Play Misty for Me (1971)

During B&S About Movies’ “Radio Week,” you’ll notice we’ve reviewed a few Lifetime broadcast “radio psycho” films and mention this modest directorial debut by Clint Eastwood in passing. This tale about a womanizing DJ hooking up with the wrong fan is where the “genre” began. Oh, yes: Jessica Walters goes-for-broke in her portrayal of the troubled Evelyn Draper.

The script was conceived by Jo Heims, whose career dates back to working behind the scenes as a production secretary on 1958’s Missile to the Moon*; her earliest screenwriting credits included 1960’s The Girl in Lover’s Lane, 1961’s The Devil’s Hand and Elvis Presley’s Double Trouble. Coming to know Eastwood through their mutual employer, Universal Studios, Heims co-wrote Eastwood’s influential breakout role: 1971’s Dirty Harry. She also wrote Clint’s follow up to Play Misty for Me, the little-seen romantic drama, Breezy (1973) (he also directed High Plains Drifter that same year). Heims other works you’ve seen are the great John Llewellyn Moxey’s Nightmare in Badham County and the utterly bonkers Death Game (1977; received a Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray bow in 2022).

The convincing “production values” on the radio station are courtesy of Play Misty for Me not being shot on a set, but as result of being shot inside an actual radio station: Carmel, California’s KRML 1410 AM. Also adding to the realism of the station’s jazz format was the shooting of additional scenes at the September 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival featuring appearances by Cannonbally Adderley and Johnny Otis.

A “live” DJ, carts, turntables, reel-to-reel decks, and rotary pot audio boards? That’s audio heaven.

While the studio initially wanted to go with the title “The Slasher” and market Eastwood’s directorial debut as a horror film, he got the title changed when he obtained the rights to Erroll Garner’s 1954 song “Misty” after he saw the jazz icon perform at the 1970 Concord Music Festival. He then acquired the rights for Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for $2,000; a popular British folk standard originally released in 1957 (You Tube), the song was written by British political singer/songwriter Ewan MacColl and sung by his American folkie wife Peggy Seger. Another song purchased for use in the film was Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don’t Tease Me).”

Yeah, Dirty Harry Callahan knows his jazz. Punk.

Now for the backstory and the runaway success on Flack’s other hit, “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” originally recorded by Lori Lieberman. (No: it’s not in the movie. We know.)

An early seventies confessional folk-pop singer in the mode of hit makers Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, and Janis Ian, Lori Lieberman signed a production, recording and publishing deal with the songwriting partnership of Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel who, in turn, signed their own production deal with Capitol Records.

As with most of the forgotten musical acts of late sixties and early seventies during the burgeoning American FM radio era, the Internet exhumed Lieberman’s career frustrations in the wake of her 1971 debut single, “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” when it became a 1997 Grammy Award-winning single for the American Hip-Hop group, the Fugees—remade under the truncated title of “Killing Me Softly,” from the Fugees’ 1996 album, The Score.

From the time the song became one of the biggest-selling number one singles of 1973, as remade by R&B artist Roberta Flack, credits and royalties for the song became a point of contention for Lieberman, as she long claimed she contributed to the song’s lyrics. While the writing team of Fox and Gimbel scored another 1973 Top Ten hit with Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name,” and composed the television theme songs for the ABC-TV Network’s Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, Lieberman floundered with three more albums for Capitol in the United States. Those albums, however, found a receptive audience in Europe (a country rife with voracious music connoisseurs), which resulted in a top-selling, Euro-only release of a 1976 greatest hits package, The Best of Lori Lieberman.

Lieberman recently released her 17th and 18th albums, Ready for the Storm and The Girl and The Cat, produced by Bob Clearmountain, known for his work with Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and Bon Jovi.

Back to Play Misty for Me.

The most awesome aspect of this film is that Universal didn’t have much faith in turning over a film to Eastwood. So he waved his usual acting fee and was paid only as a director. To say Eastwood “showed them” is an understatement. He wrapped the film five days ahead of schedule and made it $50,000 short of its $950,000 budget. Play Misty for Me went on to gross $11 million in its initial release and, when it became a VHS rental in the ‘80s, earned another $6 million.

The influences of Clint Eastwood’s directing debut can’t be denied, as a female DJ-cum-radio psychologist taunted by a killer became familiar damsel-in-distress fodder for the Lifetime cable network, which aired the similarly-plotted The Night Caller (1998), Requiem for Murder (1999; Molly Ringwald), A Lover’s Revenge (2005; Alexandra Paul), and Radio Silence (2021). To a lesser extent, one can place the radio murder-mysteries Night Rhythms (1992), Night Owl (1993), director Fred Walton’s superb noir-slanted Dead Air (2009), and the direct-to-video renter, Shattered Illusions (1998), on the “radio psychos” list.

You can stream Play Misty for Me on Amazon Prime and Vudu.

* You can catch up with more pre-Star Wars sci-fi films, such as Missile to the Moon, with our Exploring: Before Star Wars feature.

Update November 2020 : Kino Lorber has just re-released Play Misty for Me as a Special edition Blu-ray in a new 2K transfer. The disc includes commentary by film historian Tim Lucas and a video essay with film historian Howard S. Berger. While Donna Mills appears in an all-new interview, Siegel and Eastwood appear in an “about” featurette. Writer-director Adam Rifkin (The Dark Backward, Detroit Rock City) offers his insights via his “Trailers from Hell” segment (You Tube). And . . . if you’re a Clint Eastwood completist: Kino Lorber has also re-issued Clint’s films The Beguiled and The Eiger Sanction to Blu. You can learn more about Kino Lorber’s complete roster of films at their official website and Facebook, and watch the related film trailers on You Tube.

As result of the Kino Lorber reissue, Sam takes another, new look at the film, here.

Now, the question is: When will Kino Lorber re-release the fellow radio flick A Matter of Degrees to DVD and Blu?

A whole week of radio flicks!

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.