"There's a darkness inside all of us, Wes. You, me, and the man down the street. Some have it under control. Others act it out. The rest of us try to walk a tightrope between the two."—police psychiatrist Dr. Yarlofsky (Janet MacLachlan) to detective Wes Block (Clint Eastwood)
"Do you investigate many sexual crimes?"
I ask you, gentle reader: when such a question is posed in a Hollywood crime thriller, could the answer possibly be "No"?
Facts of the Case
A Jack-the-Ripper-style stalker is brutally murdering prostitutes in the Storyville district of New Orleans—a killer so nonchalant about his crimes that he pauses for coffee and dessert in his victims' kitchens after butchering them. The police brass struggle to keep a tight lid on news leaks during the early stages of the spree, fearing that news of a serial slasher will panic women throughout the Crescent City.
Leadership in the investigation falls to veteran detective Wes Block (Clint Eastwood, just off his fourth appearance as "Dirty" Harry Callahan in the previous year's Sudden Impact), a single father with two preteen girls (the older of whom is played by Eastwood's real-life daughter Alison, twelve years old at the time of the film's release). Block is all too familiar with the seamy streets of Storyville, both as a cop and as a frequent client of the ladies of the evening who ply their trade there. Almost immediately, Block notes a discomfiting pattern to the murders—all of the victims are hookers he has recently "engaged." Soon, the detective begins to realize this is no coincidence. The killer is targeting these women specifically because of their connection to Block, almost as if seeking to frame the cop for the crimes.
As Block and his mysterious adversary circle one another, suspicion about Block's possible involvement gradually heats up. The detective is further distracted from his manhunt by his blossoming friendship with Beryl Thibodeaux (Geneviève Bujold, Choose Me, Dead Ringers), a rape crisis counselor and women's self-defense instructor who serves as an informal public liaison between the mayor's office and the police department. Will Beryl-and/or the little chips off the old Block-land on the killer's hit list? And can Block catch and expose his unknown enemy before his own face ends up on the Post Office wall?
It is easy for critics to accuse Clint Eastwood of spending his entire cinematic career recycling the same character archetype over and over—the grim, unflappable, unstoppable gunslinger he began portraying in Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns as The Man With No Name (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and brought forward into modern times as vigilante police detective "Dirty" Harry Callahan (in five films beginning with 1971's Dirty Harry and concluding with The Dead Pool 17 years later). It is also incorrect.
Eastwood has, in fact, spent a fair number of his films subtly—and at times not so subtly—blasting Magnum-sized holes in that archetype, portraying characters that bear a superficial resemblance to the stock Eastwood superman, but that demonstrate the inherent fallibility of that caricature. Ben Shockley (The Gauntlet), for example, appears at first glance to be a Harry Callahan clone, but is as stupid as a sack of hammers. Philo Beddoe (Every Which Way But Loose, Any Which Way You Can) may be America's uncrowned bareknuckle boxing champion, but he's even dumber than Shockley is. Bronco Billy McCoy's flashy sharpshooting in Bronco Billy masks the fact that the star of the Wild West show is really a shoe salesman from New Jersey. Frank Horrigan (In the Line of Fire) is haunted by his failure to stop an assassin's bullet. Steve Everett (True Crime) is a womanizing loser. Terry McCaleb (Blood Work) has a transplanted heart—hard to miss the symbolism there. Even Unforgiven's William Munny, probably Eastwood's strongest character outside the Leone and Dirty Harry portfolios, fears that all the bloodshed and violence of his younger years has left him a soulless, hollow man in midlife.
Then there's Wes Block, the protagonist of Tightrope. Block, like the aforementioned Shockley, superficially resembles Dirty Harry, the cool plainclothes policeman with the flinty gaze and the knack for the laconic one-liner. The catch here, though, is that Block is every bit as weak as Callahan is tough. Emotionally crippled and insecure, Block satisfies his perverse sexual desires with prostitutes—and not just any prostitutes, but those specializing in fetish kink. Needing to exert control in a situation wherein he feels that he has none, Block handcuffs his partners during The Act. Yet we see his emasculation fully exposed when his ex-wife appears to take their two young daughters away for the weekend—Block hides in his house, away from her piercing, condescending gaze. (The ice-queen ex's sly smirk as she looks up at the bedroom window tells us everything we need to know about the Block marriage, and who wore the pants in it.)
It is inevitable that Eastwood, as he does in his films with surprising regularity, matches Block with a strong woman who not only stands up to him, but counterbalances his character flaws (as Tyne Daly's gritty rookie detective complements Harry Callahan in The Enforcer, and as Sondra Locke's deceptively intellectual call girl is the perfect foil for the dimwitted Shockley in The Gauntlet). Geneviève Bujold's Beryl Thibodeaux may well be the most compelling female character in the Eastwood oeuvre—intelligent, unconventionally attractive (much like Eastwood's real-life ex-partners Locke and Frances Fisher), and cannily self-aware. There's an unforgettable scene in which Beryl finds handcuffs on the nightstand in Block's bedroom and, during a subtle and sexually charged conversation, slips them onto her own wrists. The silent moment in which Bujold as Beryl turns to Block and offers him her shackled arms is one of the most excruciating, starkly vulnerable acts I've ever seen an actress commit onscreen. We sense that she really doesn't know whether this sad, twisted man will free her or take advantage of her, and even more shocking, we sense that either option will be acceptable to her. It's a moment that a lesser actress would have turned into something melodramatic, comical, or borderline pornographic. Bujold neither dives into degradation, nor winks at the camera to let us in on a private joke. Her dark eyes blazing with curiosity, she leads Block—and the viewer—to the precipice of genuine human connection, as if to say, I know what you truly are like on the inside, and I love you anyway. Who among us hasn't longed for another person to tell us that?
That moment is typical of Tightrope, which may contain, next to Unforgiven, Eastwood's best film performance. The subject matter alone—serial killers and kinky hookers—could have sent the film spiraling into sensationalism. But writer and first-time director Richard Tuggle (who earlier penned the script for Eastwood's Escape From Alcatraz) keeps the story on an even keel. Tuggle's directorial style is, not coincidentally, a mirror image of Eastwood's own—direct, unspectacular, and suspenseful without being overtly manipulative, with a keen sense of pacing and character. (One suspects the star had more than a little input into the way the film was shot.) Director of photography Bruce Surtees, a longtime Eastwood veteran (he was previously behind the lens for Clintworks as varied as Honkytonk Man, Firefox, and Sudden Impact, as well as the Don Siegel-directed The Beguiled and Escape From Alcatraz) knows how to add just enough drama without too much showy technique.
The dialogue Tuggle feeds his characters helps paint them as personalities rather than mere pawns in service of the plot. Block, especially, gets lines that show the humor (when Beryl asks him over lunch what he was thinking when the two of them were working out at a nearby gym, he replies matter-of-factly, "What it would be like to lick the sweat off your body") and the heartache (when he and Beryl encounter one of Block's playmates-for-hire on a busy street, she asks whether "that kind of friend" was the cause of his wife's leaving, to which Wes answers, "I made those kinds of friends after she left") inside his repressed soul. The script is delivered by a fine supporting cast behind Eastwood and Bujold, including Dan Hedaya (Swimfan) as Block's partner, and Graham Paul (Pale Rider) as the droll-witted forensic examiner who fits the pieces of evidence together with a sorcerer's glee.
As taut and skillful as Tightrope is, writer/director Tuggle makes a few key errors that prevent the film from fully realizing its potential. The first major faux pas occurs in the opening sequence of the film, where we see the killer's face for the first time as he fools his next victim into believing he's a friendly cop on the beat. By uncovering the murderer's true appearance right at the outset, Tuggle robs the film of its most important conceit—that Wes Block just might be the bad guy. We now know he isn't, because we've seen the killer's face and it isn't Block's. If this happened in the trailer, we'd call it a spoiler. Well, it's still a spoiler—it spoils all of the shenanigans throughout the body of the picture that appear to point to Block's guilt, because we already have conclusive proof (the testimony of our own eyes) that he's not guilty. A simple redirection of the camera angle by the director could have preserved the mystery, and thus ratcheted up the suspense.
Even worse, the film's denouement doesn't so much unveil as unravel. The final confrontation feels as though Tuggle suddenly realized he needed to end the movie somehow, and, strapped for ideas, he decided to reach back thirteen years and plunder the final act of Siegel and Eastwood's seminal Dirty Harry. Trouble is, we've seen that sequence before, and everything about this film up until the last 30 minutes has led us to expect something more novel and fresh. Unfortunately, the bakery truck arrives with a stale load of day-old remainders.
Hiccups and all, though, Tightrope is must-see Eastwood. When Block finally cracks under the mounting pressure and in the face of personal tragedy, the actor is as stark and unvarnished as we ever see him. His interactions with Bujold, and with his character's daughters (one of which, as noted earlier, is indeed his own), resonate with unfeigned affection. Anyone who still holds to the canard that Eastwood merely recapitulates the same song and dance again and again needs to see Tightrope and be convinced that this man is one of the singular acting talents in the history of cinema.
After years of waiting on the part of the Eastwood faithful, Warner Brothers releases Tightrope, along with a gaggle of other catalog titles, as part of its Clint Eastwood Collection. It's true that all of the films in this series star Clint Eastwood, but there's little beyond the films themselves to attract the serious collector. Only a spartan Eastwood filmography and, in the case of Tightrope, a laughably cheesy theatrical trailer are added for your enjoyment, such as it is.
The anamorphic transfer of Tightrope is serviceable but not outstanding, showing the marks of its age in the form of near-continuous flecks and specks. Although generally clear and accurate, the film maintains a mushiness that especially mars the darker scenes, of which there are many. Shadows are muddy and lacking in depth, and colors appear muted. When one of the precious few features you're offering on a disc is an "all-new digital transfer," it needs to be more accomplished than this.
Ditto for the remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which comes off as compressed and trebly, with little effective use of the surround channels. Granted, as thrillers go, this one is more dialogue-driven than most—and the dialogue, for the most part, sounds fine—but when opportunities arise to shake things up a bit sonically, this disc finds itself lacking. As is typical of Eastwood films of the period, and fitting for one set in New Orleans, Tightrope includes a superb, jazz-based score by Lennie Niehaus. But the track is concentrated so doggedly in the center of the soundstage that there's not much openness in which the sprightly rhythms of Bourbon Street can soar. For most viewers, the picture and audio here will deliver a more than acceptable experience, but the discriminating fan will wish Warner had spent a little more time on this one.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In this age of C.S.I. and its countless imitators, it's interesting to note how far forensic science has progressed in a mere 20 years. With all the potential DNA markers and physical clues the villain in Tightrope leaves behind, Gil Grissom and his crew would have collared the guy before the first commercial break.
Also, for those who like weird little inside jokes, take note that most of the incidental police characters are named after members of the production team.
A classic neo-noir thriller, imperfect yet rich and satisfying, featuring magnificently nuanced performances by the man from Malpaso and his co-star. Aside from a few minor plotting flaws, the only thing Tightrope lacks is a worthwhile DVD presentation. But since I've been complaining for half a decade that it wasn't available on DVD at all, I'll swallow my displeasure and enjoy.
Highly recommended for noir fans, suspense fans, police procedural fans, jazz fans, and Clint fans. That pretty well covers everyone, doesn't it?
Warner Bros. is found guilty of exploiting Clint Eastwood's good name by continuing to market his films on DVD under the Clint Eastwood Collection banner, while foisting lackluster transfers and non-existent supplements on the viewing public. The studio is sentenced to remedy its evil deeds by re-releasing these movies in a more appropriate fashion. Detective Wes Block is found guilty of super-freakiness, and is sentenced to 24 hours in a holding cell with Rick James and Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
The cast and crew of Tightrope are free to go. The bailiff will remove their handcuffs…that is, unless they really want to keep them on.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Clint Eastwood Filmography
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