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As laconic as any of his characters, Clint Eastwood isn't given to yammering on about his life's work, but he is fond of retelling this one story. Back when a young Eastwood was struggling to make a mark, an acting coach, teaching him how to behave in front of a movie camera, kept shouting emphatically: "Don't just do something, stand there." I'd say the student learned well. Half a century later at the tender age of 74, Clint Eastwood is still standing there, and standing tall enough that his films consistently rise above the crowd. His latest, Million Dollar Baby, is no exception. Oscar is again craning his golden neck, paying close attention and poised to anoint.

That acting-coach yarn, with its genial humour wrapped around a nugget of hard truth, typifies both Eastwood and his canon. From those narrowed eyes to that throaty whisper to the chiselled granite of his face, the appearance of doing virtually nothing -- simply standing there -- has long been his signature. The guy is an icon of minimalism. In fact, everything about Eastwood is spare except his astonishing output -- performing in no fewer than 48 pictures, directing a whopping 25 and he didn't even make a start until his early 30s. In his case, less is literally more.

But that's just the first of several intriguing paradoxes that surround him. He's been a box-office star whose instincts, especially as a director, have typically leaned towards the non-traditional and the offbeat. He's been a romantic lead who seldom used romance as a happily-ever-after plot device. In fact, throughout his career, he has quietly defied convention, charting a singular path, and yet always squarely within the Hollywood mainstream. Unlike Altman the rebel, or Scorsese the genius, or Spielberg the prodigy, or Coppola the outcast, he's become an auteur while toiling on the assembly line.

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His gentle heresy started early when, at the dawn of the sixties, Eastwood made a quantum leap still considered daring in those days -- the jump from the small screen to the large, from the role of Rowdy Yates in TV's Rawhide straight into A Fistful of Dollars. Of course, he had to go to Europe to do it, teaming with Sergio Leone to put the spaghetti in the western and the cheroot in the lips of The Man With No Name. Back then, the critics joked that his acting was merely wooden -- his ascent into minimalism, and theirs, was years away.

Seven years, to be precise. 1971 proved a breakthrough for Eastwood -- his first turn behind the camera in Play Misty for Me, a rather odd tale about a sleep-around deejay stalked by a live-wire woman; and his first collaboration with director Don Siegel in Dirty Harry, the saga that kicked off the genre of the loose-cannon cop. At that stage, then, Eastwood was already in possession of his needed raw material. He had his two directorial mentors: the artsy populism of Leone, with his Cinemascope close-ups, the blending of the mythic and the minute; and the B-movie craftsmanship of Siegel, with his lean look and no-nonsense efficiency. (That method of working -- just one take, always on schedule and budget -- has since become an Eastwood trademark.) Of course, he had something else too: the luxury of casting himself, by then a bona fide and bankable star, in most of his pictures. That gave him the clout to form his own production company, Malpaso, and the freedom to follow his own sensibilities. Yes, by the seventies, all the grist was in the mill. But the mill would grind slowly.

Making the next vast leap, from actor to auteur, would prove an evolving process that took him through the likes of Breezy and Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man and Heartbreak Ridge. There was often merit in these efforts, but not the spark of greatness -- not until 1988 and Bird, when Eastwood drew upon his love of music (he's composed the scores for 10 of his films) to invite the late Charlie Parker in from the cold and under the Hollywood big top.

Four years later, that spark would become a flame in Unforgiven, not merely an Oscar winner but among the greatest westerns ever made. Flash-forward to last year's Mystic River, an intimate ensemble piece that, as a pure directorial achievement, sees Eastwood at the peak of his powers. And now Million Dollar Baby, not quite as good, in my view, but still worthy, exerting a strong pull on audiences and propelling some critics, like The New York Times's A. O. Scott, to rhapsodic flights.

Let's examine this last trio of films more closely, because they share traits that speak to Eastwood's uniqueness, to the particular and peculiar qualities that set him apart. Like their maker, all three are deceptively commercial on the surface. Each is a genre film set in a violent milieu: the western ( Unforgiven), the murder-mystery ( Mystic River) and the boxing flick ( Million Dollar Baby). And each is peopled with archetypes who, at first blush, border on cliché: the grizzled gunslinger, his faithful pal, the whore with a heart of gold, the ex-con gone straight, the abused child grown to a ticking time bomb, the hungry boxer eager for a title shot, the veteran trainer looking for one last contender, another faithful pal (Morgan Freeman in both cases, the perfect humanizing foil to Eastwood's flinty protagonist).

However, beneath this seeming familiarity, even sentimentality, there's a surprising and (by American standards) very stark note that sounds throughout the stories -- a note of pessimism, bleak and almost unrelieved. That may explain why Unforgiven is often labelled an existential western, although it's anything but. There, and in the other two films, the principals are essentially defined by a past that's always denied to existential heroes (denied, for example, to The Man With No Name). Instead, the past weighs down all these characters, as heavily and inexorably as in a Faulkner novel. It saturates their present, it circumscribes their future, it's a dark destiny they can't escape. In the land that gave birth to the pursuit of happiness and the dream of self-reinvention, how un-American is that?

So the gunslinger in Unforgiven is haunted by the death of his wife and his once-murderous ways; the three men in Mystic River by a horrific act of molestation that scarred their childhood; and the aged trainer in Million Dollar Baby by his mishandling of a fighter, and by his estrangement from a beloved daughter.

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As economical behind the lens as in front, Eastwood is remarkably adroit at sketching in this looming shadow of the past. A quick opening crawl does the job in Unforgiven, a glimpse of a returned letter serves the same purpose in Baby. Most impressive, though, is his handling of that searing first sequence in Mystic River, a taut yet seemingly unhurried compression of images that plants the bad seed for everything that follows. Don't think for a moment, though, that Eastwood is a magician with a camera (just compare his pedestrian boxing-ring action with Scorsese's flash-and-dash in Raging Bull). He tends to avoid close-ups, and employs a lot of medium shots, sliding his actors into the frame and letting them strut their stuff. But at his best -- again, watch Mystic River -- his style has a cleanness, a precision and a purpose that can feel poetic.

Although he's not a writer, the dialogue in his commissioned scripts looks to find a similar poetry in plain American vernacular, in the blunt speech of regular folk in weathered settings --a muddy town in the vanishing Old West, a ramshackle neighbourhood in inner-city Boston, a ratty gym somewhere in L.A. Typical of that speech is a line from an earlier film, A Perfect World, where an escaped convict says simply of himself, "I ain't a good man -- I'm not the worst either."

Actually, that same description could easily apply to each of the main characters in these three movies. They're all good, bad and a bit ugly too, drifting from the status of victim to villain and back again, prisoners of a fate they may or may not deserve. Then again, as that old gunslinger put it at the point of his rifle, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it."

Is there salvation in Eastwood's realm, or at least consolation? Certainly not from religion -- it's openly jeered at in Million Dollar Baby and appears only as pathetic counterpoint in Mystic River, where he inter-cuts between the first communion of one innocent girl and the brutal death of another. Nor can protection be found behind the veneer of irony. Eastwood lacks irony, although not humour -- mainly the sly brand, often self-mocking, yet hardly redeeming.

Over all, it seems extraordinary that, in his most memorable works, this pop icon repeatedly paints a world devoid of pop comforts, a violent and unforgiving world where justice is never unalloyed, where romantic love is always elusive and where free will chafes in the shackles of the past. And yet he still finds an audience and he even receives Oscars -- that's quite a sales job.

If there's a sanctuary to be found in his imperfect world, it's hinted at by that runaway con when he muses, "A family man is about the best thing a man can hope to be." The lure of family, real or ersatz, is the shared goal of everyone in this movie trio. Alas, it invariably proves to be a bumpy road -- both getting there and staying there. No bitching, however. As embodied in all his anti-heroes, the Eastwood universe is definitely a whining-free zone. Indeed, at the end of Million Dollar Baby, his uncomplaining trainer is reduced to holing up in a lonely diner on some dusty blacktop, taking what solace he can from the sweet delights of lemon-meringue pie.

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Oh, and one other solace too. Damned if the old trainer, if Clint Eastwood himself, hasn't immersed his laconic nature deep in the flowing Irish verse of William Butler Yeats, burrowing right down into "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." Way back in the Rowdy Yates days of Rawhide, who could possibly have predicted that? From Yates to Yeats -- 74 years and counting, and standing, this cowboy, this inside outlaw, has taken us on a helluva ride.

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