It’s a common misconception of auteurism that once a filmmaker has been so designated, every film by that particular artist suddenly becomes an unimpeachable masterpiece. The original Cahiers writers never made such assumptions, nor Sarris for that matter. What auteurism does posit, and what Pauline Kael never understood, is that even otherwise impersonal, work-for-hire projects gain a certain interest and (at least some bit of) deeper meaning once the hand of the artist has been identified. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Clint Eastwood has both directed and starred in plenty of mediocre movies — only a fool would argue otherwise. But, when taking in the entirety of his body of work, even the duds reveal small pleasures, those difficult-to-articulate flickers of style and personality that make a bad film by Eastwood more worthwhile than a bad film by, say, Roger Spottiswoode or Bruce Beresford or Phillip Noyce (all responsible for some fine movies that nonetheless never quite made the leap from intermittently interesting metteur en scenes). Eastwood has navigated multiple, sometimes conflicting, interests throughout his five decades behind the camera; there are his own predilections as both a performer and director, of course, as well as his need to maintain relationships with studios, turn a profit for his own production company, Malpaso, and the ever present need to surmise exactly what a paying audience would be interested in. To wit, Eastwood’s most popular (i.e. commercially successful) films have never necessarily been his most critically acclaimed, and vice versa. Of course, there’s ample evidence that Eastwood would go against the currents of contemporary mores if it was a project he believed in — not for nothing did he essentially resurrect the Western with Pale Rider and again with Unforgiven, both released in their respective decades when the genre was largely moribund and entirely unfashionable (see also Breezy, as small and idiosyncratic a passion project as any auteur has ever produced).
With Eastwood, there’s no divorcing the passion from the hubris. By all accounts, Eastwood is (even still at his advanced age) quite an egotist, as well as a fitness fanatic, and years of box office success and countless love affairs would only serve to reinforce his own status as an alpha male. Such self-aggrandizement would lead to misfires, often in action territory, like The Eiger Sanction (1975), a film that Eastwood has admitted to pursuing simply for the challenge of its making. According to Richard Shickel’s exhaustive, well-regarded biography, Eastwood was eager to both test his mettle at mountain climbing as well as pursue some of his own ideas about filmmaking, specifically by creating a demanding scenario that would limit the number of crew members involved and leave it to a small group of trusted collaborators to film in dangerous conditions. In this regard, the film is a success; the mountain climbing scenes in The Eiger Sanction are absolutely breathtaking, with only minor special effects and a limited number of stunt performers adding a keen sense of authenticity to the endeavor (so authentic, in fact, that a crew member was unfortunately killed during production). The film is worth seeing for the climbing sequences alone, filmed in Eastwood’s typically clean, precise framings, but it’s a long, often ridiculous, slog to get to the good stuff. Here, Eastwood is a college art professor and retired assassin who gets pressed back into service by a Blofield-type super spy. Eastwood finds time to bed a Black airline stewardess (named, ugh, Jemima), and then trains in Monument Valley under the watchful eye of a boisterous George Kennedy. Eastwood can be both charming and witty when he wants to be, but this kind of James Bond-adjacent, suave operator shtick is way beyond his comfort zone. As a director, Eastwood set himself a personal challenge that pays only small dividends for an audience, although it gave him the chance to film the epic vistas of Monument Valley, an obvious homage to John Ford. It’s an occasionally beautiful film, but mostly it’s a chore.
Significantly more successful is The Gauntlet, which has Eastwood playing a burned-out, loutish version of Harry Callahan while embarking on a distaff screwball comedy with Sandra Locke. If The Eiger Sanction showed just how unsuited Eastwood was to large-scale, globe-trotting adventure, both as an actor and director, then The Gauntlet reveals how malleable his “limited” range actually is. Released in 1977, just one year after the second Dirty Harry sequel, The Enforcer, The Gauntlet represents one of Eastwood’s most uncomplicated broadsides against institutional law and order. Here, cops are drunks, sex fiends, incompetent, or wholly corrupt. Eastwood’s disheveled Ben Shockley must escort Locke’s prostitute “Gus” to a mafia trial in which she’s the key witness. But someone on the inside doesn’t want her to testify, and so their road trip becomes a series of violent encounters as Shockley and Gus must evade police, US Marshals, and State Troopers en route to the court date. Eastwood the director, working with stunt coordinator Buddy Van Horn, has a blast engineering huge shootouts, with the police engaging in massive overkill to take out the pair. The film is most famous for its finale, where Shockley armors up a city bus and rolls it down a city block as police unleash what seems like an endless cascade of bullets at it. Even better is a shootout that occurs in the middle of the night, lit only by the headlights of parked cars, red & blue sirens, and a rotating spotlight. Shot by Rexford Metz, doing a very good impersonation of the great Bruce Surtees, it’s a surprisingly conceived and shot moment, almost abstract, and further evidence of Eastwood’s eye for artistry. In fact, most Eastwood films feature at least one highly expressionistic sequence amongst the quotidian realism; in this regard, at least, Clint is an underrated (and calculated) stylist. There’s also a fascinating emphasis on sex here, something Eastwood would only associate with in a handful of films, and which he largely abandoned after Sudden Impact. Locke’s tough hooker spends much of the film dressing Shockley down, challenging his masculinity, and insulting his dick. When Shockley hauls off and slaps her, she immediately kicks him in the crotch. Locke and Eastwood were, of course, engaged in a very real relationship at the time, and the back and forth somehow feels playful instead of cruel (perhaps because Eastwood is so outrageously masculine that the jokes mostly bounce off of him). Still, the subtext shifts even further when one is aware of the relationship’s acrimonious end, and Eastwood’s bullying of Locke that effectively ended her career. It’s a very real blight on his legacy.
In 1982, Eastwood would try his hand at a hi-tech Cold War thriller, to mixed results. Again, Eastwood makes an impression while tweaking his persona in fascinating ways, portraying a retired soldier with PTSD who is just smart enough to know just how in over his head he actually is. It’s also one of Eastwood’s only attempts at a special effects-driven picture. Perhaps influenced by the success of Star Wars (John Dykstra’s effects house in fact handled much of the specialized work here) and general advancements in technology, Firefox puts Clint in the seat of a top-secret fighter jet for almost the entirety of the film’s second half. It’s not particularly successful; keeping Eastwood largely immobile robs him of his lumbering, impressive physicality, and there’s nothing else onscreen to really compensate (although Dave Kehr praised the film’s “Bressonian terseness”). But at least Tony Scott was paying attention, building on many of the film’s flying sequences in his own Top Gun three years later. Firefox was until that point the most expensive Malpaso production ever, at somewhere north of $20 million, and its difficult production schedule stretched to almost a year. More than almost any other Eastwood film, Firefox feels like something that he had to get out of his system, if only to say that he tried it. Eastwood’s careful, even delicate portrayal of a mentally unstable serviceman would not be repeated, leaving Firefox as a kind of narrative dead-end in Eastwood’s oeuvre.
The last of the Dirty Harry films, The Dead Pool is technically credited to Buddy Van Horn. But at this point in his career, Eastwood was long used to calling the shots in front of and behind the camera, regardless of who’s name wound up on the credits. Eastwood and Van Horn had been working together professionally for decades, with Van Horn serving as stunt coordinator, occasional director, and Clint’s golf partner when they were filming on location. Shickel suggests that Van Horn was entrusted with The Dead Pool so that Eastwood could finish post-production on Bird, an ambitious, long-term passion project, and then travel to Europe to promote it while the final Harry Callahan picture was left in the hands of trusted, but reliably unambitious, collaborators. The Dead Pool is mostly of interest for some over-the-top action sequences and Eastwood’s resigned, tired performance. He was, by all accounts, done with the Dirty Harry persona, and the film emphasizes Eastwood’s age, commenting frequently on his reduced mobility (no one then would know that Eastwood, at only age 58, had three more decades and 30 more films in him). It might be the first of his movies to really embrace his status as an elder statesman of American cinema, a trend that continues to the present day. There are some pointed jabs at journalists, hack movie directors, and even a Pauline Kael-esque film critic. But any tricky subtext from previous entries is long gone, replaced by large-scale stunts and shootouts, including a nifty car chase through the streets of San Francisco featuring an explosive remote-controlled RC car, which Eastwood and Van Horn joked was their attempt to replicate the famous chase from Bullitt — frankly, it’s almost as good.
Eastwood would mine this kind of action-star territory one more time, in the underrated The Rookie (in which Van Horn tops his Dead Pool work by staging an incredible sequence involving cars falling off a semi-truck that Michael Bay would crib for Bad Boys II some years later), before moving on to Unforgiven, A Perfect World, and general respectability. Eventually garnering widespread critical acclaim as a serious filmmaker, along with awards recognition, and of course dealing with his own aging in the process, Clint would never return to his guns a-blazing roots, instead content to interrogate or otherwise comment on his own stardom and legacy. But for 30 years, give or take, Clint was the biggest action star in the world. His simple, straightforward shooting style and eye for elegant compositions make him the last of the classicists, a living legend who hearkens back to a different era of filmmaking and old-fashioned stardom.