Clint Eastwood in “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”, 1974 | The Malpaso Company
Clint Eastwood was in his mid-thirties when he had his breakthrough in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), taking the roles with Sergio Leone because no one in Hollywood would hire him, except in a television western series. In Sergio Leone’s The Dollar Trilogy, he became the ultimate antihero, with strengths, weaknesses and a lack of virtue, laconic, cool, coming from nowhere, going nowhere, without a past, without a future. It was anti-establishment. It was meant to become legendary, just as Clint’s powerful physical presence. In Dirty Harry, one of the most influential and controversial police movies ever made (on the background of a highly polarised political climate of 1971), Eastwood took on the role of a straight shooter, immoral moralist San Francisco cop: Harry Callahan. And in another Don Siegel film, the dark psychological thriller The Beguiled, Clint delivered one of his best performances, in one of his most atypical roles, as Union soldier John McBurney. It is however on his own as a director (Play Misty for Me, A Perfect World, Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino) that Clint Eastwood has been steering a remarkable course for five decades. Yet, he remains an outsider, steadfastly refusing to be absorbed into mere aesthetic style, steadily fighting for remaining independent. His films do not have a certain look, as they skillfully take a new direction depending on the story, structure and characters and on their maker’s approach.
Today, on Clint Eastwood’s 90th birthday, let’s have a look at nine style lessons from his films, with the biggest lesson being that every second of screen time and behind camera seems so carefully and gracefully etched in his face.
Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry”, 1971 | The Malpaso Company
The tweed jacket: Dirty Harry, 1971
“Harry Callahan never deliberately set out to go beyond the law; it was only under the pressure of time or when forced by the urgency of the situation,” Eastwood remarked in an interview with Michael Henry Wilson for Positif, from 1984. Dirty Harry was one of Clint’s defining films from a style perspective too. Equally parts charming and intimidating. Admitedly, if we have to compare San Francisco cop style in movies, Eastwood’s Callahan has quite some competition from Steve McQueen in Bullitt. But while Bullitt prefers a more casual style, Callahan smartens up his look by wearing his herringbone tweed jacket with a burgundy sweater vest and burgundy/navy Guards tie, slim cut charcoal flannel trousers and his Ray-Ban Baloramas. His prep school outfit looks new on him while remaining practical and comfortable. And that’s because Clint carries it with such confidence and all-American cool and his wear-and-tear clothes would seem right at home in the quintessential male wardrobe of today.
Clint Eastwood in “Dirty Harry”, 1971 | The Malpaso Company
The sunglasses: Dirty Harry, 1971
Eastwood takes the regular idea of “cop” glasses and reinvents it altogether. He is a street smart detective, and I like that his Ray-Ban Baloramas say the exact opposite, how reactionary this choice of shades is. They seem calm and collected. The attraction of the opposites surely works in this case. Steve McQueen may be a serious competitor as the best dressed lieutenant to have ever hit the streets of San Francisco, but Clint out-grades him in the shades department. Sorry, Steve.
Clint Eastwood in “Every Which Way but Loose”, 1978 | The Malpaso Company, Warner Brothers
The blue jeans: Every Which Way but Loose, 1978
Clint Eastwood wanted to make Every Which Way but Loose, a comedy featuring an orangutan named Clyde, even if everyone around him was skeptical about it. “They said it’s not you. I said it is me. Nothing on the screen yet has been me. It’s a left-handed compliment when people say “That’s him,” the filmmaker was explaining in an interview by Charles Champlain, from 1981, for the Los Angeles Times. The studio foresaw it as an instant flop, which it was, but not as far as the public was concerned. Clint Eastwood has always known his audience and his box office success has always allowed him to direct his “small films,” as he names them. So he went ahead and made his small film. Dressed in blue jeans, the perfect medium for self expression, he is a beacon of easy and free style, making a statement with such a simple garment, just as he did when he took on the project.
Clint Eastwood in “The Eiger Sanction”, 1975 | The Malpaso Company, Universal Pictures
The windbreaker: The Eiger Sanction, 1975
“Friendship is stronger than the corruption of the system, it’s the only thing that survives in a world of Machiavellian schemes and plots,” says Michael Henry Wilson in his interview with Clint about The Eiger Sanction. About the film, Clint said that “it was a good thing that our gadgets were limited in number; we were running the risk of heading in the direction of the James Bond movies.” Once again he went against genre conventions by using black humour, which he considered “inherent in the story”. Clint had to undergo intensive training in preparation for his role and he did all his stunts. His dr. Jonathan Hemlock is an art history professor with an adventurous side (mountain climbing) and a dangerous past (former assassin employed by a secret US government agency). His beige nylon blouson jacket serves his character well (and brings to mind his brown windbreaker from Dirty Harry). The derby jacket has its origins in the MA-1 nylon flight jacket, issued to all United States Air Force and United States Navy pilots in around 1950, and subsequently developed for the civilian market and issued in other colors than the standard Air Force green or army olive green. Its military origins, and appeal, have however never eluded it, just as Hemlock can not elude his past.
Clint Eastwood in “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”, 1974 | The Malpaso Company
The white t-shirt: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974
It was Clint who gave Michael Cimino the chance to direct his first feature film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The film, featuring a heady cast (Eastwood himself, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis), was produced by his Malpaso Company and released by United Artists. While stealing a car, free-spirited drifter, wanna-be criminal Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) crosses paths with legendary thief Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood) in the midst of his own escape and they assemble Thunderbolt’s old gang back together to plan a repeat if their biggest heist. In it, Clint’s steely, tough guy character makes a great case for the most fundamental garment of the American style canon: the highly adaptable, much more than utilitarian, simplest yet one of the most potent garments in the male wardrobe: the white t-shirt.
Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino”, 2008 | Matten Productions, Double Nickel Entertainment, Gerber Pictures
Any other plain t-shirt: Gran Torino, 2008
“I would like to grow up to be like Clint Eastwood. Eastwood the director, Eastwood the actor, Eastwood the invincible, Eastwood the old man. What other figure in the history of the cinema has been an actor for 53 years, a director for 37, won two Oscars for direction, two more for best picture, plus the Thalberg Award, and at 78 can direct himself in his own film and look meaner than hell? None, that’s how many,” wrote Roger Ebert in 2008 after the premiere of Gran Torino.
When they were preparing to release Gran Torino, Eastwood hoped people drawn to the film by its promise of a return to Dirty Harry-style law enforcement would realise that there was more to the movie than what met the eye (namely the image of Clint’s character, Walt Kowalski, a white male with a rifle in his hand, on the poster of the film). “I wonder if those people will be disappointed – the ones who just want the hard-ass stuff, the rifle in the face and the guns and stuff like that. You hope if that’s what attracts an audience in, it isn’t what they’re left with. You hope the undercurrent will get to them as well,” Eastwood said in an interview with Scott Foundas for LA Weekly, in 2008. The film is not a liberal fable, there is no grand transformation of the American conscience at the end of the film, it’s a story about a man’s discovery of his better nature. His clothes may picture him as conventional (like his short-sleeved shirt unfastened at the collar button and tucked in his pleated trousers), but the humbleness of a plain t-shirt is capable of revealing something deeper beneath the surface – change. Simplicity is profound.
Clint Eastwood in “Million Dollar Baby”, 2004 | Malpaso Productions, Warner Brothers
The denim jacket: Million Dollar Baby, 2004
Clint Eastwood at his most tender, vulnerable and heartbroken. That’s his Frankie Dunn in Million Dollar Baby, which is also one of his finest directorial works. His performance is what gives the film its emotional power. It’s a beautiful work of a director directing the actor, or better said, of the director giving the actor freedom to explore his character. Clint Eastwood became Frankie Dunn, a man wrecked by disappointments and emotional feelings, a veteran boxing trainer who now owns a run-down gym and occasionally manages a boxer. When Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) comes along as an as an aspiring boxer who sees boxing as her way out of poverty, Frankie is persuaded to come out of his own misery. There is no other look than his impeccably rugged, perfectly weathered, functional, familiar, visceral and dependable denim jacket that better shows Frankie as the father figure that he becomes to Maggie.
Clint Eastwood in “The Mule”, 2018 | Warner Brothers, Imperative Entertainment, Bron Creative
The polo t-shirt: The Mule, 2018
The camera still loves Clint Eastwood’s face, finding unchanging beauty beneath the wrinkled skin. I find solace when I see Clint on the screen in a new role, as he effortlessly fits in with yet another one of his different fictional characters and stories. He belongs, whatever the times, whatever the decade, whatever his age. What I appreciated so much about The Mule, the story of a horticulturist, Earl Stone (Eastwood), who, due to financial issues, becomes a courier for a drug cartel, was that, in it, the filmmaker continues to explore modern masculinity, the good and the bad, in equal parts, of another one of his characters. It’s a different story, it’s a different character, but the style remains. Him, in a classic polo t-shirt (the formal alternative to the t-shirt, but which, in time, has crossed social boundaries, becoming universal), cap and derby jacket. Because here is a universal truth about Clint’s films: his style when in character continues to transcended the screen.
Clint Eastwood in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, 1966 | Produzioni Europee Associate (PEA), Arturo González Producciones Cinematográficas, Constantin Film
The look, the attitude: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966
The hat, with a high crown and pulled down low, not the usual cowboy hat. The fringed buckskins and leather waistcoats, not anywhere in sight. The poncho, not like anything seen on an American horseman. The neckerchief, no pristine accessory, but gathering dust. The jeans, black, not the essential all-American blue jeans. The duster coat, olive green and long-waisted, rarely featured in westerns by then. The character, “The Good”, but not entirely good, nor entirely bad either, just a different type of scoundrel than the other two. Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) subverted the conservative cowboy type and reinvented him as a righteously ambiguous drifter. He didn’t want to be the hero, he wanted to wrangle the hero, and not just any hero, but the American hero, the western cowboy.
Carlo Simi was the costume designer, but Clint’s look is not attributed to anyone in particular. Eastwood reported that he had bought his costume from a Santa Monica wardrobe store, borrowed the leather gun belt, pistol and suede boots from Rawhide, the tv series he played in the 1960s, before starring in A Fistful of Dollars. Yet Sergio Leone had told Christopher Frayling that the transformation of Rowdy Yates (Eastwood’s character in Rawhide) into The Man With No Name had been mostly his idea. Wherever the truth may lie, Clint Eastwood’s character’s sense of visual style placed him in the collective memory in a way not many film costumes do and has stood the test of time to this very day. It was more about intuitive expression of character and the way it triggered a seismic shift in the public’s consciousness, capturing the zeitgeist of the time and of the spaghetti western.
Because it was about more than clothes, it was this blend of attitude and personality and laid-back approach to both character and rough devil-may-care look from the part of Clint himself that made The Man with No Name iconic, and Clint Eastwood himself summed it up well in his interview with Christopher Frayling published in the book “Clint Eastwood”, from 1992: “It was mostly the people who were in the clothes. Gian Maria Volonté had a good face, and all those Spanish, gypsy faces – that was just general… everything kind of tied together and made an interesting-looking film. You ask most people what the films were about and they can’t tell you. But they tell you “the look” [he mimes throwing the poncho over his shoulder] and the “da-da-da-da-dum’ [he hums the opening bars of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme], and the cigar and the gun and those little flash images that hit you.” It’s always about the people wearing the clothes. Hats off to you, Mr. Eastwood.
More stories: An American Original: Steve McQueen in Bullitt / Billy Drago’s Armani White Suit in The Untouchables / He Wore Black