Clint Eastwood became an american film star in the 1960’s thanks to his acting performances in a number of western films. As he began to branch out with new roles in front of the camera, he sought out to have more creative input into the types of film projects that he would be involved in. One way he was able to accomplish this was by creating his own production company which eventually allowed him to work behind the camera as director. His first film as director was 1971’s Play Misty For Me, which was well received by critics and did well at the box office. HIs second film as director was High Plains Drifter (1973), in which he also starred. That film found Eastwood returning to the genre that made him a star, but critics complained that his direction simply copied what had been done before. The same year, he released Breezy, which was shelved for a year by the studio because it was thought that the film wouldn’t do well in theaters. It was quietly released and critics found that Eastwood’s direction didn’t push the controversial film as far as it could have.
In 1975, Eastwood released his next film as director, The Eiger Sanction, which was a welcome return to action films for Eastwood, but was only marginally successful at the box office and not well appreciated by critics. Eastwood made his second western as director in 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, and that one became a big hit. In 1977 he released The Gauntlet which was appreciated by contemporary audiences, followed by 1980’s Bronco Billy, which was Eastwood’s most self-referencing and light hearted film to date, although it was not as successful as he may have hoped. In 1982 he released two films as director, first Honkytonk Man, a period drama that critics loved, and Firefox a contemporary big-budget action/thriller that critics did not enjoy. Neither film found much success at the box office. Next, Eastwood made another Dirty Harry film, the only one he directed. Sudden Impact (1983) became his most successful film as director up to that point, although critics noted that his work as director still had a lot to improve on.
Eastwood resurrected the western in the 1980’s with his 1985 film Pale Rider, before he had his first genuine box office hit in 1986’s Heartbreak Ridge. He followed this up with his first genuine box office bomb, 1988’s Bird, a biopic of a jazz musician. He had another miss in his next film, 1990’s White Hunter Black Heart. That same year, eastwood returned to action films with The Rookie, before returning to the good graces of audiences and critics with the biggest hit of his career, 1992’s Unforgiven. That film won Eastwood an Oscar for Best Director. His follow-up was also a big hit, 1993’s A Perfect World starring Kevin Costner. He teamed up with Meryl Streep for 1995’s The Bridges of Madison County, which continued his streak of profitable critically-acclaimed films. Unfortunately, his success didn’t continue with 1997’s Absolute Power, which received mixed reviews. That same year he released the similarly-received Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Space Cowboys (2000) was his next film as director. Critics and audiences both loved that film. In 2002 he released his next film, Blood Work, which was a box office flop. 2003 saw the release of Mystic River, a film that did well at the box office and was critically praised. Mystic RIver also earned Eastwood his second Oscar nomination for Best Director. He followed that film up with another critically acclaimed hit, Million Dollar Baby (2004), for which he won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Directing. In 2005 he directed two films about the Battle of Iwo Jima. Each film retold the battle from a different perspective; The Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. For Letters From Iwo Jima, Eastwood received another nomination for Best Achievement in Directing. Changeling was released in 2008, and found success at the box office and with the critics.
Eastwood returned in front of the camera for a film he directed with 2008’s Gran Torino. This film was a box office hit and continued Eastwood’s streak of well reviewed films. He kept his run going with 2009’s Invictus. His 2010 follow up, Hereafter, didn’t find as much love from critics, but did well enough at the box office. His next film, J. Edgar (2011) also had mixed reviews, and performed worse at the box office. His big screen adaptation of Jersey Boys (2014) was a disappointment to critics and audiences alike. However, Eastwood turned it around with his next film, 2015’s American Sniper. That film became one of the biggest box office hits in Eastwood’s long career. His 35th and latest film as director is this year’s’ Sully, currently in theaters.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a Clint Eastwood film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Eastwood’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:
Focus on American Culture and History
Eastwood’s career is defined by how often he starred in or directed films that reflected American culture and history. Westerns were an American film genre that was popular throughout the world in the 50’s and 60’s, the time period that Eastwood had his breakout as an actor, first on the television show Rawhide, and then in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Once he started directing, he was more knowledgeable about the movie-making process and began to branch out. First, he explored the American culture from a perspective he was familiar with. Play Misty With Me took place in his hometown and reflected on the dangers of being a popular figure. Bronco Billy also told a story of fame and showbiz in America, and later White Hunter Black Heart told of an obsessed film director.
By the 1980’s Eastwood as an actor had become an important cultural symbol as an action star. As director he was more than willing to propagate that image by directing himself in films like Firefox, The Eiger Sanction, The Gauntlet, and Sudden Impact. His filmmaking process lended itself well to small-scope films, where he found a lot of success exploring aspects of American history. Films like The Bridges of Madison County, Mystic River, and Changeling focused on life in America in the past. Music, especially jazz is something that Eastwood found interesting, and so he made films like Honkytonk Man, and Bird. Later, Eastwood directed stories discussing the dynamics of the American government and justice system in films such as Absolute Power, J. Edgar, and True Crime. His later films focused on the retelling of important contemporary events such as American Sniper, Sully, and Invictus. Despite a long and varied career, every decade or so Eastwood would return to the western genre in which he cut his teeth, including High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, and finally Unforgiven. The only Eastwood-directed movie that isn’t really related to American culture or history is Invictus.
One of Eastwood’s most consistent trademarks is also his most obvious. Eastwood made his mark playing the tough guy with grit and wit who overcame extraordinary odds to find victory. Sure, over his career, his characters have changed, but the basic formula has remained the same. One versus many. High Plains Drifter, Firefox, American Sniper, and The Gauntlet feature main characters cast in the role of the traditional action hero.
In other films, it’s a normal person who must overcome great obstacles. In Play Misty For Me, the main character is a victim of an obsessed fan, and is able to outwit her to save himself and his ex-girlfriend. In Gran Torino, it’s an old man outnumbered against neighborhood hoodlums. In The Changeling, it’s a mother fighting against corruption to find out what happened to her lost child. The underdog protagonist doesn’t always “win” either. In Bronco Billy, the main character is simply an underdog because he is looked down upon. Million Dollar Baby, is a traditional sports film with unfortunate ending.
Another trait that many of his main characters possess is their “tough as nails” persona. Despite what has happened to them, they never give up. In The Honkytonk Man, the main character strives towards his big break despite the fact that he is dying. In Blood Work, it’s a heart-attack that limits the main character’s ability to finish his case. In Space Cowboys, the characters overcome their age to be astronaut heroes.
Scenery is More than Scenery
Mise en Scene is the culmination of everything that a film fits into the picture. From the actors themselves, to their costumes, to the props, and setting – the complete image of these aspects together can often create something greater than the individual parts. As an actor, Eastwood’s experience shooting Spaghetti westerns in Europe allowed him to appreciate the benefit of outdoor shots. As director, Eastwood transformed this love for shooting on location into an emphasis of setting. By carefully creating a shot through camera placement, character presentation, lighting, and pacing, Eastwood is able to transport his audiences into the locales of his films.
Play Misty For Me, for example, takes place in Eastwood’s home town (Carmel, CA), so there is an emotional attachment for him. To convey this feeling to his audience, Eastwood uses a number of long outdoor shots cast in a romantic tone. There is also an opening scene with the main character driving along the coast, and later a sequence with his girlfriend and him completely surrounded by nature while set to a romantic song.
In Flags of Our Fathers, the Iwo Jima battle beach landing scene shows the opposite end of Eastwood’s spectrum of scenery usage. Here the audience is introduced to the battlefield in a series of wide, smooth sweeping shots. This is to show scope and scale. It’s clear and awe-inspiring, almost promising something momentous. But then, the camera changes to shaky hand cam, and we’re running alongside the soldiers. There’s dust, rocks, and smoke choking the picture. The cinematography is dark, nearly black-and-white. This is soul-crushing. We see war as terror and panic, not a spectacle of excitement. Eastwood sets up his shots where he isn’t merely filming a scene from a script. He’s carefully coordinating all the details for the entire experience to have an impact
Low Character Shots
Another aspect of Eastwood’s filmmaking that he has taken from his time as a western star is the low-angle character shot. The intent of this shot is obvious, to create a focus on a character and highlight their presence. Initially Eastwood used the shot in the same manner as Leone did in the Dollars trilogy, to emphasize a single man into something greater. So many of Eastwood’s characters are underdogs, that the low-angle shot was a natural method to physically make the audience look up to the character.
High Plains Drifter is a perfect example. Here, Eastwood once again plays a no-name persona seemingly full of machismo and myth. The camera fittingly looks up to him as the hero. However, while Eastwood initially may have used the low-angle shot as a simple way to create a basic physical emphasis of a character, his productions became more sophisticated, and so his characters became more complex. Characters had to be defined differently, yet Eastwood still found a way for the low-angle shot to be applicable.
In Bronco Billy, the main character is a hero only in the closed-off world he lives in, in the real world he is an outcast. Eastwood frames a great low angle shot of the character performing a stunt, blindfolded, to perfect illustrate this point. Another atypical character that Eastwood uses the low-angle shot to emphasize is Kevin Costner’s “Butch” in A Perfect World. Here, Butch is an escaped convict who takes a kid as hostage. Not exactly traditional hero material. However, the kid has much to learn from the criminal and vice versa. A great low-angle shot shows Butch with a gun in one hand and the kid in another, a representation of the growth he has made as a person while also becoming someone of significance to the child.
One of the things that has significantly influenced Eastwood’s career as director and actor was the founding of his own production company in 1967. Founded with profits from Eastwood’s work on Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, the privately held production company afforded Eastwood a lot of flexibility when making his own movies. Without a large studio calling the shots, Eastwood could make big decisions by himself. As such, his films are famously non-collaborative. Starting with Firefox, Eastwood was producer for all of the films that he directed except for The Rookie. They rarely feature an ensemble cast (the only real exceptions are Space Cowboys and Mystic River) and the scripts are rarely written by more than one writer.
Due to all of this, Eastwood is known to make very efficient films. This is proven by the frequency with which he released his films and the fact that they are almost always profitable (thanks to a comparatively low budget). Eastwood is known as a director who will only require a few takes for a given shot. He also uses the same crew for different productions, including cinematographer Bruce Surtees who has given many of Eastwood’s films a similar look. Therefore, Eastwood’s films may be varied in topic and presentation, but the way he makes them is disciplined and consistent.
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