Sunday, March 23, 2008
Film #18: The Beguiled
In 1971, Clint Eastwood was dangerously, fabulously nearing superstardom. He'd long since completed the "Man With No Name" trilogy--A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly--with Italian director Sergio Leone. But he hadn't yet gone supernova with his role as the unorthodox San Francisco cop "Dirty" Harry Callahan. That's probably why he and his other directorial mentor, Don Siegel, felt comfortable enough to produce The Beguiled. It stands, after Two Mules for Sister Sara and Coogan's Bluff, as the actor/director team's third, and strangest, collaboration.
Based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan and packed with gothic atmosphere, The Beguiled is, simultaneously, a moralistic Civil War-era fable, a horror picture, and a devious black comedy (actually, this unclassifiable quality, coupled with what Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel called its "broadly misanthropic" tone, contributed to it being one of Clint's few financial flops). In it, Eastwood plays John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier who escapes the battlefield and is discovered passed out against a tree by a meek little girl (Pamalyn Ferdin, the distinctively-voiced actress who made her mark in the 1970s as the star of TV's Lassie, Space Academy, and as the voice of Lucy in the animated feature A Boy Named Charlie Brown).
Immediately smitten, she turns out to be one of many Southern young ladies
attending a school run by repressed headmistress Geraldine Page. In fact, as the healing McBurney discovers, it's been a while since any of the school's budding ladies have seen a big, strong man. Naturally, McBurney's trapped convalescence definitely turns a few pretty heads, and he takes full sexual advantage of his position. First, a frail teacher (Elizabeth Hartman) falls for him, then a saucy student (Jo Ann Harris) tempts him with her charms. Even the stern Page finds herself doting on this jerk. McBurney finally reveals himself as the scoundrel he truly is and, as a result, gets that old chestnut about "a woman scorned" vividly taught to him (the film's climax left a black, gooey mark on my young soul).
Filmed on location in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, The Beguiled is spookily shot in diffused, overcast light by first time photographer and later Eastwood regular Bruce Surtees, the son of legendary photographer Robert Surtees (The Graduate, Ben-Hur). But its quality didn't make a dent at the ticket counters; though it was a modest critical success, its downbeat tone failed to lure moviegoers' asses into the seats. Siegel and Eastwood both drew sour criticism from the then-hot feminist quarter for portraying women as vindictive creatures. Siegel, a notorious man's man, came to the film's defense, maintaining that, like males, "women are capable of deceit, larceny, murder, anything. Behind that mask of innocence lurks just as much evil as you'll ever find in members of the Mafia." And, if you think about it, really, that's the ultimate feminist statement!!! Eastwood, too, defended the film, eventually marking it as one of his proudest achievements (he later, in 1992, dedicated his Oscar-winning, female-friendly western Unforgiven to Siegel and Sergio Leone). They would later collaborate on box office hits Dirty Harry and Escape From Alcatraz, but would never again make anything, together or apart, as alien and haunting as The Beguiled.