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Eastwood, With Both Barrels : Warner's package 'Clint Directs Clint' showcases 12 movies with the acclaimed filmmaker on both sides of the camera.

February 25, 1996|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Though winning best director and best picture Oscars (as he did for 1992's "Unforgiven") would qualify as the pinnacle of most people's careers, in Clint Eastwood's case Academy Awards have proved to be only launching pads to enough honors to embarrass a Roman senator, let alone the laconic Man With No Name.

On Thursday night, at a black-tie event to be telecast by ABC in the spring, Eastwood will become the 24th winner of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. Then, in May, he will cross the continent to be the recipient of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual gala tribute.

A full-dress biography of the man by Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel (with Eastwood's cooperation) is due out from Knopf in the fall. And, perhaps most imposing of all, the owner of a building on the Sunset Strip thought enough of Eastwood to commission an enormous mural of the actor currently welcoming oncoming traffic in one of his trademark roles as "The Outlaw Josey Wales."

Unwilling to let all this acclaim pass without a special promotion, Warner Home Video is repackaging a dozen films that have Eastwood on both sides of the camera with a snappy "Clint Directs Clint" sticker attached. They will cost either $14.95 or $19.98, the same prices that are being asked for another 10 Warner videos that Eastwood was content to only act in.

It's gratifying to see Eastwood's movies get this kind of wide video push because his is a case of public adulation paving the way for critical acceptance. A major presence with audiences around the world well before cineastes were persuaded to take him seriously, Eastwood at this point in his career is as justly and universally respected as any film personality on the planet.

The 22 films available via Warner Home Video are fewer than half of the 50-something that Eastwood has appeared in during his 40-plus years in the business, but they illuminate enough facets of the actor to satiate even the most ravenous fans. Three in particular reward yet another look.

Despite all that he's accomplished since, it's as hard to consider Eastwood without "Dirty Harry" crossing your mind as it is to hear the "William Tell" Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. "Dirty Harry," the first of five films featuring the curmudgeonly Inspector Callahan, had the services of master action director Don Siegel, one of Eastwood's key mentors, and its plot hook of a criminal justice system that favored criminals over victims had the advantage of freshness back in 1971.

And then there was Eastwood. With a soft voice and hard demeanor, his Harry Callahan had an authentically rebellious quality, the visual equivalent of a young Merle Haggard. And because the twin influences of time and audience acceptance have gradually mellowed Eastwood's surly glower, it is a bit of a shock to be reminded of how much genuine hostility he invested in the Dirty Harry character.

Completely nonthreatening, and probably the most regrettably neglected of all Eastwood's work, is "Bronco Billy" (1980). It's not so much that this was a softer-focus project that makes it different, for Eastwood has periodically opted to do easygoing things like "Honkytonk Man" and "Every Which Way but Loose." Rather, it is the gentle and pointed quality of its tongue-in-cheek nature that causes this film to stand out.

Bronco Billy McCoy, the proprietor of a two-bit traveling Wild West Show, looks like Eastwood's other heroes but talks like a cross between Horatio Alger and a dime novel. His entire life is a living western cliche, including an overriding concern that the youngsters in his audience, "the little pards," as he calls them, obey their folks and eat their oatmeal.

Deftly lampooning his own strapping image while retaining the essence of its appeal, Eastwood has a huge amount of fun with this role, gradually revealing Billy to be less the naive dupe than an appealing dreamer. It's a wonderful characterization, strong enough to survive weaknesses like co-star Sondra Locke's unfortunate stridency in the Carole Lombard role of madcap heiress, and it allows "Bronco Billy" to stand tall as a delicious mock-mythic sendup of the traditional western.

Closer to that tradition but still a departure is Eastwood's sagebrush swan song, "Unforgiven." This story of a reformed killer who re-confronts his past is a neat piece of revisionism, a violent film that is determined to demythologize killing. There are thrills to be had here, but none of them come at all cheaply.

"Unforgiven" benefits from David Webb Peoples' exceptional screenplay, anchored in the power of its idiosyncratic characters (including an Oscar-winning performance by Gene Hackman as the eccentric sheriff Little Bill) and the adroit way it mixes modern and traditional elements.

But most of all "Unforgiven" profits from Eastwood's top-to-bottom involvement. As an actor he is exactly right; as a producer he had the sense and nerve to cast this film for ability, not box office; and, most important, as a director he has infused it all with his low-key but emotionally involving style.

"Unforgiven" also showcases an icon of masculinity who has retained a matchless ability to hold the screen while continually improving on his acting skills. Being mythic has become so second nature to Eastwood that he is increasingly able to admit nuance and shading into his work.

Perhaps the only enigmatic loner able to convince us that he has reason to be both enigmatic and alone, Clint Eastwood is a craftsman who became an artist, and that is reason enough to celebrate.

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