The more you think about it, the more remarkable a character Clint Eastwood is. Who could possibly have foreseen that the man who made a fleeting appearance in Tarantula in 1958 (as the man who shoots down a mutant, three-storey-high spider), or as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide would not only perfect the western, and the hard cop movie, in each case as an actor, but eventually turn into one of the most reliable film directors in the USA?
I am a bit late seeing Changeling, as I often am with films these days. Yet it’s quite quick on to DVD, since it was only released last year, and quite late last year, too. It’s not only based on a true case, but seems to have a script which has gone far further out of its way than most to stick to the original facts. There are very few alterations. It’s a case which fascinated Los Angeles in the late 1920s, a case in which a missing boy was ‘found’ by the highly corrupt police department, and foisted on the disbelieving mother, who was actually sent to a psychiatric hospital (a term which is euphemistic in the extreme for such institutions at that time) for refusing to accept that the police knew better than she did.
Missing person stories are always popular. They seem to offer some strange redemptive possibility to the rest of us. They dominate front pages (the McCann case is a classic of its kind, but we can go all the way back to the Lindbergh case and further, say to the Tichborne case in the 1870s). It’s as if we have an addiction to miracles, a belief that someone will be snatched from the world into which they have disappeared, a proof that the odds are not completely stacked against us. And of course – as with Terry Waite, John McCarthy, Brian Keenan and others – there are occasional returns from a vanishing. Probably it’s the same fascination that gives the spiritualist community a continuing sense of purpose.
In Changeling, as in the real life events it depicts, a boy does come back, although not quite as we expect. It feels frighteningly fictional, yet it actually happened. And this is Eastwood’s skill as a director. The more bizarre the turn of events, the greater his controlled calm as a director – with Eastwood, whose characters as an actor are always silent, give-nothing-much-away types, and whose actor’s face is nearly always impassive, it would seem that the actor really does reflect the man. It’s rare to see a film so economically shot, and also, admirably, so unfussy and so unfrantic in its editing. He knows how to de-clutter a story, how to eliminate melodrama, how to imply rather than to show (given that the case involved a serial murder of young children, this is some feat).
I don’t want to give any plot away. What hooked me was that it hit on human nature: that a return from the dead is like a talismanic belief to which many will cling. And given that it’s almost Easter, of course…