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)
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.
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.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 10 users: 90% for The Beguiled
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available
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