written on September 10, 1976
The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976) It's a little hard to pin down Clint Eastwood as a director. In Play Misty for Me, he tried to be technically expert at suspense after Don Siegel (and I guess Hitchcock--no one tries to be technically expert at suspense without calling on him), but (in Misty) he tended to pad things out with diverting passages that didn't fit. Although the jazz concert segment of the film was fine in a verité sense, and although the other sequence made a recording star out of Roberta Flack, they were needless to the story and drew one away from the suspense (why make a suspense film, then?). It wasn't bad. But it wasn't good.
High Plains Drifter was a failure, for Clint tried to be arty and trashy in the same breath; it was an odd combination of vinegar and water, and although he stuck with the story, the film still didn't come together as a whole. Breezy was his best film, although if he could have worked on the script a bit more, and cut a few scenes it would have been better. It certainly revealed a pleasanter side to his character. If only he could work that into a script. The Eiger Sanction was a failure--it, too, was padded out to a numbing length and any crude charm that was in the book (it was an amusing day's read) was missing in the film; (good score by John Williams, though).
Let me amend all this by saying that The Outlaw Josey Wales is definitely Clint Eastwood's best film as a director. This does not mean that it isn't flawed by no means. By no reason should this film be 145 minutes long. It needs to be cut (what is exasperating is that so much of it is good, I couldn't decide what to cut)* Also when Eastwood shifts his gears--and, well, he shifts gears like I drive a truck with a standard--interrupting the whole flow of the travelling. Just as Josey Wales is going full-speed into a quirky, fun adventure story, an upsetting bit of savagery by Commancheros is inserted, and for too long are we subjected to the raping and pillaging of a plucky Kansas family.
A lot of things stick in the memory. The first sequence--Wales plowing, his son playing at help, a single indelible image of Wales' wife, pastorally lit, her form reflected in the water, an image both beautiful and too frail to last. Josey learning to shoot: a shot focused on a piece of wood, Josey firing out of focus, his attention on that target; cut to Josey and the target in focus, he's now concentrating both on the wood and himself (Eastwood spoils it by inserting another Wales unfocused shot). Some inspired casting--Sam Bottoms, John Vernon, Chief Dan George, that plucky Kansas woman,** nicely hewn portraits all. Nicely staged quirky gun battles--Josey sitting in front of a fire by George: "You never forget," the fire reflected on his face, but not this fire, another more life-changing one.
It contains the ruggedness we've come to expect on an "Eastwood picture." but also a humor and a good-heartedness that has never been mixed in with the ingredients.
This was Eastwood's best picture--up to that time. He was still self-indulgent, with his camera-work drawing attention to itself. A bit unsure of his compositions. A little too quick to use hand-held to generate frisson. He was learning the technical craft, but wasn't sure enough of himself and his actors to not meddle with it. And he had enough power in Hollywood to do what he wanted, without having to take a lot of guff from producers (or directors, for all that—he fired Philip Kaufman from this movie and decided to direct it himself), although I'll bet he was consulting with Siegel. But his ability with actors was getting better, and the stolidness of the direction was starting to loosen up. But more importantly, he became more disciplined with his editing, more discerning of what he needed to tell the story, not show off how much he could experiment. Over the next few years he'd take a stab at directing lighter material, and set up challenges for himself on every picture, large and small. He'd get out of the western genre, and become a fine, disciplined director. Bird, Unforgiven The Bridges of Madison County Absolute Power Mystic River Million Dollar Baby the Iwo Jima films. They're spare, powerful works by a director sure of his material and his actors.
(2019 Addendum: Add to those Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus, Hereafter, Jersey Boys, and Sully. His J. Edgar and American Sniper are a bit diminished in my eyes, as well as The 15:17 to Paris, and The Mule.)
But you started to see the artist Eastwood might become in the overall feel of The Outlaw Josey Wales--though he was still tied to the past and influenced by his work with Siegel and Leone (and torn between their two disparate styles) but starting to learn a new path--his own. It was fun to watch Eastwood become a great director. And no one could deny him that title with Unforgiven. Of all the vanity projects directed by actors over the years that have won the Best Picture Oscar, that is the one film no one can argue with.
* Eastwood dwells on the attack on the wagon train and especially the rape too much, and I'd cut the "learning to shoot" sequence that I extol in the next 'graph.
** Paula Trueman. Hey, this was before IMDB ever existed!