Way back in the mid-1960s, when Sergio Leone’s seminal Spaghetti Western trilogy featuring a then-unknown actor named Clint Eastwood in the lead role was released in Mumbai, few viewers could have foreseen that the reticent, cigarillo-chomping anti-hero would soon be catapulted to superstardom. Or that during the course of the next six decades, he would emerge as one of the most prolific and consistently impressive filmmakers in contemporary American cinema.
Incredibly, the iconic auteur, who turned 90 earlier this year, has begun work on his 42nd directorial venture, titled Cry Macho.
Besides producing the movie under the aegis of his company Malpaso Productions, Eastwood will play the lead role of an ageing horse breeder who seeks redemption by rescuing a Mexican boy from the clutches of his alcoholic mother and escorting him back to Texas to reunite with his father.
Initially honing his ultra-cool screen persona and understated acting style in a series of television shows and low budget B-pictures in the 1950s, Eastwood achieved a breakthrough with Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966). Even as he consolidated his increasingly successful career, Eastwood became interested in extending his status as superstar while also developing an interesting in filmmaking by observing the works of directors, among them, William A Wellman, who occasionally cast him in minor roles.
Always preferring to work on projects of his own choice and at a deliberate pace, Eastwood made an exceptionally assured directing debut in 1971 with Play Misty For Me.
Made as per his customary ‘One take, keep it simple and keep it moving’ mantra, the film exuded a palpable sense of dread and keen insight into the complex subject of sexual obsession. As he would in most of his later films, Eastwood completed the shooting on schedule and under budget. An old-fashioned classicist to the core, Eastwood demonstrated an unobtrusive style and an economy of means normally associated with the masters of the golden age of Hollywood, among them John Ford, Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway.
In 1976, the vastly underrated The Outlaw Josey Wales consolidated Eastwood’s reputation as both an actor as well as a director of exceptional skills. The movie is set in post-Civil War America. Descended in a direct line from his two famous characters – The Man With No Name (Leone’s trilogy) and Dirty Harry, Eastwood plays a Confederate renegade on the trail of vengeance against the Union soldiers who massacred his family.
Dexterously combining a cleverly structured screenplay (by David Peoples), a superb ensemble cast and superior production values, the film is a testament to the rich rewards that can be derived from consummately classical craftsmanship.
In addition to the stunning landscape cinematography by Bruce Surtees, the film features one of the many memorable quips associated with the colourful characters Eastwood has portrayed over the years. At one point, the bereaved vendetta-seeking family man (Eastwood) cautions a grievously wounded young soldier: “Dyin’ aint much of a living, boy.”
As a director, Eastwood constantly employed a handpicked team of collaborators – Bruce Surtees, Jack N Green and Tom Stern (cinematography), Joel Cox, Michael Kelly and Ferris Webster (editing), and Kevin Ishioka (production design). Eastwood also rarely resorted to stylistic embellishments in order to make his narratives more accessible to a wider audience. Despite the gunplay and blood-letting that suffuses most of his films, Eastwood ensures that the violence is never really gratuitous in order to make the narrative more accessible to a wider audience.
As an actor, Eastwood has always been more zestful under the direction of such acclaimed filmmakers/friends as Don Siegel and Buddy Van Horn. Indeed, the five-film collaboration with Siegel, which extended from Coogan’s Bluff (1968) to Escape from Alcatraz (1979) through the influential vigilante cop drama Dirty Harry (1971), was the most formidable phase of Eastwood’s acting career.
Among several other mid- and late-career Eastwood gems are the elegiac multiple Oscar-winning revisionist Western Unforgiven (1992), Bridges of Madison Country (1995) – arguably his most sheerly enjoyable film to date – the intense Boston-set murder mystery Mystic River (2003), the poignant boxing drama Million Dollar Baby (2004), for which Eastwood and lead actor Hillary Swank snagged Oscars, and American Sniper (2014).
Of these, Unforgiven is a modern masterpiece. Eastwood portrays a retired gunslinger who takes on the proverbial last job when a band of prostitutes puts a price on the head of a sadistic cowboy. Eastwood cleverly undermines the myth of the Ole West while also exploring the complexities of moral ambiguity through the narrative of a man attempting to come to terms with his guilt-ridden past.
Eastwood’s extraordinary filmography includes the World War II diptych from 2006, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Told from the viewpoint of both the American invaders and the Japanese defenders, these anti-war dramas underline the trauma faced by combatants on both sides of the conflict.
The Mule (2018) can be seen as a summation of the indefatigable Eastwood’s career. Portraying a drug courier for a Mexican cartel, the ageing horticulturalist seeks to make amends with his ex-wife and the rest of this estranged family. The succinct, no frills-narrative unfolds in the filmmaker’s signature unfussy style and is replete with suspenseful interludes and plenty of kooky humour. It is the only film in which Eastwood has portrayed a character who was close to his own age.
Which brings us full circle to the aptly-titled Cry Macho. At the time of the release of The Mule, Eastwood was asked if it was to be his last film. His emphatic response was, “Definitely not. Definitely not my last.”
At a time when most new Hollywood releases are on hold or mired in mediocrity, the prospect of another power-packed Eastwood picture making it to the cinemas is cause for celebration. It’s about time that the nonagenarian maestro is declared a national treasure.
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