New Orleans detective Wes Block (Clint Eastwood) has been assigned to a new case of rape and murder, and after years of investigating such crimes he wonders if it is having a detrimental effect on his mind. He is divorced from his wife but looks after their two children, Amanda (Alison Eastwood) and Penny (Jenny Beck), who both may be the best thing in his life right now, for although he is a loving father and a diligent detective, Block has a secret. He likes to frequent prostitutes, which is becoming a liability in his line of work - for the killer likes to do the same.
Tightrope sparked a lot of chatter when it was released among those who saw its star pushing the envelope in what audiences would be able to accept from his characters, as if he had never done so before. Naturally, his fans recognised that he had been doing so ever since he became established as a celebrity, but the twist this time was a sexual one: Block was a bit of a pervert who enjoyed introducing power games into his meetings with the ladies of the night. That's right, he liked to use his police handcuffs for reasons other than restraining the criminals.
However, this was contrasted with a tender home life that he cannot grasp the significance of, but we can. His relationship with his daughters is the most salubrious female connection he has, and that is only because he is their father and duty bound to protect them, but with every other woman years of seeing them as sex objects and worse, victims of brutality, has soured his view of the opposite gender. He needs to get his bearings quickly, but the killer is determined to keep him off guard, and in an incriminating fashion as the prostitutes he visits end up being strangled by the wily psychopath.
It sounds interesting, this level of psychological material, but it would be better if it had been wed to a more intriguing mystery for no matter how far Eastwood went to catch out those used to Dirty Harry, the fact remained that he was playing the hero and there was no way he wasn't going to save the day eventually. The killer was the kind of villain who could make up the vague menace of any number of slasher movies, and writer and director Richard Tuggle at times was content to fall back on that kind of device: he wears a mask, he bumps off sexually available women, he lurks in the shadows, all that sort of stuff seen a thousand times before.
Actually, all the female characters aside from the daughters tended to be sex workers, which might have offered an insight into why Block's fantasies become the reality they do, but might have overbalanced the plot had it not been for the therapist Beryl Thibodeaux played by Geneviève Bujold. She starts out as a right-on cliché who we rightly suspect will fall for Block as he turns on the charm, but for him she is the only positive female presence outside his family. Thus by the time he gets intimate with her he no longer feels the need to handcuff her as he does those other women, and he is on his way to reclaiming his healthy mindset once more. Of course, he still has to catch the killer, which means for us an unnecessarily protracted finale that goes on fifteen minutes longer than it should, which wound up making Tightrope a more fruitful film to analyse than enjoy, even with that gory gag at the end. Music by Lennie Niehaus.