The first Clint Eastwood film I watched was Dirty Harry,and I remember looking at this guy with deeply creased cheeks,narrowed eyes,hair brushing his collar,thick sideburns,slinging out devastating one-liners,and marking him as a Hollywood hero. No actor in Hindi films,my only reference at the time,had played a tough cop quite the way Harry Callahan did: he was out there,doing his job and anyone who got in his way,from a craven superior to a giggly psychopath,would be dealt with in exactly the same way. With an irreverence for authority,and an unflinching insistence on not letting the bad guy get away.
Two years later,in 1973,Zanjeer came out,and we got our own tough cop in Amitabh Bachchan. His hair brushed his collar,he had thick sideburns and trousers that bottomed out,in keeping with the fashion of the early 70s. But like Eastwood,Bachchan was not just making a sartorial statement. He was a one-man army against bent cops and corrupt politicians,with the same disregard for those who were happier toeing the line than doing their job.
On May 31,Eastwood will turn 80. At an age when people hang up their boots,he is busier than ever. From just plain ol acting as an ornery cowpuncher,he switched to directing,and producing. He is also a composer,often creating tunes on the sets. His face is more creased,more weathered,more lived-in. But it is one of the most recognisable and durable Hollywood faces in the world.
Dirty Harry catapulted Eastwood to the kind of fame his earlier Westerns hadnt. Many more people watch vengeful cops,and they far outnumber fans of gun-toting cowboys. Sergio Leone gave him his persona the squint-eyed,cigar-chomping,laconic cowboy (A Fistful Of Dollars,The Good,The Bad,The Ugly,For A Few Dollars More),which he parlayed into the tough-talking cop,and then ranged over a series of roles,without ever losing his essential Clint-ness: his character may be couched in ambiguity and moral uncertainty,but he never quite loses all of his humanity.
Unforgiven,a modern-day Western classic,presents Eastwood in an unforgettable role: a past-it,creaky-boned bounty hunter,raising his two kids and a bunch of pigs,being called to arms again. He rides into an outpost with compatriot Morgan Freeman with the intention of scalping a couple of riders whove cut up a working girl. Who are the bad guys here: Gene Hackman as the hard-edged sheriff who whips a man within an inch of his life and is contemptuous of the women he is supposed to protect,or Eastwood who will take lives in exchange for money? Eastwoods role that of a killer with somewhat of a conscience is not an easy one,and he lays himself bare to us.
In The Bridges Of Madison County,which again he directs and acts in,hes playing an itinerant photographer. He comes riding (or rather,driving) into the 45-year-old desirous housewife Francescas (Meryl Streep) life,and completely turns it over. He surrenders to the love that blossoms between them,but he also realises that he has to move on,because she can never be all his. Talking about Eastwoods style of direction in the special features,Streep recalls how he made her feel completely free as an actor. That quality of a director trusting his actor comes through in the way these two mature lovers come together,like it was inevitable. Clint never says cut or action because he believes that breaks the rhythm of an actor. He will say lets start,or lets begin,says his long-time editor. You cant smoke this guy,he knows exactly what he wants.
You get the same feeling even in the movies which are not his best. In Changeling,a true story about how a little boy gets lost and gets switched,Angelina Jolie is a prisoner of the deep-red lip colour and the cloche hat she has to wear because of the period and the city her character lives in (late 20s Los Angeles). But there is no getting away from the slow menace that Eastwood builds up,because thats exactly what he wants to do: to show a city full of deceit and cunning,and how the straight and narrow will win,but there will be sorrow. Complex emotions,done simply,in great settings,have always been Eastwoods forte.
When he got called in to direct Bridges,Eastwood said,Ill do it,Im up and running. He still is,and he is still making our day.