible for Eastwood's iconic screen presence as Sergio Leone. Like Eastwood, Siegel had decades of experience and had fashioned a professional, unpretentious style of working that Eastwood would embrace.
For starters, he took the work seriously. "Play Misty For Me" would not be a vanity project, but the work of a dedicated professional committed to the art of making movies, one who was willing to take a pay cut just for the chance of doing the work. The result was a movie that even now ranks as one of Eastwood's best.
"Misty" has the economical sensibilities that would become a trademark of his directorial work, the sense that no frivolous moment made it into the movie. There's the authenticity captured in real-life footage of the Monterey Jazz Festival. And the story, of a woman on the edge falling for a disc jockey, is complemented by its beautiful location photography. Shot in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a seaside California town of which Eastwood would one day be mayor, the movie has a look and feel all its own.
Not only did Eastwood's past (and future) director offer him encouragement – Siegel also played a small but significant role in the movie as a bartender who sets the plot in motion. More importantly, members of his usual crew would work on the movie as well.
What Clint Eastwood brought to the movie was a sense of confidence, impeccable suspense, and a willingness to show characters at the height of desperation. He would have learned about that from Don Siegel's work. Eastwood has always made movies from a wide range of genres, never willing to be known exclusively for any particular kind of movie. The same could be said for Siegel, who came up in 1940s Hollywood, making montages and documentaries before graduating to film noir.
Building his name and career in the world of post-war crime films like the 1949 Robert Mitchum thriller "The Big Steal," Siegel quickly demonstrated his capabilities across a number of different kinds of films. Westerns and contemporary crime films made for some of his finest work, but you can also find romance films and even science-fiction horror films in his filmography. He made the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" in 1956, one of the best cosmic horror films of its kind.
In Eastwood, Siegel found a potent collaborator, one who could carry a movie on the strength of his grimace and narrowed eyes. Their first film together, 1968's "Coogan's Bluff," came shortly after Eastwood's work in the "spaghetti westerns" of Sergio Leone had turned him into an international phenomenon. According to Patrick McGilligan's "Clint: The Life and Legend," they connected quickly during the movie. The two continued working together for years.
Besides 1971's "Dirty Harry," which made for one of Eastwood's most beloved roles as a tough cop, they also made the great "Two Mules for Sister Sara" and the original adaptation of "The Beguiled" before Sofia Coppola's take.
The Don Siegel Seal Of Approval
After Eastwood and Siegel had made a number of movies together and Eastwood had established himself as a major American star, the time was right for him to finally direct a film. Siegel supported him all the way. Even when Eastwood was a young man working on the '50s television show "Rawhide," he had the itch to direct. As he told the DGA, he tried to "set things up to direct some episodes of the show." Ultimately, his attempts were foiled. CBS had specific dictates for actors on their shows, and they did not want them directing episodes.Eastwood gave the dream up, but he watched as the craftsmen he saw every day made the show function. It was only after starring in Sergio Leone's nearly disastrous 1964 film "A Fistful of Dollars" that the itch came back, and it would be several years still before he got the opportunity.
Seeing his friend Jo Heims' treatment for "Play Misty For Me," he got the impression it would be a good first film. Letting it marinate in his head, he eventually went to Siegel to talk about his directorial ambition. At this point, the two had a strong rapport and a number of great films under their belts, and Siegel read the script. Per Eastwood's conversation with the DGA, Siegel told him, "You should direct it." He liked it enough to offer to be the first to sign Eastwood's DGA card.
Making A Strong Debut
One reason Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel worked well together was, simply, speed. Siegel never wasted time while making movies, and you feel that taut energy watching his movies. "I worked better when the directors were working fast," Eastwood told the DGA in 2005. "That's why I guess Don and I got along so well."
Besides getting the firsthand experience of working with Siegel on a number of movies, he learned how the director navigated the trials of film production with efficiency and economy. He also got material help from Siegel on "Play Misty For Me." The director acted in the movie, giving an earthy, world-weary performance as a bartender who inadvertently sets up Eastwood's character with Evelyn (Jessica Walter in a performance that would jumpstart her career). Bruce Surtees, a camera operator turned cinematographer on a number of Siegel's films, served as cinematographer for "Misty." "Beguiled" editor Carl Pingitore was brought on as well, ensuring that the main crew, having worked for Siegel, was already familiar with Eastwood and could help the novice director get the movie he wanted.
With Siegel behind him, Eastwood was also able to make certain demands and get what he wanted. For one thing, the movie originally took place in LA. He changed that to Carmel-by-the-Sea, giving it its unique milieu. Many decades later, Eastwood would pay the favor forward, explaining his penchant for promoting assistants to the DGA by saying, if "people want to progress to another division and they have the ambition, they should be allowed to fulfill their ambitions." That might be the best encouragement Siegel could have given him.
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