Tightrope begins with a familiar scene. A young woman is walking home alone late at night. She senses someone is following her. We only see the stalker's feet, clad in dirty old running shoes. A police officer asks the woman if she needs help getting home. She talks to him a bit, and thanks him for his help. Then we see the cop's feet, and he's wearing dirty running shoes. The cunning aspect of the movie is that we can't recall the cop's face. We just saw it, but it didn't register. The woman ends up dead, and we're kicking ourselves because we didn't pay close attention.
Wes Block (Clint Eastwood) is the detective in charge of the homicide investigation. Women are being strangled to death all over the city, which happens to be New Orleans. Block is by no means old, but he's old school. That is, he's not impressed when he hears a lot from the police lab about red fibers being found at the murder scenes. He knows this case will involve a lot of ground work, meaning he'll have to hit some of the nastier corners of the city. The female victims are all in the local sex trade. Fortunately, Block knows the area. Knows it too well, in fact.
The movie plays out as so many cop dramas do, with Block venturing into the darkness to find the killer. He's a typical movie cop - his wife left him for a wealthier man, and he looks after his two daughters and a house full of dogs. He's basically a nice guy, if a bit depressed. This case, though, haunts him. Not only is he more than familiar with the New Orleans demimonde, but it appears he can't interview a prostitute without sampling the goods.
The duality in Block's nature is the engine that runs Tightrope, which starts out as a simple police procedural and then turns into a full-blown psychotic meltdown as he dives into the seamier side of life. For laughs, the wacko starts following Block and killing the women being questioned. Block sweats it out, fearing that he'll be mentioned as "the last to see them alive." He even has a nightmare where he's the strangler. He's such a cynic that he probably puts his own name on a list of suspects. After all, he wears sneakers, too.
He befriends a woman from the local rape crisis center (Genevieve Bujold), the usual feisty, no-nonsense woman who appeared in this sort of movie during the '80s. Block is as cynical about the rape center as he is everything else, but he likes the woman. Is he getting close to her as a way to repent for his unsavory activities? Or maybe it's because she knows how to defend herself. If the killer is picking on Block's women, at least this one will be able to kick him in the balls and blow a whistle.
Tightrope came at a transitional time for Eastwood. He'd gone from being a cult figure, to a movie star, to a sort of cartoonish super cop. It had grown difficult to take him seriously, for even his Dirty Harry movies had become silly. Some have called Tightrope a de facto Dirty Harry sequel, but that's not quite true. As Wes Block, Eastwood doesn't blow anybody away with his .44. In fact, there's little gun play at all. Besides, Harry Callahan didn't seem too interested in hookers. Block? Put him in a room with a whore and they'll both start perspiring like they're on the cover of an Ohio Players album.
As the body count increases, the strangler moves ever closer to Block. This culminates with the bad guy breaking into Block's home and tormenting Block's daughters. When it appears Block's filthy lifestyle has seeped into his home, he grimaces into his bedroom mirror, growls a few obscene words, and trashes the place. From here, we know Block and the strangler are going to tangle, and there can only be one winner.
Tightrope enjoyed some success upon its debut in '84, despite Pauline Kael describing it in her New Yorker column as a "seamy, gaudy melodrama," with Block being "the most inept police investigator of all time." She added, with some truth, that Tightrope was nothing more than "...Halloween taking itself seriously." Indeed, the previous decade's worth of slasher movies had softened up the audience for a film like Tightrope. When Kael wrote that Tightrope was "the opposite of sophisticated moviemaking," one couldn't argue.
If the movie didn't seem like a work of genius, this is because it was from a first time director, Richard Tuggle. Tuggle had written a fine Eastwood movie a few years earlier (Escape from Alcatraz) and he also wrote Tightrope. Though there are some creative flourishes - the killer is usually wearing a mask of some kind, allowing him to slip in and out of the New Orleans nightlife like just another eccentric sidewalk character - there's a strong sense that Tuggle was simply trying to make a Clint Eastwood movie. Not only was Tightrope produced by Eastwood's company, but Eastwood's real life daughter Alison was cast as Block's eldest daughter (she steals most of her scenes, by the way), the cinematography was by longtime Eastwood collaborator Bruce Surtees, and the jazzy musical score is by another Eastwood regular, Lennie Niehaus.
Tuggle rarely worked in Hollywood after Tightrope, which is strange because the movie made money. He and Surtees did well together, especially in a scene where Block wanders into a warehouse in search of the killer, and finds himself surrounded by parade floats, including a giant Ronald Reagan head. Tuggle's choice to keep the killer from having much flair was also unusual for the time, since this was the era where movie characters had to have a catch phrase and a personality that could easily be transferred to a McDonald's cup.
Eastwood was 54 at the time of Tightrope, and though he was still lean and wolfish, there were murmurs that his days as a star were numbered. New guys were coming along, kickboxers and musclemen and boyishly handsome brats, and there was concern about how long the Eastwood mystique could carry on. Little did we know that he wasn't done yet, and would go on to win a bunch of Oscars. There was a time, believe it or not, when the idea of Eastwood winning an Oscar seemed as unlikely as the Red Sox winning the World Series. He's since won four. In fact, he's made so many great movies that Tightrope is barely remembered. If anyone else had made it, it might be enshrined as a classic of the '80s. In the saga of Wes Block, Eastwood found "a throwback to the great cop movies of the '40s," wrote Roger Ebert, "when the hero wrestled with his conscience as much as with the killer."
Some of the movie feels formulaic. The woman are caricatures of sexuality - they're constantly sucking on popsicles, or mud wrestling, or playing with vibrators, or lounging in hot tubs. The kinky stuff about bondage had crept out of the city sex shops and into the mainstream, to the point where a prostitute could tease Block about his handcuffs and the ticket buyers could titter knowingly. The strangler, too, seems less like the serial killers who exist in real life and more like a villain in a Batman movie. And Block, for all of his secrets, is often shown cuddling with his dogs and his daughters. Eastwood knew he couldn't make Block too much of a weirdo and still sell tickets.
There's also a ridiculous bit where Eastwood and Bujold work out together. This gym scene is so clumsy with sexual imagery that it almost undoes the rest of Tuggle's good work, as does the sophomoric psychobabble from a female shrink about how we're all walking a tightrope between good and evil. The New Orleans backdrop seems cheesy, too, as if the board of tourism had a stake in the production. Did we really need to see Eastwood and Bujold on a riverboat slurping down oysters?
Ultimately, the showdown between Block and the strangler is what makes or breaks the movie. By now, the killer is wearing a black ski mask, which is torn off during the struggle. Cop and killer face each other, Eastwood's face a map of rabid rage and hate, almost comically so. You could write a lot about how Block was trying to kill his dark side here. You could also say that Eastwood was trying to kill his old self, and move on with the rest of his career. Unforgiven, Bird, Million Dollar Baby, and many others were just beyond the horizon. But did he know?