You're not generally credited with having any sense of humor, yet certain of your films get big laughs in all the right places. The first half of Honkytonk Man, for instance, was very funny.
That's the way it was designed: a humorous story that becomes a tragedy. A lot of the humor is not in what you say but in how you react. Comedians are expert at that. Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners: Alice zaps him, and his reaction – just the look on his face – cracks you up. Jack Benny could do that. Comedy isn't necessarily all dialogue. Think of Buster Keaton: the poker face and all this chaos going on all around him. Sometimes it's a question of timing, of the proper rhythm.
Does it amuse you that the president is quoting from Sudden Impact?
Yeah, it was kind of amusing. I knew that "Make my day" would have a certain amount of impact in the film, but I didn't realize it would become a sort of "Play it again, Sam."
I've read that you occasionally speak with Reagan on the phone.
Well, I don't know where that came from. I think some secretary or someone mentioned it. I've talked to him a couple of times, but they make it sound like I'm some great adviser.
I want you meet my secretary of state, Dirty Harry ...
Yeah, right [laughing].
You're not going to tell me what you talk about with the president?
I haven't really said that much. I was in Washington not too long ago, and I walked to the White House for lunch. We didn't discuss much of anything except the National Endowment for the Arts medal we were passing out. There were some former members of the NEA there, of which I was one. It was a small luncheon, a few laughs.
I mean, he doesn't ask me for advice. I could suggest some better places to go than that cemetery in Germany.
And you're not going to run for political office.
That's something nobody has to worry about.
You have a reputation for shooting your films quickly and bringing them in under budget. Do you think that has anything to do with having grown up in the Depression?
I would like to say it's just good business, but it may be that. It may be a background of not wanting to see waste.
There's a rumor that people work quickly on your sets because you don't provide chairs.
That rumor derived from a comment I made. Someone asked why I liked shooting on location as opposed to in the studio. I said, "In the studio, everyone's looking around for a chair. On location, everyone's working." But there are chairs on the set and on location.
You also have a reputation for bringing in young or underappreciated talent. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, for instance, was Michael Cimino's first film. Some people might say that you do that because you get these folks cheap.
Nothing's cheap, and I don't think I'd cut off my nose to spite my face. I don't think I'd get somebody cheap just because I thought he was cheap. I think I'd want the film to be the best possible. Otherwise you're selling yourself short. An awful lot of directors are expensive, but you don't know how they got to be that way. Sometimes it's just a matter of salesmanship and agenting.
I haven't worked with a lot of big-name directors, but I came up during an era when they were all beginning to retire: I never worked with Hitchcock or Wyler or Stevens or Capra or Hawks or Walsh. I missed all that.
I suppose the most expensive director I've worked with is Don Siegel. I think I learned more about directing from him than from anybody else. He taught me to put myself on the line. He shoots lean, and he shoots what he wants. He knew when he had it, and he didn't need to cover his ass with a dozen different angles.
I learned that you have to trust your instincts. There's a moment when an actor has it, and he knows it. Behind the camera you can feel that moment even more clearly. And once you've got it, once you feel it, you can't second-guess yourself. If I would go around and ask everyone on the set how it looked, eventually someone would say, "Well, gee, I don't know, there was a fly 600 feet back." Somebody's always going to find a flaw, and pretty soon that flaw gets magnified and you're all back to another take. Meanwhile, everyone's forgotten that there's a certain focus on things, and no one's going to see that fly, because you're using a 100-mm lens. But that's what you can do. You can talk yourself in or out of anything. You can find a million reasons why something didn't work. But if it feels right, and it looks right, it works.
Without sounding like a pseudointellectual dipshit, it's my responsibility to be true to myself. If it works for me, it's right. When I start choosing wrong, I'll step back and let someone else do it for me.
The critics are beginning to say that you've made some pretty good choices.
Some of them. But it's luck. It's instinctive. It comes from the animal part of the brain: the instinctive, intuitive part. The analytical brain can kill you as an artist. You want to stay in touch on a deeper level.
Why do you think the critics have begun to reassess your career?
I think it just finally got to the point where people said, "Well, he does quite a few different things. Maybe it isn't all some cowboy or cop who happened to click." It's easy to dismiss those kinds of films unless you're consciously looking for the best in them. Then again, I've changed. I've done films, like Bronco Billy, that were unusual for me, unusual for anyone. At a Museum of Modern Art retrospective in New York, they liked Bronco Billy and worked back from there. The French worked back from Honkytonk Man, which was one of the best-reviewed English-language films of the year there. In Montreal, at the film festival there, they liked Tightrope. All those films accumulate, and after thirty years, people are beginning to look at a body of work.
But how do you feel about it, this critical reassessment?
This story is from the July 4th, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.
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