Why Clint Eastwood Never Considered Another Song For Play Misty For Me

When you think of Clint Eastwood, your first, second, or even fifth thoughts wouldn't associate him with psychological thrillers. This is a man who makes Westerns, crime films, and character dramas about people who the system tries to squash. However, he plunged directly into the psychological thriller for his directorial debut "Play Misty for Me" over half a century ago. This is a classic tale of an obsessive, spurned ex-lover that we see time and time again in cinema, most famously in Adrian Lyne's 1987 blockbuster "Fatal Attraction." In this film, Jessica Walter plays the knife-wielding woman, and Eastwood is the radio DJ with whom she develops a parasocial (and then physical) relationship.

The reason the film is called "Play Misty for Me," aside from being a wonderfully mysterious title, is that the jazz standard "Misty" by Erroll Garner is at the heart of the film. Walter's character frequently calls into the radio show to request this song be played, and what once was a sound of affection evolves into something far more unnerving. 

This was not an easy song for Eastwood to get his hands on. According to the book "The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire," he eventually had to shell out $25,000 to Garner to be able to use the tune in the movie, but it wasn't as simple as money changing hands. It was a struggle to get, but Eastwood wasn't willing to pivot to any other song that might have proven easier to use. It had to be "Misty."

'An old-new song'

Song rights for films are never easy to get. I'm sure Rian Johnson had a hell of a time when he decided to name his movie after The Beatles' "Glass Onion." Well, Clint Eastwood knew "Misty" was the perfect song. It was the right sound from the right era and had the right level of popularity for a jazz standard. In an interview with Stuart M. Kominski collected in the book "Clint Eastwood: Interviews," he speaks about how he resisted the studio's pressure of picking a different song that wouldn't have been the right fit:

"I needed a song that was not so old that the present generation would say: Gee, I never heard of that. It had to be an old-new song, something that everyone from eighteen on would recognize. The studio wanted me to use 'Strangers in the Night,' which they own, but it's not a classic, though it was a hit, and there's that dooby-dooby-do at the end. I just thought it wouldn't work. Also, it had already been used once in a movie, and I just didn't like the title 'Strangers in the Night' for the movie. It was a square hit song, you know."

This song was also going to be fully integrated into the movie. Once he picked it, he couldn't change it without having to throw out a bunch of material he and producer Robert Daley had carefully prepared. From a title standpoint alone, "Play Misty for Me" is a far more evocative and interesting title than "Strangers in the Night," the latter of which sounds like it could apply to a thousand films. It may have been a struggle, but ultimately, the result was worth it.