In a less complex age, the Thirties, say, when opinion polls first began, “free spirit” and “rugged individualist” could, on occasion, blend in the “little people” heroes of Frank Capra—a Mr. Deeds or a Mr. Smith. By the end of the Second World War, with the constant acceleration of events, the increasing theatricalization of issues and ideas, and the ubiquitous Soviet threat, these ideal types, the irreverence of the free spirit and the ruthlessness of the rugged individualist, appear more and more as polar types, become now truly larger than life, and thus, in cyclic fashion, tend to comment on themselves and the country as well.
One knows to what extent, and how explosively, the rock generation influenced recent American history. Less well known, perhaps, as a barometer of current taste, has been the career of Clint Eastwood. Though little has been written about him, though I suspect there are millions of Americans who’ve never even seen an Eastwood movie, to whom he’s simply a name in the way Newman and Redford are not, nevertheless he has been, for quite a while now, the most consistently profitable star both here and abroad. The Eastwood phenomenon, I think, lends itself to an examination of the “soft” and “hard” aspects of the American scene, of how the “convictions” of free spirit and rugged individualist, which found root in our soil long before the industrialization of America, continue to fascinate, despite their archaic air.
Lawrence wrote of the Leatherstocking hero of the Fenimore Cooper novels, “Patient and gentle as he is, he is a slayer.” The saint with a gun. And this has been pretty much the Eastwood persona, whether as cowboy or cop, in Old West or corporate underworld, running to ground all manner of wild thing—and a bit of a wild animal himself. Yet if the nativism is traditional—an essential guilelessness touched with a mean streak—what’s most distinctive about Eastwood, a latecomer to the ranks of rugged individualists, is how effectively he struggles against absorption into mere genre, mere style, even while appearing, with his long-boned casualness and hypnotic presence, to be nothing but style.
Compare the raunchy nonchalance of Burt Reynolds, his rival and contemporary: blow-dried hair and mustache, bomber jacket and jeans, boozing and guffawing and busting ass, constantly playing up to audiences as Eastwood almost never does. Reynolds seems largely a synthetic creation, Gable in Test Pilot hedonistically retreaded for the demands of disco culture. Eastwood’s qualities, though also a mass of clichés, nevertheless go much deeper, are more obscure. For the true flavor of popular culture, whether in its debunking form as in the Sixties or as a salvaging operation as in the Seventies, comes from a sense of the elemental, a particular attitude, a particular mood as primordial as is currently fashionable—that is to say, topical. For many of the Sixties free spirits the topical referent had been prophetic, old values engulfed by new values in the “times they are a’changin’,” the proletarianization of college youth as a vanguard class acting out an audacity inflamed by history. With Eastwood the topical referent has been nostalgic, the average man’s growing uneasiness over the eclipse of old paths, old truths, from the Silent Majority to Moral Majority, what some now call the “politics of resentment.”
Again, the “verisimilitude” of popular culture, especially in Hollywood, and repeatedly since the end of the Fifties, is as exclusive as it is inclusive. What’s absent in its portrait of the world is as notable as what’s present, and both, in sub rosa fashion, are animated by the prejudices of the hour.1 So, in Eastwood’s movies, frustration and aggression are dominant. All the tropes of adversity, the primary “male” appetites—greed, honor, fraud, struggle, violence—are there, but significantly diluted of any real social, intellectual, or even familial coloration. What happens goes beyond the drama of minute particulars, with Eastwood indelibly there, always a figure in firm outline in a combat situation.
Understandably, such a persona, more Yankee than Puritan and more “lonesome traveler” than either, is preeminently a man with a project: a battle to win, frontier to cross, criminal to collar; evocative of patriarchy, yet aloof from it; with little belief in Providence but lots in provender. He is a “closed” rather than an “open” personality, without unction and without “feminine” traits; a graduate of the school of hard knocks, and yet almost childlike in his grievances.
Few other actors convey so naturally, even at their more brutal moments, so outraged a sense of innocence. See, in particular, the stunningly understated Escape from Alcatraz, as well as the six films Eastwood has himself directed and starred in, from the harassed romantic idol of Play “Misty” for Me to the frankly anachronistic fable of last year’s Bronco Billy (along with The Outlaw Josey Wales, his best work to date).
In Eastwood, then, whatever the narrowness of range (and he has neither the power nor the care of Hackman or DeNiro), image and idiom are one, an economy of speech and an economy of movement are perfectly matched, his taciturnity is a guarantee of his veracity, and both, however antagonistic, are emblematic of a private ethic. In his own way, Dylan had this too: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” But the free spirits of the rock generation went capriciously against the heroic mode; Eastwood, of course, unabashedly invokes it, even as he adds a certain jocund eccentricity, or eerie quality of “distancing,” to give it a new and ambiguous appeal.
The trio of spaghetti Westerns Eastwood made in Europe during the Sixties under the direction of Sergio Leone were unusual in that respect—and an unusual achievement in themselves, though contemptuously dismissed by the critical fraternity. At once crudely virtuosic and curiously detached, these films (the best of them, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, includes an unforgettable bit of pantomime between Eastwood and a dying Confederate soldier), with their repetitive, if balletic, hangings, showdowns, or massacres, their caskets and cadavers, their boom towns, ghost towns, or “male pic” buffoonery, derived neither from the homely metaphors of Hawks and Ford, nor even from the later postwar “psychological” work of Boetticher or early Peckinpah. They existed, rather, on a pointedly primitive level, almost in a delirium of grand guignol, so flamboyant at times as to approach parody (with an occasional bow to Kurosawa).
Thus these early films were politically equivocal (Eastwood, I imagine, having yet to grasp the true nature of his constituency). The laconic assertions—“Everyone here is becoming very rich—or else they’re dead”; “Two kinds of people in this world: those with a loaded gun and those who dig”—could serve equally as sardonic celebration of social Darwinism or as Marxist rhetoric. Just as Eastwood himself, the perennial drifter or wildcatter, bronzed and unshaven, with his poncho, his cigarillo, and sly rejoinders (“You don’t admire peace?” “It’s not easy to know something you know nothing about”), silent about the past, with no discernible future, a personal vendetta his only present, could serve, in the days of the Hanoi bombings, as both an example of the “ugly American” and a hero of the hard hats.
It was only after he returned to the States in the Seventies, began the series about the tough cop “Dirty Harry” with Don Siegel (there had been a trial run a bit earlier in Coogan’s Bluff, Eastwood as an Arizona yokel among the Manhattan smoothies), that the actor’s fluently nerveless style was at last to find its proper focus and, more important, proper time. For now was the Nixon era—and the growing backlash against hippie and yippie. Eastwood became Inspector Harry Callahan of San Francisco Homicide, “cold, bold Callahan with his great big .44,” suitably cleanshaven, with patch jacket, tie, and shades. Gone was the giocoso style of the Leone Westerns. Instead one found a strict visual rhythm, a shapeliness in tactile detail, often with expert musical accompaniment, usually a Lalo Schifrin score. And in place of the great open spaces there was the TV feel of live coverage, camera and crew at the scene of disaster or hot spot, increasingly for many Americans the sine qua non of urban reality.
Unlike Cooper or Wayne, a county sheriff defending his neighbors from the outside invaders, Dirty Harry in the guise of rugged individualist always has to work in a big city where he can be near the action and yet preserve his loner’s status. But it must be a locale of a particular kind. A Dirty Harry in the Los Angeles Police Department would be redundant. Such a character can only truly function if set against a presumably “permissive” milieu like San Francisco where, as a colleague famously explains, “A hood can get a cop but let a cop kill a hood—it’s murder,” and in which mob or hood can be seen as virtually interchangeable with “radical,” “deviant,” or “incompetent.” And where San Francisco itself emerges not as the city of Tony Bennett’s hymn, but rather as a sort of twentieth-century frontier town, a city of crazies, full of black militants and dope addicts, counterculturists and leftist revolutionaries, even, on occasion, the scheming rich (symbolic of “decadence”) or a worker priest (conveniently regarded as a dupe of the revolutionaries or, in our current jargon, a patsy for “disinformation”).
Thus the “fascist” aura the rugged individualist will now suggest; thus his receptivity to simplistic enticements, whatever his reflex pieties: “Nobody’s against the ‘system’ more than me,” Dirty Harry assures us in Magnum Force, “but until a better one comes along, I’ll stick with it.” For the age has grown far edgier, demands now (at some level) a blood bath; it’s no longer interested in “understanding,” or in the dual nature of victimization, but in unequivocal reprisal.
DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Bronson in Death Wish, Hackman in The Conversation, Scheider in The Seven-Ups, Matthau and Dern in The Laughing Policeman, Joe, Walking Tall, the Shaft programmers, or the racist dragonade of the controversial Fort Apache, the Bronx—these films, among others, in their differing ways, along with Eastwood’s, represent a significant turning point in Hollywood’s relation to low life, as well as a significant shift in leftist and rightist sensibility among the public. From Dead End to Knock on Any Door, Detective Story to In Cold Blood, roughly the four decades prior to the Seventies, there was always, more or less, an implicit sympathy for the plight of the disadvantaged—at the very least the extenuating circumstances of crime. An attitude so puissant it was amiably satirized in the Officer Krumpke number of West Side Story, the delinquents singing, “We’re not responsible for our acts, social conditions are.” By the time of Dirty Harry, though, a new dehumanization is apparent, with the criminal no longer considered even pathological, simply demonic. A freak. How can Dirty Harry be sure the Scorpio sniper will strike again? “Because,” he replies, “he likes it.” And of course Dirty Harry likes it too. “Nothing wrong with shooting, as long as the right people get shot.”
Much of the vigor of Reds is due less to its "revolutionary" air than to Beatty's John Reed as a romantic artist no longer separated from the masses but at the forefront of mass change; it's not historical determinism that engages him but the older, nineteenth-century notion of heroic energy. Similar "bourgeois" versions of the "left" are to be found in the anecdotal Ragtime and the unjustly maligned Heaven's Gate.↩
Much of the vigor of Reds is due less to its “revolutionary” air than to Beatty’s John Reed as a romantic artist no longer separated from the masses but at the forefront of mass change; it’s not historical determinism that engages him but the older, nineteenth-century notion of heroic energy. Similar “bourgeois” versions of the “left” are to be found in the anecdotal Ragtime and the unjustly maligned Heaven’s Gate.↩