Friday, November 29, 2013

The Beguiled (1971)

Director: Don Siegel                                       Writers: Albert Maltz & Irene Kamp
Film Score: Lalo Schifrin                                Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman and Jo Ann Harris

At first glance this is a curious film in Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre, very intimate and quiet, but in the end it’s still the kind of story with a nasty edge that he likes. Based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan entitled A Painted Devil about a Union Civil War soldier who is wounded and taken in by a school for girls, it’s a Southern Gothic tale that is reminiscent of something by Ambrose Bierce or William Faulkner. The Beguiled begins with Pamelyn Ferdin in the woods collecting mushrooms. When she sees the Union soldier with blood on his boot she screams, but he does little more than fall to the ground. Initially she stands over him saying that he could have been the one that killed her father and she hopes he dies the same way, but then she takes pity on him and helps him to the girl’s school where she lives.

When the little girl arrives with Clint Eastwood the head mistress of the school, Geraldine Page, wants to leave him in the road to be picked up by one of the many Confederate patrols that frequently ride by. But the girls convince her not to let him die, and they take him into one of the downstairs rooms of their Southern mansion. There, Page takes the lead from his leg, the slave Peggy Drier cleans him up, and they dress him in one of Page’s brother’s nightshirts. It’s here we learn of one of the first Gothic secrets, that Page and her brother had a sexual relationship. As Eastwood recovers, his plan is to seduce the women into hiding him until he can either make it back to Union lines or until the war ends. The student teacher in the bunch, Elizabeth Hartman, is a virgin and falls for him at once. The “hussy,” Jo Ann Harris, tells him she’s more experienced than most girls her age, and eventually even Page comes around and leaves his door unlocked so that he may visit her during the night. But in making implied promises to all of them, he quickly learns why “hell hath no fury . . .”

The exteriors of the production were done in Louisiana, at one of the largest standing plantation houses in the South. The majority of the interiors, however, were filmed in the studio at Universal. One of the things the film does will is let the audience in on the background of the characters. While Eastwood is telling Page that he is a Quaker and carrying bandages to the wounded, we see flashbacks of him killing Confederate soldiers from behind a tree. Similarly, when he is speaking to her about the beauty of the land, flashbacks show him torching farms. This is an absolute necessity because it’s too easy for the audience to see him initially in the role of the protagonist. Once the audience knows that he is manipulating the women, however, it sets the tone and direction for the Gothic ending that was a must if it was to be a satisfying experience overall.

The original screenplay was written by Albert Maltz, a veteran screenwriter who was active in the forties but was blacklisted during the McCarthy hearings in the fifties. The Beguiled was his first script in fifteen years. Unfortunately he decided to put a happy ending on the story, a hint of which can still be seen in the final dinner scene of the film. But Eastwood and director Don Siegel wanted to restore the Gothic flavor of the original novel and hired Irene Kamp to make the changes. In the end it was associate producer Claude Traverse who cobbled the two scripts together to make the final version that was filmed. Without the shooting and horse riding of his westerns, Eastwood thought this was a particularly good vehicle for him to be able to show off his acting skills, especially playing opposite stage and screen veteran Geraldine Page. But the studio, selling it as if it was one of his westerns, inadvertently undermined its popularity and the project was not a success at the box office. Still, The Beguiled is a very good film that has achieved positive recognition through the years and stands on its own as a classic Southern Gothic story.

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