Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Beguiled (1971)

Director Don Siegel (left) and Clint Eastwood on the set

Actress Jo Ann Harris

THE BEGUILED          B                 
USA  (105 mi)  1971  d:  Don Siegel

Well the dove she’s a pretty bird, and she sings as she flies
She brings us glad tidings and she tells us no lies
Well she flies in the mountains and the valley so low
And if you live peaceful then she never will go

Come all you young men, take a warning by me
Don’t you go for a soldier, don’t you join no army
For the dove she will leave you and the raven will come
And death will come marching to the sound of a drum

And come all pretty young girls, come walk in the sun
And don’t let your young men ever carry a gun
For the gun it will scare her and she’ll fly away
And then there’ll be weeping by night and by day

Well the dove she’s a pretty bird, and she sings as she flies
She brings us glad tidings and she tells us no lies
Well she flies in the mountains and the valley so low
And if you live peaceful then she never will go

The Dove She Is a Pretty Bird (Traditional), sung by Corporal John ‘McBee’ McBurney (Clint Eastwood) 

Made a year before Eastwood’s first directed movie, PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971), and just months before the release of DIRTY HARRY (1971), which became an Eastwood staple in popular culture, this film was largely lost and overlooked, having failed at the box office, though the French revered it and invited the film to the Cannes Film Festival, but the producers declined, as they hadn’t a clue how to market this film, advertised as a psychedelic western, which is a major reason the film never struck a chord with the public, where this sense of confusion only adds to the film’s lore, rediscovered decades later in a flimsy remake by Sofia Coppola, The Beguiled (2017), that actually won the Best Directing prize at Cannes, though it’s a pale substitute of the original, which is an explosion of bizarre and oddly unfamiliar ideas.  Watching this film is a reminder of a superior age in filmmaking in the late 60’s and early 70’s, an era of greater freedom, when directors constantly took risks, exhibiting a greater sense of urgency, where the 70’s was actually a golden age of American filmmaking.  While hardly an example of one of the better films, this is instead a more provocative effort, a battle of the sexes, where a wounded soldier from the north finds himself cooped up in a sanctuary of Southern belles in the plantation era of the antebellum South during the Civil War, notable for being the sole film in the entire Eastwood repertoire where he gets his comeuppance, described as a castration fantasy by the director, outsmarted by a group of women in the heyday of feminism and the women’s liberation movement, headed by the great Geraldine Page, queen of American theater and stage, nominated for eight Academy Awards (winning once) and four Tony awards, who is at her most devious when confronting the likes of Eastwood.  While Coppola’s film is immaculately photographed, it remains calculatingly reserved and feels more like a minor work, perhaps trying too hard to retain that balance between comedy and camp, never registering the bleak dramatic overtones of the original, which suggests a greater sense of inner desperation.  While Coppola depicts the film exclusively from a woman’s point of view, capturing subtle nuances, the original does as well, but is all Eastwood (check out the hair!), distinguished by his male bravado, showing his guile and charm, attempting to have his way with women young and old, feeling he is invincible in a house filled with women, only to be rebuffed by Page in one of her more disturbing roles, where her moral authority is continually undercut by flashbacks of incestial relations with her brother, altogether left out of the more sanitized Coppola film, creating a darker more perverse vision, while also adding ambiguity to the chosen title.

Based on the 1966 novel The Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan, the film is notable for the exaggerated delirium and towering performances, becoming an expression of Southern gothic horror, taking place at the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Girls, a cloistered community on the outskirts of war with a near religious devotion to manners and etiquette.  While the war itself is never seen but only heard in the background, the gated seminary remains a safe refuge, surprisingly absent of discord, led by founder and school headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page).  The opening credit sequence is notable, shot by Bruce Surtees in sepia tones, featuring blown-up vintage photographs of Lincoln, but also fallen soldiers, where we hear the bloody sounds of war as the screen is flooded by images of the dead still lying on the battlefield.  What follows is the soft, yet distinct voice of Eastwood himself singing a traditional anti-war folk ballad with ominous implications, as a tattered and badly wounded Corporal John ‘McBee’ McBurney (Eastwood) is discovered hiding in the woods by a young 12-year old girl, Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin, the voice of Lucy in the Peanuts movies), while picking mushrooms.  When announcing her age, he mysteriously suggests, “Old enough for kisses,” and kisses her right there on the spot as a squadron of soldiers passes by on the road.  Enough to make you squirm.  Helping him into the grounds of the school, his arrival causes quite a commotion, as the women all want to get a good look at him, though he is nearly unconscious, uttering delirious remarks.  What’s immediately recognizable are the litany of voiceovers from many of the women, where viewers can hear what they’re really thinking, offering a woman’s perspective, while also using skewed camera angles accentuating a feeling of disorientation.  This feeds into the flashbacks of the headmistress, frolicking in the fields with her brother, hidden messages undermining her moral authority.  Meanwhile, all the girls want to sneak a peek, peering around corners, sneaking in for a visit with the soldier in their midst, the lone man on the premises for quite some time, where each seems intoxicated by their own internalized fantasies.  The women start dressing nicer for the occasion, apparently trying to impress, with Miss Martha acknowledging, “The Corporal seems to be having an effect on all of us.”  Hallie (Mae Mercer) is the only slave on the premises (also left out of the Coppola film), yet she has some of the best lines in the film, showing an uninhibited nature, singing hymns to herself, where much more than the rest, as she’s not a student affiliated with the school, she feels like a free spirit, and she is the one asked to clean him up, washing his body, including his private parts.  When he awakes, she tells him, “Mr. Yankee, there was enough iron in your leg to shoe a horse!”

Any film that features a harpsichord on the soundtrack is weird, and this one is wildly bizarre throughout, featuring lots of swooping camera movements and super imposition, shot at the Ashland-Belle Helene Plantation near Baton Rouge.  The writing in the film is distinguished, partially adapted by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, both writing under pen names, though the lion’s share was probably written by associate producer Claude Traverse, who was uncredited, as there is a choreography of lines, each one feeling like a zinger, revealing something irrefutable about the person or place.  In this way, the various personalities are revealed, including the ultra-repressed Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman, plagued by depression, committing suicide in 1987), the oldest girl, who is also a teacher, a shy and romantically dreamy character right out of The Glass Menagerie, as fragile and forlorn as they come, instantly falling in love with the first man she sees.  Having discovered him, it’s Amy though who feels she has original rights to him, speaking candidly with him every chance she gets.  17-year old Carol (Jo Ann Harris, who became Eastwood’s girlfriend even after the film) is the most sexually precocious, a sultry vixen kissing him right on the lips, leaving an impression there’s plenty more where that came from.  And finally there’s Miss Martha herself, too proud to admit it, though she openly flirts with the Corporal as well, having late night drinks by the fire, removing the key to his door, allowing him free admittance to her room.  This myriad of sexual opportunity is like a revolving door, with something different offered behind each door, where McBurney openly plays each one, as if he only cares for them, leading each one of them on in a web of deceit that causes the women to turn on each other in a jealous fury.  This kind of mischief casts a dark shadow, though with this director there’s not an ounce of subtlety, as McBurney is a fraud and master of deception, a complete hypocrite, unashamed to blatantly lie (flashbacks reveal otherwise) in order to portray himself in the best possible light, though his ultimate goal is left unspoken, yet he seems to be having too good a time to want to leave.  After all, he’s constantly the center of attention, surrounded by girls that adore him, which in itself is a kind of male misogynist fantasy, especially in view of his overly deceptive motives, where all he wants to do is take advantage of the situation.  So the Corporal is not a noble character, more of a sly fox who is raiding the hen house.  As his health improves, so does his opportunity.  McBurney tries to get Hallie on his side, suggesting they are both prisoners, that maybe they should both help each other, where flashbacks suggest she was violated by the former master of the house, yet she is perhaps the only one strong enough to stand up to McBee, as she never allows herself to fall under his spell, but views him much as she does all white men, where whites with their monstrous history are simply not to be trusted, blatantly revealing, “You white folks ain’t killin’ each other ‘cause you care about us niggers.  White man’s the same everywhere in this world.” 

While there are some initial thoughts about turning the prisoner over to the Confederate soldiers, the women’s personal interest quickly changes all that, each with their own designs on the man, with Miss Martha thinking she may need a handy man on the premises to keep up the place, to grow a garden that produces food, to help stabilize the future of the school.  When Carol finds the Corporal smooching in the garden with Edwina, promising a world of possibilities, she jealously ties a blue cloth to the entrance gate, a sign to alert the troops of a Yankee trespasser.  Quickly there are three armed soldiers surrounding McBurney, but Miss Martha has the presence of mind to pretend he is a distant cousin from Texas, a state loyal to the Confederacy, and not from around there.  This incident adds a certain amount of suspense, but also shows how far some are willing to go to protect their prize, as if he’s their own personal possession.  Another example is a visit from drunken Confederate soldiers offering to spend the night, suggesting safety is their utmost concern, but their lecherous behavior suggests otherwise, almost as if they’re marking their territory, adding a tantalizing moment of terror that requires cunning and sophisticated misdirection from Miss Martha, who must refuse without drawing suspicion, leaving McBurney duly impressed afterwards with her savoir faire.  Martha’s infatuation grows, leading him on even further, which only fans the flames of her sexual hysteria, including a surreal dream of a near naked McBee in a ménage a trois with Martha and Edwina, who are seen kissing together, suggesting an unbridled inner spirit that breaks all bounds, merging into an image of the Holy Trinity, like something we might see in the graveyard hallucination section of Easy Rider (1969), expressed through a steamy montage of illicit sexual desire that is shockingly memorable.  A study of suppressed sexuality only grows more terrifyingly macabre, as three women leave their doors unlocked for McBurney, but only one (Carol) is bold enough to follow his tracks, making sure he doesn’t make the wrong decision, inviting him into her boudoir, removing her clothes, where the man simply can’t resist her offer.  But they make noise that can be heard, causing Edwina to explore what’s going on, opening the door, finding them naked on the bed and screaming bloody murder, waking up the entire house.  When McBurney tries to explain, she knocks him down the winding staircase with the candlestick, fracturing his leg and leaving him unconscious.  Seizing the moment, Miss Martha sends the younger girls to bed, suggesting the onset of gangrene could result in slow and painful death, having only one recourse, amputation, which Siegel shows in graphic detail, including Expressionist lighting and a hacksaw, never shying away from blood and gore, becoming a gruesome operatic horror show of exploitive excess on display, with the key being Martha’s mad steely resolve, as only someone with her dignified air of bravado and panache could pull this off.  At the time, Eastwood had not yet developed the iconic reputation he has today, a rugged Hollywood figure of stoic masculinity, but it’s rare for actors in their careers to allow themselves to become this vulnerable, this openly susceptible to dirty tricks, where the inestimable actions of Geraldine Page literally provide chills.  Eastwood is quoted in interviews (Clint Eastwood: Interviews, Revised and Updated) as saying, “I thought Geraldine Page was out of my league, being a big star on the Broadway stage and all, but when we started The Beguiled she told me she was a big fan of mine on Rawhide.  I’ve got no regrets, man, no regrets at all.”  Showing why she is one of the greatest actresses of her generation, inviting criticism and comparisons, she simply rises above with the poetic ease and grace of a dove transforming into a raven, as Eastwood’s foreshadowing song of grave warnings are heard again over the closing credits.        

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