When people hear the name of Clint Eastwood, there are usually two images that pop into their heads. He is the stoic police detective with a big gun, pursuing justice in whatever form, or he is an avenging cowboy, sometimes a crook sometimes a hero but always dangerous. Even after directing films well out of both genres and not appearing in one for a dozen years, those images will remain. Between 1971 and 1988 he played Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan five times. During that period he played a cop in three other movies including a lampoon of himself in “City Heat”. As Detective Wes Block in the movie “Tightrope” Eastwood goes in a very different direction than all the other cops he has played.
Block is investigating a series of homicides that are connected to the underground sex trade in the New Orleans area. This is a problem for him because after his wife left him, Block has turned to that world for sexual release and some power over women, the same characteristics that seem to be driving the killer. He has to face his own demons and try to understand the nature of a man who humiliates women in an attempt to stop him.
It would not be hard to mistake the film for one of the “Dirty Harry” films. A great deal of the way shots are composed and the costumes and dialogue would fit into any of those San Francisco based thrillers. There must have been a half dozen press conference scenes in the Callahan pictures, and many of them looked like this:
The steps in this scene and the reporters however are based in New Orleans, and even though he dresses the same way, this is Detective Block not Inspector Callahan, addressing the public via the media.
When he first encounters the rape crisis center director who wants to help in the investigation and warn the public at large, he tries to duck her by pretending to be out of town. That ruse fails because she is listening as he gives his associate the message to pass on. This is moment that could have been lifted from “The Enforcer” or “Sudden Impact”. He has a moment of awkwardness but brushes it off quite quickly, just as “Dirty Harry” would have done.
One thing though that you would not find Harry doing, and that is having sex with a witness that you are interviewing about the case. In at least two instances, Block finds himself drawn to the broken women who recognize in him the need to exercise some control.
In one encounter he leaves his necktie with the woman after using it to tie her up during their encounter. What Block does not know is that the killer is following him. The killer has a connection to his past and now is aware of some of Block’s own failings and he is ready to use them. Most serial killer films feature a cat and mouse type relationship with the pursuing investigator and this film is no different. There are clues deliberately left at the scene of subsequent crime that alert Block to his vulnerability as the lead investigator on the case. He can’t admit at times to knowing more than he does without putting himself in a compromising position. His inside knowledge does however assist in pursuing certain lines of investigation. Ultimately, this is a procedural rather than a thriller. There are a few moments of tension in the third act, and when Block’s family becomes a target, there is a very suspenseful scene in his own home. It is however not action packed. There is a foot chase and a couple of shootouts, but most of the film consists of conversations shadowed in revealing moments and uncertainty about what the conversation partner really knows.
Because he is a family man, with an icy ex-wife, two young daughters and a slew of adopted dogs at home, Block’s second life seems even more creepy. Eastwood gives one of his most effective performances in this role. He is actually jovial in some moments and filled with doubt in others. There was a lot of talk about him being nominated for his performance this year but it never came to anything. His relationship with Geneviève Bujold, the rape crisis center woman, is flinty at first and then he becomes more needy. When he is unable to anticipate and prevent the attack on his family, he responds much like a women rendered powerless by a sexual assault. At that point his friendship with the woman switches to one of much greater respect.
As was mentioned earlier, he is at first standoffish with Beryl, the Bujold character. After he gets chewed out as a result of her complaints, he drops in on her gym during her workout and attempts to use a couple of masculine tricks to intimidate her and put her in her place. For example, he takes up a position opposite of her on the Nautilus equipment and keeps rhythm with her leg presses while doing his own lifts. The simulated sexual rhythm is not very subtle. He follows it up by straddling the handlebars behind her and doing a series of arm lifts. His efforts don’t scare her off, and he admires that fact that she can take it and give back just as well. Their conversations become the main way that we learn about his backstory and they make her a credible potential target for the killer as well. This sexist approach seems irreconcilable with the doting father of two girls who adopts dogs because he can’t say no to them. As he discusses his background and we learn a little more about the marriage and his professional career, the two distinct aspects of his personality do not seem as inconsistent as they once did.
The killer is seen for the most part from behind or from the side. We never get a clear look at his face. When he stalks Block at a sex club, and watches him have sex with a compliant, demur woman, he is wearing a mask that has devil horns on it. In another sequence he wears a kabuki style mask and again we do not see his face completely. During a Halloween night encounter he is made up like a clown, and although we can see his face it is still distorted by the make-up and costume. With the exceptions of a couple of the murders and a chase, we never encounter the killer in the planning of the murders. We are in the dark for the most part about how he gets information to track Blocks movements or find the women he has had contact with. The one clear connection between the two is the victims of the crimes and that is what accounts for the most disturbing element of the film.
The credited director is Richard Tuggle, who has only one other directing credit after this. The rumor is that Tuggle was slow in shooting and that Clint himself did the movie for the most part. Whoever is responsible, they should have told cinematographer Bruce Surtees to turn on a couple of lights. With the exception of a couple of exposition scenes that take place in the daytime, this is one of the darkest films you will come across. There are moments when you will see less than the characters do because the events take place in alleys, warehouses, and at night, and no one in the movie seems to know how to flip up a light-switch. Tuggle is the author of the screenplay as well and this movie has some of those moments in it when you have to say out loud, “You’ve got to be kidding”. Several cops get killed because they don’t follow basic procedures. Dan Hedya plays Block’s partner but he is so underused I’m not sure if he had more than a couple of lines. The score is heavily influenced by Eastwood’s love of jazz and the location of the film in New Orleans makes that more appropriate. Allison Eastwood was cast as Block’s oldest daughter Amanda. She is very effective in the part of a pre-teen girl who knows how hard it is for her Dad to lose his wife but is still a little girl at heart. During the moments of jeopardy and their aftermath, she plays the shocked victim well without being hysterical. Their tender moments together are probably more believable because of the family relationship.
There is a lot to recommend “Tightrope”, most of which has to do with Clint Eastwood and his performance. The script develops the character well and the background of the crimes is explored in an interesting way. The resolution is a little too typical and the moments of action almost feel tacked on at the end of the story. Wes Block is an imperfect man and an imperfect cop. The way those issues get resolved is a lot more effective that the resolution of the crimes he is investigating.