Never count Clint Eastwood out. He hasn’t starred in a film since TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE in 2012, but now the master filmmaker is back on the big screen. Eastwood stars and also directs THE MULE, based on the story of a WWII vet who, in the 1980s, became a drug runner. It’s not exactly the actor’s typical sort of role, so we’re even more curious about it than we would normally be.
The new film also stars Bradley Cooper (who just made A STAR IS BORN, which Eastwood originally developed to direct) along with Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Dianne Wiest, and Andy García. In honor of Clint’s return, here’s a look at his essential starring vehicles.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
The first of Eastwood’s three collaborations with Italian director Sergio Leone turned the so-called “spaghetti western” into a worldwide phenomenon. Which was kind of a problem, as A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, in which Eastwood plays a nameless drifter who pits competing gangs against one another, was an uncredited remake of Akira Kurosawa’s film YOJIMBO. Kurosawa and Toho Studios were not happy, and sued. But the film was so popular that it led to FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and then THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. All were hits, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, the final film in the “Dollars Trilogy,” made Eastwood an international star. As good as that epic is, this first installment is lean and mean, and seeing Eastwood find his feet early on is great fun.
Play Misty For Me (1971)
Once Eastwood was a star, he quickly started to produce and direct. In PLAY MISTY FOR ME, he plays a radio DJ whose fling with an obsessed fan turns very bad very quickly. Jessica Walter, then a relatively new talent, plays the fan. She’s now known for ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and ARCHER. Despite being Eastwood’s first film as director, PLAY MISTY FOR ME immediately established a pattern for which he is still known, of being finished early and under budget. It’s a tight little movie — a solid thriller that points to some of Eastwood’s more twisted and devilish tendencies.
Dirty Harry (1971)
Eastwood’s first outing as San Francisco cop “Dirty” Harry Callahan, directed by Don Siegel, was part of a wave of gritty police movies that eventually evolved into grandiose 1980s action. It’s also the first of five DIRTY HARRY films. Here, Eastwood’s cop character is on the trail of a thinly fictionalized version of the Zodiac Killer, who at the time was still very much in the public consciousness. Dirty Harry would become a Regan-era icon thanks in part to Eastwood’s delivery of the line “go ahead… make my day” in 1983’s SUDDEN IMPACT. If you’ve got to choose just one of the films featuring the character, however, go with the original.
Escape From Alcatraz (1979)
This true story of the only successful jailbreak by inmates of the island prison of Alcatraz is a cracking piece of entertainment. Eastwood appears as escape mastermind Frank Morris. His regular collaborator Don Siegel directs — sadly this would be their final team-up — and Siegel renders the tale as both an engrossing thriller and an effective character study. There’s a great cast of notable character actors: Patrick McGoohan is the warden, and Roberts Blossom, Fred Ward, Jack Thibeau, and Danny Glover, in his first film role, play other inmates. Shooting at Alcatraz, which was no longer used as a prison, gave the film a cold, realistic tone, which makes the humanity in each character stand out even more. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION has overshadowed this film as the definitive popular prison break film, but… shhh… this is the better movie.
If we had to boil this list down to one movie, it would be this bleak Western. Eastwood rolls all his extensive work in the genre into this single tale of old friends on a last, foolhardy mission. William Munny (Eastwood) is a retired killer who spends his time trying to farm, in an attempt to honor promises made to his late wife. But an upstart gunslinger shows up to recruit Munny to kill a couple of cowboys who disfigured a prostitute — and soon the old guy is back in the saddle. Things do not work out well. UNFORGIVEN is a blistering attack on the mythologized concepts of honor and “justified” violence as depicted in Western movies. It’s also a taut story with a superb set of characters. The film won Best Picture and Eastwood won the Best Director Oscar, his first. That put a new shine on his career after a decade of decent but rarely exemplary films. Without this movie, the subsequent two and a half decades in Eastwood’s career might have been very different.
In The Line Of Fire (1993)
How can one follow a film like UNFORGIVEN? By stepping back from the director’s chair (Wolfgang Peterson called the shots on this one) to star in one of the great popcorn movies. Here Eastwood plays Frank Horrigan, a Secret Service agent haunted by an experience that should have killed him: He was on duty the day President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, but failed to prevent the assassination. Horrigan gets a chance to put his life on the line for the current POTUS, however, when a former CIA agent, played by John Malkovich, plots a new assassination. Eastwood and Malkovich are evenly matched, and IN THE LINE OF FIRE is just as interested in their mental duel as it is in action-movie pyrotechnics, if not more so. Renee Russo, Dylan McDermott, and Gary Cole are all great in supporting roles.
A Perfect World (1993)
Let’s close out with a film that deserves to be more popular. The script for this unusual drama came to Eastwood while making IN THE LINE OF FIRE. He originally planned to direct, but not appear. Then Kevin Costner was signed to play the lead role, an escaped convict who forms a surprisingly supportive bond with a young boy while on the run from the law. Costner convinced Eastwood to play the Texas Ranger leading the search for the criminal. The film primarily belongs to Costner and T.J. Lowther, who plays the young boy. Eastwood, however, has great scenes. Overall, this tense story is a low-key but impressive example of Eastwood’s skill as a director. Laura Dern and Bradley Whitford do good work in supporting roles.
THE MULE opens on December 14.