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Inauspicious Shadows and Poisonous Candlelight

May 10th, 2010 · 4 Comments

The Beguiled poster The Beguiled Italian poster

The Beguiled (1971)
Directed by Don Siegel (as Donald Siegel)
Screenplay by Alfred Maltz (as John B. Sherry) and Irene Kamp (as Grimes Grice) and Claude Traverse (uncredited), based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan
Produced by Don Siegel (as Donald Siegel)
105 minutes

The Beguiled hasn’t exactly spent the last 40 years buried — Universal issued it on DVD in 2001 — but watching this genre defying film from the director and the star of Dirty Harry sure feels like an archeological find. Slow to begin, befuddled to end, the movie is nonetheless unlike any that had come before or any that followed it into theaters. It continued Siegel’s late career trajectory from mean little black & white B-movies to studio pictures with A-list stars and the budgets to immerse the audience fully in an atmosphere. The third of Siegel’s five films with Clint Eastwood is no exception — with the star playing against type as a hobbled Union soldier and cad who discovers his Southern nursemaids are far more treacherous than he is.

Siegel draws electricity by using flashbacks to suggest that contrary to what he portrays, Eastwood’s character is not to be trusted, while revealing the women to be high voltage lines themselves. The three screenwriters who labored over the script can’t sustain any of that into a feature length gothic — William Goldman would in his adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery — but in spite of a narrative that pokes around tension instead of ratcheting it up, The Beguiled does one thing: retain an eerie beauty. The film’s behind the scenes legacy was to introduce Eastwood to director of photography Bruce Surtees, who’d shoot some of Eastwood’s greatest films as a director and does superlative work here, bathing a Louisiana mansion in inauspicious shadows and poisonous candlelight.

31 Days of Eastwood

Picking mushrooms in a forest strangely quiet in the aftermath of a battle between Union and Confederate forces in Louisiana, 12-year-old Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) discovers a wounded bluecoat named John McBurney (Clint Eastwood). She drags McB to the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Girls, whose headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) takes pity on the enemy soldier, at least long enough to mend his wounds before turning him over to a Reb patrol. Having gone many years between entertaining the company of a man, the women take a keen interest in their houseguest, who Martha keeps locked in the music room while he recovers. The inhabitants of the school include virginal teacher Edwina Dabney (Elizabeth Hartman), wanton teenage vixen Carol (Jo Ann Harris) and black maid Hallie (Mae Mercer).

Whether she fears for McB’s health if turned over to the South or he actually reminds her of an illicit relationship she once shared with her brother, Martha keeps their houseguest under her care. McB seeks to save his own hide by appealing to Martha’s idealism, claiming he’s a Quaker who was merely injured carrying a Rebel soldier to safety. He doubles his bet by plying his charms on Edwina, imagining he can avoid capture if she falls in love with him. The teacher becomes protective of McB, especially when Carol begins prowling around his bedside. Unable to keep his affairs a secret from the other women, McB is knocked down the stairs by one of his jilted lovers. Whether out of concern a broken leg might become infected or because she seeks to keep him dependent on her, Martha suggests they separate McB’s leg from the rest of his body.

The Beguiled 1971 Pamelyn Ferdin Clint Eastwood

The Beguiled 1971

The Beguiled 1971 Geraldine Page Clint Eastwood

The Beguiled 1971 Clint Eastwood

The Beguiled 1971

The Beguiled 1971 Clint Eastwood Elizabeth Hartman

The Beguiled 1971 Elizabeth Hartman Geraldine Page

The Beguiled 1971 Jo Ann Carol Clint Eastwood

The Beguiled 1971 Clint Eastwood Geraldine Page

The Beguiled 1971 Clint Eastwood

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 10 users: 90% for The Beguiled

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Based on novel · Dreams and visions · Femme fatale · Military

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Wes // May 11, 2010 at 5:18 am

    Thanks for doing this review.. Sounds fascinating and I just added it to my Blockbuster que. One of the reviews on Blockbuster said this was “Tennessee Williams meets Poe”.. Can’t wait to see for myself.

  • 2 Yojimbo_5 // May 11, 2010 at 8:30 am

    This is a “cookie filled with arsenic” in that lame phrase. Eastwood’s at his most duplicitous—he supposedly counts this among his favorite movies—and Siegel’s nature-suffused version of ’60’s avant-garde puts to shame the “experimenters” who were in vogue at that time. A disturbing, disquieting movie…that feels a bit like standing in moral quicksand.

  • 3 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // May 11, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    I had forgotten all about this movie! It seemed quite twisted to me when I watched it in high school. Maybe I should watch it again…

  • 4 Joe Valdez // May 11, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Wes: I hope you enjoy The Beguiled. It’s one of those lost movies of the ’70s and you’ll see why, but the atmosphere and performances would elevate the movie onto anyone’s queue. Thanks for commenting!

    Jim: I think that when filmmakers are asked which of their movies they love the most, they’re almost obliged to name the ones that were either picked on or ignored. I understand that Eastwood is also quite fond of Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man, but if Dirty Harry had tanked, it would probably be on his short list too. Terrific descriptions, I’m glad you enjoyed The Beguiled!

    Monica: Coming soon: Twisted Movies You Tried To Forget All About. The Beguiled might very well be in there. Can’t think of any male stars today who would seduce a 13-year-old girl on screen today.

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