It’s Clint Eastwood’s birthday on the 31st of May so Top 10 Films is celebrating the iconic Hollywood actor-director’s greatest work. The team picks their faves…
Clint Eastwood is Hollywood royalty. It seems like he’s been around forever and when you consider he’s been making movies consistently since the 1960s, it’s easy to see why he’s such a recognisable piece of American film history. Eastwood rose to fame thanks largely to Sergio Leone’s famed spaghetti westerns. The “Dollars Trilogy” as they became known included A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and audience favourite The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. It was here that he introduced audiences to not only the Man with No Name but a new kind of western that shirked romanticism in favour of a more bleak, violent outlook on the period, populated by rogue gunfighters and unscrupulous lawmakers as well as, notably, the anti-hero.
Eastwood’s films with director Sergio Leone made him a star in his native America but failed to win over the critics. For instance, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, a commercial success on its US release and now considered one of the genre’s greatest films, was dismissed by many of America’s most celebrated critics. This, however, did not prevent Eastwood from pursuing more high profile roles in his homeland with Hang ‘Em High appearing in 1968. With a high percentage of box office receipts going directly into the actor’s pocket, Eastwood was able to set up his own production company and effectively pick and choose his projects alongside a great deal of creative control.
By 1971, there were few stars shining as brightly in Hollywood. Clint Eastwood was the man of the moment. With Coogan’s Bluff, Where Eagle’s Dare, Kelly’s Heroes and The Beguiled thrilling audiences, Eastwood would soon secure his status as American cinema’s most sought-after leading man. First, he directed and starred in Play Misty For Me. The film featured a disc-jockey (played by Eastwood) who has a one-night stand with a fan only to find she’s a possessive, mentally unstable head case who would rather see him dead than back on the air. This won him widespread critical acclaim, both for his performance and his direction. It was the first time in his career that American critics had joined together in praising his work.
This was followed by perhaps the most famous film on his CV. Dirty Harry arrived the same year as Play Misty For Me, and saw Eastwood move the masculine mystery and machismo of his spaghetti westerns to the contemporary detective drama. The film has been credited with beginning the “loose-cannon cop” trend within detective stories, a genre that would find widespread popularity (and franchise viability) in buddy cop movies such as Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon. Dirty Harry was also praised by author Eric Lichtenfeld for developing, through Eastwood’s role as Dirty Harry, the “first true archetype” of the action film genre. Here was a character who was as tough as nails, sharp on the eye, and had a good line or two of dialogue to back-up his street smarts. “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
Amid turning down some notable roles during the 1970s such as an offer to play James Bond following Sean Connery’s withdrawal from the role, and the opportunity to play the part that would go to Martin Sheen in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Eastwood mixed successful Dirty Harry sequels with a number of other projects. Buddy road movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which pleased critics but only made a modest box office return, arrived in 1974, thriller The Eiger Sanction in 1975, comedy Every Which Way but Loose in 1978, and prison movie Escape From Alcatraz in 1979. Eastwood also starred in and directed westerns High Plains Drifter (1973) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) as well as action caper The Gauntlet (1979) alongside his long-time off-screen lover Sondra Locke.
The 1980s saw Clint Eastwood direct and star in his own vehicles such as Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man, Heartbreak Ridge and jazz biopic Bird about musician Charlie “Bird” Parker. He also made another sequel in the Dirty Harry franchise, 1983’s Sudden Impact. Other films in which he appeared under the direction of another filmmaker included Any Which Way You Can and “Dirty Harry 5” The Dead Pool. Eastwood also starred in critically acclaimed Tightrope in 1984 which, while not being credited for the direction of the film (that “honour” went to Richard Tuggle), is considered the actor’s film given that he directed most of it because he felt Tuggle was working too slowly.
Certainly, Eastwood’s capabilities as a director have improved with age despite some of his early efforts remaining classics of their respective genres. In 1992 he made Unforgiven which many critics have cited as one of the finest westerns ever made and arguably Eastwood’s best film as both director and star. 1990s efforts such as True Crime and Absolute Power may not have been as successful but few disagree that by the 2000s Eastwood was at the height of his directorial powers. Commercial and critical successes appeared one after the other beginning with Space Cowboys in 2000, Mystic River in 2003, multi-Academy Award winning Million Dollar Baby in 2004, back-to-back World War II epics Battle of Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers in 2006, and the brilliant Gran Torino in 2008.
Top 10 Films’ Best of Clint Eastwood
Mike Sutton says Eastwood’s best film has to be Dirty Harry. He says, “The original and best. Accept no substitutes, sequels or copycats. Extraordinary use of light and space, brutal and necessarily violent set-pieces and Clint in one of his signature roles. Note particularly how the committed liberal Don Siegel uses the camera to make Harry nearly as scary and unbalanced as the killer.”
Rob Keeling agrees, ranking “dirty” Harry Callahan in his top 10 movie cops. He says, “Harry Callahan was never one for the rules. Across five movies he made Popeye Doyle look like a bit of a boy scout. He has his own vision of what justice really means and won’t let any pencil pushers get in the way. Clint Eastwood’s iconic performance was as steely-eyed and unflinching as one might expect and it was yet another legendary anti-hero from Clint.”
Mark Fraser, on the other hand, highlights 1992’s Unforgiven as worthy of extra praise in his 10 Fruitful Collaborations Between Hollywood Directors And Their Cinematographers. Mark believes that the years Eastwood worked with cinematographer Jack N. Green – producing such films as Bird, White Heart, A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County and Space Cowboys – brought about some of the actor-director’s greatest work.
“The clincher for the Green era is 1992’s Unforgiven, the movie that turned the Western on its head, won a bunch of Oscars (including Best Film but, unfortunately, not Best Cinematography) and saw Eastwood the actor give the performance of a lifetime as a murderer (and meanest bastard on Earth, as Green lights him in the climatic shootout) who is brought out of retirement for one last score, only to bring a sense of old world justice to the new frontier,” says Mark.
But what about his best film as director? Mike’s favourite is 1995’s The Bridges of Madison County. He calls it “a desperately moving love story which is some kind of cinematic miracle; Clint and screenwriter Richard LaGrevanese take an offensively sentimental, badly written bestselling book and turn it into a Brief Encounter for the nineties. Clint’s performance is exemplary and he and Meryl Streep turn out to be an unlikely but deeply satisfying love match. If you don’t feel a tear coming to your eye during the scene in the rain, you’re not human.”
Rodney Twelftree, however, says Million Dollar Baby is Eastwood’s best film as director. He highlights the performances of Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank and Eastwood himself as particularly strong aspects of the film. Eastwood won the Oscar for Best Director, and the film picked up the Best Picture gong as well. Rodney says, “Part sports film, part human drama, Million Dollar Baby is captivating, shocking, emotionally gut-punching, and most of all, superb entertainment.”
The highlight for me is one of his more recent efforts as star and director – Gran Torino. Here the grizzled hero-of-old plays an aging Korean veteran who overcomes his own prejudices to help an immigrant family who have moved in next door. Gran Torino is smart, relevant and expertly executed, making it one of the finest films of Eastwood’s career.
And while we’re talking about Clint Eastwood career highlights I must mention the absurd craziness of action-caper The Gauntlet. The film, directed by Eastwood and starring himself alongside Sondra Locke, Pat Hingle, William Prince and Bill McKinney, throws logic out the window in favour of improbable action and gaping plot holes to create a mishmash of action, comedy and romance. And the winner of Dumbest Clint Eastwood Movie goes to: The Gauntlet!
Written by Daniel Stephens with contributions from Rodney Twelftree, Mike Sutton, Mark Fraser and Rob Keeling.
Top 10 Films asks: what are your favourite Clint Eastwood movies?
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