Clint Eastwood’s unexpected career renaissance this winter with American Sniper has reaffirmed his position as one of the most respected and formidable filmmakers. But what were his best performances as an actor?
10. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Like Gary Cooper turned ruthless, Eastwood made under-acting his byword as he and Italian director Sergio Leone created the mysterious, almost wordless “Blondie,” aka the Man with No Name, who finds himself partnered with a clownish criminal (Eli Wallach) in a race with the bloodthirsty Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) to find a stash of gold. Eastwood perfected the terrifying squint but in his performance (and Leone’s direction) there’s a hint of witty self-mockery also.
9. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
Clint plays a bank robber whose habit of breaking into safes with a cannon earned him the nickname “Thunderbolt.” His buddy-movie chatter with a manic young driver (Jeff Bridges) showed off Eastwood’s gruff-but-dry sense of humor as the two hook up for a major heist. Eastwood even gets to play a minister and a cop along the way.
8. In the Line of Fire (1993)
Eastwood isn’t the first guy you’d think of to play tortured, but he did fine work as a Secret Service agent forever haunted by his failure to stop the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. Beaten-up but still a pro, he gets another chance to redeem himself when a lunatic former CIA operative (John Malkovich) plots another presidential assassin. Eastwood used his age to great effect, making his character unusually damaged and vulnerable.
7. Gran Torino (2008)
A victim of changing economic and cultural times, Clint’s Walt Kowalski clings to his notion of an Archie Bunker-era America the same way he keeps his 1972 Ford in primo condition, as a monument to manufacturing greatness when he used to work at the Detroit plant. It’s a measure of Eastwood’s deep appeal that he could make an embittered racist so strangely sympathetic, and Eastwood slyly modulates the character’s attitudes without dropping the snarls.
6. Every Which Way But Loose (1978)
The single biggest hit Eastwood had ever been associated with until American Sniper (in domestic grosses, adjusted for inflation) was this singularly Western take on the American romantic comedy, in which Eastwood’s Philo Beddoe plays a trucker who moonlights as a bare-knuckle fighter while he yearns for a honky-tonk singer (Sondra Locke, Eastwood’s real-life girlfriend of many years). Though Locke wasn’t much of an actress and Eastwood had far more chemistry with his orangutan sidekick Clyde, the movie’s screwball plot and blue-collar pride made it a standout, and Eastwood comes across as ferocious, gentle and lovestruck at the same time.
5. Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
One of Eastwood’s most suspenseful and thrilling dramas, this fact-based period piece takes place in the early ’60s, as Eastwood’s Frank Morris tangles with a cold-blooded prison warden (Patrick McGoohan) and plots to break out of the Rock, whose cement walls he notices have been corroded with salty sea air. Eastwood’s watchful intelligence and concentration power the movie as his character observes everything and puts it all together into one of the greatest prison-break dramas ever made.
4. Heartbreak Ridge (1986)
Far more nuanced and suffused with appreciation of American military valor than the other war film that came out that month, Platoon, this character study climaxes with the 1983 invasion of Grenada but it’s really about the psychological burden borne by fighting men as they carry on with their duty. Eastwood’s Marine Gunnery Sgt. Highway is a ramrod of a man and a regretful survivor of the Korean War battle that gives the film its name, who whips his recruits into shape under the gaze of a clueless lieutenant even as he tries to soften his rough edges to make himself appealing to his ex-wife (Marsha Mason). Eastwood is priceless both as the disciplinarian who gives his men the grit they need to perform and as the hapless romantic who resorts to reading Cosmopolitan magazine in an effort to understand the female of the species.
3. Dirty Harry (1971)
One of the all-time great movie characters was Eastwood’s Harry Callahan, the brutish enforcer whose disgust for the system is his weapon for cutting through the sanctimoniousness and procedural red tape that had swung the balance of power against victims and turned the law into a plaything of criminals. Eastwood’s pitiless stare enraged critics.
2. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Hilary Swank won the Oscar but the film wouldn’t work without Eastwood’s gravelly gravitas as boxing trainer Frankie Dunn. Eastwood gave his patented toughness and authority a small twist this time, turning them into paternal love and devotion that gave the relationship between coach and athlete its emotional depth and made this among the most moving of Eastwood’s best films.
1. Unforgiven (1992)
In his later years, Eastwood’s films often seemed to be commenting on the violence upon which his earlier ones centered. This revisionist Western seemed to be Eastwood’s own rebuttal to his years in the saddle in the 50s-60s TV show Rawhide and his many feature Westerns. It was essential that Eastwood draw out the dark heart of aging outlaw William Munny to remind us of the terrible consequences unleashed by violence. Long experience went into Eastwood’s hardened, wise performance, his finest work on screen.