Clint Eastwood had already proved that he could play a tough, gritty lawman with his Dirty Harry series of films which had been shot nearly a decade before, but for Tightrope director Richard Tuggle manages to create a far more complex and unsettling character piece. Set in New Orleans, Eastwood plays policeman Wes Block who is investigating a series of murders of women commited in the seedy, dark underbelly of the city while also trying to balance his home life with his two daughters. As the investigation unfolds it is revealed that there is a strong link between Block and the killer as Block realizes the murderer is starting to establish a connection with him and that he may have more in common with him than he would like.
Tuggle keeps the killer’s face largely hidden from the camera instead focusing on a pair of distinctive shoes that prowl the dark streets of New Orleans. From the opening scene in which a woman is followed home from a birthday party to outside her house we learn that the killer is masquerading as a cop, making him all the more sinister because the woman believes she has been saved when she bumps into him. As the woman lets herself into her house the camera pans down over the policeman revealing the shoes worn by the stalker.
In an effective bit of editing the shot of the killer’s shoes is intercut with shoes of Wes Block in his establishing scene playing football with his two daughters. Immediately this sets up what is initially a subtle link between Block and the killer which becomes more apparent as the film goes on. Wes Block is a single father whose wife has left him and his daughters for another man, the wife’s character only appearing in a handful of scenes in which she appears ghostlike uttering no dialogue. We do not know why they have split up nor have any idea what their married life was like however the mother’s absence only serves to increase the bond between Block and his two daughters.
The audience quickly learns in the process of Block conducting his investigation that he is not as wholesome as might have been initially presumed. He visits a whorehouse to talk with a prostitute who had links with one of the murder victims and while there discovers that it might have been a policeman he is looking for. Block becomes seduced by the woman as she takes off his necktie which he then proceeds to wrap around her neck showing he is no stranger to kinky sex. In fact Wes Block is no stranger to many prostitutes in the French Quarter with each visit making it more difficult to perform his duty as a police officer as opposed to simply being a client. As the investigation continues the killer flips the cat and mouse game and begins to trail the path of Block himself with the new murder victims being girls that Block has spent the previous night with. He learns that both himself and the killer have a proclivity for handcuffs which the killer exploits by hanging Blocks handcuffs near one of the murder scene’s of a girl Block has previously slept with.
Tuggle very effectively does not allow the audience much face time with the killer, instead opting for quick shots of him wearing a Halloween mask or a shadow appearing from somewhere off camera lending a nightmarish quality to him. In many of the killer’s scenes the film takes on characteristics of a horror film showing us his point of view, a technique used by John Carpenter in his classic slasher Halloween, as he toys with his victims and Block himself. These creepy qualities give the killer almost other worldly, supernatural characteristics aiding the idea of the killer and Block becoming the same person with Block losing his mind. The metaphorical tightrope that the films title suggests is the one that Wes Block needs to walk in order to keep the darkness of his job and personal life from spilling out onto his relationship with his daughters. As more and more links are established between himself and the killer the tightrope he walks to keep the darkness in his life under control gets closer to the breaking point.
As a counterpoint to all this is the character Beryl Thibodeaux, played by Genevieve Bujold, a woman who runs a rape centre helping women defend themselves with defensive techniques. When the first two murders unfold she tries to make contact with Block and the police department, believing that the public should know more about the murders so that woman can be more prepared and ready to defend themselves. It is clear from their initial scenes together that the two have immediate chemistry despite Beryl having none of the qualities of the woman we have seen Wes frequent with in the French Quarter. She refuses to wear any make-up, wears sweat shirts and is in her mid thirties, yet despite all of these qualities a relationship begins between these two. When discussing what goes on in his job and personal life with his daughters he replies with quick, evasive answers yet when Beryl comes into his life he becomes more open and happy with bringing a woman into his home.
In the films climax it is revealed that the killer is actually a rapist whom Block himself arrested over a decade before. While cops are posted outside the killers house the killer invades Blocks home resulting in Block chasing the killer through a graveyard and into a train yard. It is here while the two characters struggle that Block manages to pin down the character onto the path of a coming train, being left with nothing but the killers arm afterwards. This scene could be seen as a metaphor for Block confronting the darkness within himself, finally managing to destroy his inner demons before walking off with Beryl into the New Orleans night.
Richard Tuggle and Clint Eastwood managed to create a character with many more layers of depth than Clint had tried in his previous cop movies, one that is wrestling with his own frame of mind as well as that of the killers. It is this quality that makes watching Wes Block walk the tightrope such a fascinating viewing experience.