The film was a critical and financial success, with Walter earning praise for her first major film role.
Dave Garver (Clint Eastwood) is a KRML radio disc jockey who broadcasts nightly from a studio in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, often incorporating poetry into his program. He lives a rather freewheeling bachelor lifestyle. At his favorite bar, seemingly by chance, he encounters a woman named Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter). Dave drives her home, where she reveals that their meeting was not accidental; she sought him out after hearing the bar mentioned on his radio show. He guesses correctly that she is the recurring caller who always requests the jazz standard "Misty". The two have sex.
A casual relationship begins between Dave and Evelyn. But before long, Evelyn begins to display symptoms of borderline personality disorder. She shows up at Dave's house uninvited. She also follows Dave from his home to workplace at all hours of the day and night. Evelyn phones Dave all the time to demand that he keep her company and not leave her alone for a single minute. The final straw comes when Evelyn disrupts a business meeting, mistaking Dave's lunch companion (Irene Hervey)—a representative who has come to offer him a career opportunity—for his date.
Despite his efforts to gradually and gently sever ties with Evelyn, her unbalanced feelings lead her to attempt suicide in his home by slashing her wrists. After Dave rejects her again, Evelyn breaks into his home where his housekeeper, Birdie (Clarice Taylor), finds her maniacally vandalizing his possessions. Evelyn stabs her with a knife and is subsequently committed to a psychiatric hospital.
During Evelyn's incarceration, Dave rekindles a relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Tobie Williams (Donna Mills). A few months later, Evelyn again calls the studio to request "Misty". She tells Dave that she has been released from the mental hospital due to good behavior and is moving to Hawaii for a new job and to give herself a fresh start in life. She then quotes an Edgar Allan Poe poem, "Annabel Lee". That night, while Dave is asleep, she sneaks into his house and tries to kill him with a butcher knife. He fights her, she flees, at first he thinks this is just a dream until he notices knife marks on his pillow case and Dave subsequently contacts the police.
Dave tells Tobie about Evelyn and cautions her to stay away from him until the woman is caught. For her safety, she goes home. There, she meets with a girl who answered her ad for a roommate: Evelyn, using the alias Annabel. Tobie eventually realizes that Annabel is Evelyn when she sees the fresh scars on Evelyn's wrists, but before Tobie can escape, Evelyn takes her hostage. Evelyn also murders McCallum (John Larch), a police detective who had come to check on Tobie.
At the radio station, Dave makes the connection between Tobie's roommate and the quote from "Annabel Lee". When he calls Tobie to warn her, Evelyn answers and says Tobie and she are waiting for him. Dave switches from a live show to taped music and rushes to the house, where he finds Tobie bound and gagged. Evelyn attacks again with the butcher knife, slashing Dave multiple times. He punches Evelyn, knocking her through the window and over a railing and she falls down the cliff onto the rocky ocean shore below. Dave and Tobie look down at Evelyn's dead body as Dave's voice on the taped radio show dedicates "Misty" to Evelyn one final time.Clint Eastwood as Dave Garver
Jessica Walter as Evelyn Draper
Donna Mills as Tobie Williams
John Larch as Sgt. McCallum
Jack Ging as Frank
Irene Hervey as Madge
James McEachin as Al Monte
Clarice Taylor as Birdie
Don Siegel as Murphy (as Donald Siegel)
Before Malpaso Productions co-founder Irving Leonard died, he and Eastwood discussed a final film, one giving Eastwood the artistic control he desired by making his directorial debut. The film was Play Misty for Me. Eastwood reflected on his new role:
"After seventeen years of bouncing my head against the wall, hanging around sets, maybe influencing certain camera set-ups with my own opinions, watching actors go through all kinds of hell without any help, and working with both good directors and bad ones, I'm at the point where I'm ready to make my own pictures. I stored away all the mistakes I made and saved up all the good things I learned, and now I know enough to control my own projects and get what I want out of actors."
The script was originally conceived by Jo Heims, a former model and dancer turned secretary, and was polished by Dean Riesner. The idea of another love interest, with a level-headed girlfriend Tobie added to the plot, was a suggestion by Sonia Chernus, an editor who had been with Eastwood when he was initially spotted for Rawhide. The film was also notable in that Eastwood's character was in heavy contrast to the traditional "action man" roles in Westerns and war films for which he was known until that point; in later interviews, he stated that the film was a deliberate attempt to get away from typecasting.
The film paved the way for many later (such as Fatal Attraction), particularly those with a psychotic female antagonist, and also those where the villain made an unexpected return. The TV series Starsky and Hutch copied almost all of the plot for their season-three story "Fatal Charm".
The story line was originally set in Los Angeles, but at Eastwood's insistence, the film was shot in the more comfortable surroundings of the actual Carmel-by-the-Sea, where he could shoot scenes at the local radio station, bars and restaurants, and friends' houses. Eastwood has also long made Carmel his home, and was elected mayor there in 1986.
Filming commenced in Monterey, California, in September 1970, and although this was Eastwood's debut as film director, Don Siegel stood by to help and also had an acting role in the film as a bartender. Frequent collaborators of Siegel's, such as cinematographer Bruce Surtees, editor Carl Pingitore, and composer Dee Barton, made up part of the filming team.
Additional scenes were shot at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September 1970, featuring jazz greats Johnny Otis, Cannonball Adderley, and future Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul. (The commentator mentions: "That was the Cannonball Adderley group. They are playing at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Joe Williams, and many others. Now we are gonna hear from 'The Gator Creek Organization' and 'Feeling Fine'...".)
The Sardine Factory is a real restaurant, still at the same location as in the film, at Prescott and Wave Streets, just one block up from Cannery Row in Monterey. The radio station, KRML, was an actual jazz station in Carmel, whose studios were relocated to the Eastwood Building at San Carlos and 5th, in the same building as the Hog's Breath Inn (a restaurant that Eastwood owned). After a brief dark period in 2010, the radio station returned to the air in 2011.
The rights to the song "Misty" were obtained after Eastwood saw Erroll Garner perform at the Concord Music Festival in 1970. Eastwood also paid $2,000 for the use of the song "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Roberta Flack. Meticulous planning and efficient directorship by Eastwood (which would become one of his trademarks) enabled the film to be made nearly $50,000 short of its $1 million budget, and it was completed four or five days ahead of schedule.
The film features a romantic montage (views of Garver and Tobie peacefully roaming by the seaside and through the woods), backed by Flack's recording, an Ewan MacColl torch song. Flack's version (after staying at number one for six weeks during the spring) became the 1972 Billboard Hot 100 top single of the year. The film's title can be seen on a cinema marquee in the beginning sequence of Siegel's later film starring Eastwood, Dirty Harry.
Play Misty for Me premiered in October 1971 at the San Francisco Film Festival and was widely released in November. It was a financial success, grossing $10.6 million at the box office against a budget of $950,000. It earned $5,413,000 in domestic rentals.
The film has been given mostly positive reviews, with an 83% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In his 1971 review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, "Play Misty for Me is not the artistic equal of Psycho, but in the business of collecting an audience into the palm of its hand and then squeezing hard, it is supreme." Critics such as Jay Cocks in Time, Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice, and Archer Winsten in the New York Post all praised Eastwood's directorial skills and the film, including his performance in the scenes with Walter.
Jessica Walter was nominated for the 1972 Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Drama, but lost to Jane Fonda for Klute.
Play Misty for Me was number 26 on Bravo!'s "30 Even Scarier Movie Moments."