Tightrope (Richard Tuggle, 1984)

by Douglas Buck January 8, 2022 7 minutes (1712 words) HD streaming  

The last online class I’ve been taking on films neo-noir concluded on a very 80’s-style lurid (ah, that word! – along with ‘sleazy’, if they had had those as standard sections in my old video store, I know where I’d have spent most my time browsing!) double feature, with both films darkly swirling about that decade’s narrative staple – that being, the determined and brooding investigator sliding dangerously close into the alluring world of the serial killer he’s tracking.

First up was the Clint Eastwood-vehicle Tightrope and, I’ll certainly hand it to Clint (I know, I know, officially the film is credited as being directed by some barely-known journeyman named Richard Tuggle, but other than that small detail, it has every hallmark of having been a Clint-driven vehicle, so I’m gonna treat it as such), while the stoic ol’ conservative personally may stand firmly in the camp of white patriarchal ideology, it’s also clear — similar to the older guard filmmakers who influenced him the most (ie, Ford, Hawks, Siegel) – that within his filmmaking interests, storytelling, and the creation of dramatic conflict, come first, even if it means challenging a bit that personal belief. It’s what has always made him (and those older guys) such fascinatingly complex filmmakers. Perhaps the greatest example from Eastwood’s mentors is Howard Hawks’ brilliant and transgressive Western Red River in which the oft-unquestioned righteous cinematic figure of John Wayne is suddenly presented no longer as a positive force of indominable patriarchal American strength, but as a destructive fascist force that needs to be overcome — by the physically slight (read; gay-er than gay) Montgomery Clift, no less! – for a true sense of community to emerge.

So in Tightrope, while Clint’s New Orleans Detective Block, on the trail of a serial killer through the sexual underbelly of the French Quarter (with Block constantly having to disguise from the other cops that he intimately seems to know just about every prostitute who ends up questioned, to the point of one willing to drop and give him a complimentary blow job) might not literally be Clint’s favorite San Francisco cop character, the film nonetheless acts as a kind of open musing not only on the possible sexual peccadilloes of the Dirty Harry persona, but as an acknowledgement that that ol’ fascist misanthrope Callahan would almost assuredly enjoy a taste for kink along with his nameless prostitutes. It’s potentially fascinating stuff, and the film certainly has its lurid charms (I mentioned my thoughts on ‘lurid’, didn’t I?), with some surprisingly overt giallo seasonings thrown in (including things like stimulating punctuations to dutch angle shots, a multi-mask-wearing killer and a warehouse-location with all these giant guignol-like carnival figures), alas, however… overall… Clint just isn’t quite the right man for the job.

It’s not just the lack of the fetishistic glaring at the murders themselves. In general I don’t mind lack of bloodletting in a genre film, but in a film as overtly-slasher-minded as this, with nods all over to the giallo, a little of the ol’ graphic violence along with the sex would have been appreciated. Still, that’s far from an insurmountable sin.

It’s more Clint’s ‘old man’ perspectives on sex that makes the film far less compelling an exploration than you’d hope it to be (I mean, let’s put it this way… it’s no Friedkiin’s Cruising). I kept wondering, with the press constantly pointing out the ‘taste for aberrant behaviour’ of the serial killer, of which Clint’s Detective we discover shares similar inclinations (and with the very same for-pay chickees, as the Detective keeps finding himself in the exceedingly awkward position of getting busted having recently paid for sex with the prostitutes, including just about every one of the latest sex worker victims lying sprawled out dead, at each of the crime scenes, with items he forgot behind deliberately used in the killings), with both the killer and Clint’s paid-for activities mostly amounting to… handcuffs and a lot of body oil (and I mean a lot)… other than the messiness of all that ridiculous quantity of oil everywhere… where exactly is the aberrancy?

On top of that, we’re made to understand very clearly that Block’s ‘aberrant’ attraction to prostitut-ees isn’t really a part of who he is, but more like a bad habit he picked up after his (selfish) wife left him. We’re also clearly meant to infer as part of the standard ending (killer defeated, the long receding helicopter shot of the concluding city docks location presenting a slightly battered yet triumphant Block walking off, the cops arriving behind him to clean up the mess, his new romantic interest, played by Geneviève Bujold, under his arm – man, I feel I’ve seen this exact ending in a million Clint detective films, including his much more formulaic and less interesting Blood Work which I saw recently at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, almost forgot about as it’s so run of the mill, and now realize I haven’t gotten around to jotting down my thoughts on it yet) that all the put-upon detective needed was to find love again to leave all that yucchy paid-for handcuff sex (and ridiculous amounts of baby oil) behind.

Now, it’s time to come clean and admit, whether you count yourself a Clint fan or not (I gleefully stand in the former camp), when it comes to the presentation of women in his films, you could argue his outlook is a bit… well, complex at best and – yep, I’m gonna throw a fellow aging white man under the bus and say it – pretty openly misogynistic at worst. Now now, guys, it doesn’t mean you can’t still dig his films even if they aren’t displaying the most appropriate progressive values (hell, he has a rape joke with the female victim the butt of the joke as one of the running motifs in High Plains Drifter… and I still love that film!). I mean, let’s be honest, Clint is the guy who basically single-handedly created the template for the eventual 80’s crazy-single-woman-destroying-traditional-valued-homes male-anxiety-trip horror subgenre with Play Misty for Me. And, whattya know, it’s kinda all right there to see in Tightrope.

With Genevieve Bujold

While Bujold does all she can with her role as a rape prevention counselor (leading to some amusingly misplaced moments of sudden goofy humor earlier in the film with Block wincing as the female students are taught to kick an attempted rapist in the balls, as, again, Block is set up to be a kind of Harry Callahan stand-in, ideologically on the opposite side of women empowerment – with women empowerment represented as a form of male castration), the romantic dialogue between the two, told in a kind of attempted one-upmanship banter, is often completely odd (and decidedly not romantic). Ultimately, the film’s lesson for this naïve woman is, in order to find yourself under the loving wing of Block (or Harry Callahan, or perhaps Clint), as a woman you have to be taught that, sure, you can teach all the cute rape prevention 101 classes you want — but when push comes to shove? — and you’re under attack by a real rapist? It’s Clint who needs to be relied upon to smash through the window and save you… and don’t you forget it!

Then there’s the character of Block’s wife. Like the inverse to the crazy pregnant wife who left her moral cop husband and exists only as a mouth taunting into the phone in Mystic River (a revealing Clint addition from the Dennis Lehane novel), Block’s wife might be cinematically oppositely presented (now she’s fully seen and never heard, granted no dialogue), she remains equally an uncaring and monstrous figure, with the implication she left for selfish reasons something that hangs destructively over Block and his two young daughters.

Other than the occasional punctuations to stimulating cool giallo-esque shots, and the alluring milieu that comes with the setting, there’s a decided lack of inspiration in comparison with the crazed and exciting Italo-genre that Eastwood’s film is riffing on. For instance, the warehouse location of oversized grotesque carnival figures where a cat-and-mouse game is played between Block and the killer is the kind of putty an Argento or Martino or Bava in their primes would have crafted into the sheerest of stylistic euphoria… and that Eastwood (or Eastwood-through-Tuggle) just doesn’t really have much of a feel for.

Perhaps the most unsatisfying flaw is the lack of a defined villain (a problem certainly rectified in the second, much more stylistically satisfying 1986 film in the class’ viewing assignment double feature that I’ll tackle in my next write-up). I mean, okay, there’s a creepy guy who goes around with masks on (another pure giallo-like reference that, while still looking kinda cool, comes across as an entirely empty gesture) who keeps trying to implicate Block in the murders, but we never learn who he is… in fact, the unmasking of the killer during his final grappling with Block is so over-played as a reveal, with the shots similarly composed to the unmasking of the killer in something like the big 80’s success The Jagged Edge, I was wondering if the movie might be making a sudden turn into the surreal with Block finding his own face on the killer. Of course, that doesn’t happen, and as it stands, the reveal is peculiar in just how narratively unimportant it is, and yet how cinematically importantly it’s played.

Clint with daughter

I will mention Clint’s 12 year old daughter Alison, who stands out playing – surprise, surprise – Block’s daughter in the film, the older sibling, caught between an uncaring mother and a busy yet caring father, forced into maturity having to tend to her younger sister. With only a few scenes, she manages, in an surprisingly subtle fashion belying her age, the most memorable performance in the film. She’s so assured, in fact, I wondered if it didn’t somewhat mirror the role she played in her real father’s life.

Tightrope (Richard Tuggle, 1984)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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