The Beguiled (1971)

THE BEGUILED saw Clint Eastwood try something different in 1971: “I wasn’t sure an audience was ready for that, or wanted that, but I knew I wanted it…something I could act, something besides just gunning people down.” For the 41-year-old star, who in the six years since breaking free of the TV grind headlined nine hits in a row, “that” was a descent into the Southern Gothic territory usually inhabited by Tennessee Williams spiritually injured or demented characters, here flavored by sex and the Civil War.

Mississippi, 1863. Badly wounded Union soldier ‘John McBurney’ (Eastwood) finds accidental refuge in the ‘Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies’. Headmistress ‘Martha’ (Geraldine Page) and her excited brood of ripening Rebels have different ideas about what to do with the lanky Yankee, whose presence and persona arouses cross-currents of adoration, longing and lust, suspicion and venom.

While no one would ever call Eastwood a great actor, he’s most assuredly a great ‘type’, whose style and delivery sculpted formidable tough guys. His better performances generally came when he was most relaxed (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Mule); playing against his grain here he’s very good–and the devious McBurney, a total rotter manipulating the women who care for him, is his one real villain role. Page is restrained from her tendency to be overly theatrical, the fragile Elizabeth Hartman fits neatly as the vainly trusting ‘Edwina’, and Jo Ann Harris brings on the wanton quotient as the vixenish ‘Carol’. Poor ‘Amelia’ (Pamelyn Ferdin, 11) doesn’t take kindly to McBurney’s turtle treatment. Mushroom stew, anyone?

Several writers (including Albert Maltz) had hands in the script, based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel. Don Siegel directed, with Bruce Surtees on camera, filming on location at the Ashland-Belle Helene Plantation in Darrow, Louisiana. Provocative and unsettling.

Agenda-isolated critics who detested Eastwood (Kael and crowd) misread its deliberative darkness as just an exercise in misogyny. Universal fumbled the advertising, making a slow-burn chamber piece of temptation table-turned to scorn look like it would be another straight-shooting Clint actioner and playing up an exploitation angle with “One man…seven women…in a strange house!” Neither tack took: bewildered audiences, hearing their hero was playing a bad guy who comes to a bad end, stayed away, opting for John Wayne’s bloody Big Jake and the rats of Willard, leaving this macabre essay of intimate vengeance amputated in 78th place with a mute gross of $3,300,000. Irked but not one to falter, Eastwood finished ’71 with a one-two punch, directing himself in Play Misty For Me and becoming iconic as Dirty Harry. Revaluation of the beleaguered Beguiled has raised its once-besmirched reputation. A high-profile and successful remake, directed by Sofia Coppola, came along in 2017.

With Mae Mercer, Darleen Carr, Charles Briggs, Matt Clark. 109 minutes.

 

 

 

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