Logline: Playboy radio deejay Dave Garver wants to retire from his womanizing ways and settle down with his estranged girlfriend. Unfortunately, an obsessed listener is inserting herself into his life in uncomfortable and eventually frightening ways.
Play Misty for Me was Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut and the progenitor of the psychotic lover subgenre of thrillers, best typified by Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction. But while the creaky morality (don’t cheat on your wife) and reactionary gender role stereotyping (strong women be crazy) of Fatal Attraction has always sat wrong with me, I was pleasantly surprised to find in Play Misty for Me a more nuanced if still flawed presentation of the situation. The film seems to me more a direct condemnation of Eastwood’s character Dave than a vilification of Evelyn (Jessica Walter), the psychotic lover who plagues him. But, unlike the later Fatal Attraction, this film doesn’t condemn Dave for his initiation of an affair with Evelyn in the first place (unlike Michael Douglas, Dave isn’t married and, in fact, his girlfriend has already left him because of his incessant lapses into temptation), but because of his inaction in all the events following. As Evelyn’s erratic behavior increases and eventually passes into dangerous territory, Dave does little to rectify matters. He instead continually defers the confrontation—he’ll place her in a cab, drive hurriedly away, or—in some early cases—even sleep with her rather than deal realistically with the situation. These deferrals only exacerbate the psychological experience of a clearly damaged Evelyn—she becomes more hysterical when he continues to cave to her demands while clearly investing none of his emotional self in them.
The film’s most striking scene comes after Evelyn’s attempted suicide. She wakes up from a nightmare in Dave’s bed while recovering and asks him to hold her and not let go. Although he’s planned a date with his girlfriend Tobie, Dave silently acquiesces to Evelyn’s desire—he sits with her curled against him, the camera slowly zooming in on his face, chillingly colored with no emotion at all. In this moment, there is not a trace of empathy discernible in Dave—he seems like the sociopath. Yet the scene continues: the extreme zoom transitions to the exact shot but several hours later. The sun has fallen, and as the camera pulls back out we see that Dave’s face has evolved into an expression of disgust and barely-concealed rage. His inaction has not only intensified Evelyn’s behavior but has slowly bottled up his own frustrated feelings. When Dave does perform a genuine action in order to end the relationship, the result of his prior concealment on this action is devastating—the hatred is transmuted into violence, as one punch sends Evelyn crashing through a window and down a cliff face. It’s a horrifying end to the film. We cannot call it a victory or a moment of relief, but a tragedy. The feeling that the situation could have been resolved differently, more pleasantly, pervades. Three quarters of the way through the film, after Evelyn has repeatedly slashed Dave’s housekeeper with a knife in a fit of jealous rage, Dave comments to the police sergeant on the scene—as if the thought had just occurred to him—that “what she really needs is a psychiatrist.” The sergeant’s sardonic reply (“Really?”) mirrors the audience’s own—in Dave we are presented with a character living an entirely internal and selfish existence, unable to anticipate, feel, or respond to the emotional lives of others. We can’t help but wish he were a little quicker on the uptake. In this light, the film's horror derives not from the machinations of a psychotic stalker, but from the complete disconnect we witness between the emotions, intentions, and mutual regard of the two people embroiled in the human relationship at the film's core—a relationship producing little else but madness and violence.