Phillip Thompson

Crime Fiction writer

Taking a break from writing for a couple of days. After doing all the prep work for A Simple Murder, and I’m still not really done, I’m going to take a couple of days to recharge before diving into the next story (my first attempt at redneck noir — more on that later). That means a lot of football and movies.

Caught the very beginning of Pale Rider last night on some cable channel. I had to turn it off because I knew if I watched another five minutes, I’d be watching the entire thing, tomorrow’s commute be damned.

I hope that someday Clint Eastwood will be recognized as a great American storyteller, not just as Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name of the spaghetti westerns. He’s had an unbelievable journey, both as an actor and director and as a storyteller supreme. This is the guy who made his first mark as Rowdy Yates on the now-ancient TV show Rawhide. That role came in 1959, after years of struggling to get a job. Then the long years as a Western icon. Some of those movies were good, some not so much. But it cemented an image of Eastwood (the actor) as a man among men, the righteous, but not always pure, dispenser of good, manly frontier justice (the Dollar trilogies, High Plains Drifter and Hang ‘Em High, for example. What we didn’t know at the time was that he was already working behind the scenes, learning the craft as a producer and director.

Then came the Dirty Harry movies, the “monkey movies” and several others, again, some good, some not so much. I hated Bronco Billy, didn’t care for Honky Tonk Man, but I liked Bird and I thought Play Misty for Me was ok. There was a lot of, “That’s not Clint Eastwood” going around when he made such movies. Then came one of the best, if not the best, Westerns ever made: The Outlaw Josey Wales. Eastwood at his best, in my opinion. He directed it, and boy, did he. I’m practically banned from watching it in my house anymore because I know every line in the movie. We thought, ah, Eastwood’s back. He was, but in a different way. Growing more as a director, he branched out and out and out. I mean, Bridges of Madison County? Clint Eastwood? Please.

But if you look closely at his extensive portfolio, you’ll find in nearly every case (OK, Every Which Way But Loose doesn’t qualify) a very tightly wrapped morality play. His movies, especially the Westerns, come off as that lone righteous badass kicking ass, but there’s a lot else going on. Even Dirty Harry falls into this category. Certainly Unforgiven, Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter. Possibly Invictus.

As with the original morality plays, these stories are about good vs. evil, as personified by the characters. Gene Hackman’s role as evil in Unforgiven vs. Eastwood’s role as good — deeply flawed and maybe not even good, but not evil. Avenging, maybe, but not evil. He’s not afraid to make you uncomfortable, to have to choose, to have to decide for  yourself how you would confront a similar situation. His characters, from Harry Callahan to Josey Wales to William Munny were all in this mold. You pull for them — up to a point. And then you get a little uncomfortable if this is supposed to be the good guy.

Yeah, life is like that, isn’t it? Eastwood has a way of telling stories in which imperfect characters do the right thing, or maybe the wrong thing for the right reason, and achieve a form of perfection — perfect justice, or perfect revenge (which allows us to root for them after all).

More importantly, these characters are indelible. Walk up to someone, squint at them, and say, “Go ahead. Make my day.” They will know exactly what you’re talking about.

That’s why Clint Eastwood matters.

Everybody has a favorite Eastwood movie — post yours in the Comments section.

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