Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood collaborated on five films over the course of their respective careers, and one imagines that they would have collaborated more often if Eastwood hadn't gotten the urge to start directing stuff himself. The Beguiled is easily the strangest of their collaborations – a dark southern Gothic melodrama set against the backdrop of the Civil War. The film tanked at the box office (probably due to Universal's poor, sensationalist marketing), but both Eastwood and Siegel have named the film a personal favorite. It's easy to see why: it's the most atmospheric, artful film of Siegel's career, and the first real indication that Eastwood could do more than merely scowl and shoot things.
Our tale begins in rural Louisiana. A young girl is wandering through the woods when she finds Union Corporal John “McBee” McBurney (Eastwood) bleeding to death. She guides him back to the all-girl boarding school nearby, and begs headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful) to grant him shelter. Martha reluctantly agrees despite her allegiance to the Confederacy, as she knows John's injuries are so severe that he'll die if he's thrown in a prison camp. John is informed that he can stay until he's back on his feet, after which time he'll be turned over to the proper authorities.
From the moment we meet him, it's clear that John is an unsavory character. When the young girl first discovers him, John asks her how old she is. “12, going on 13,” the girl says. “Old enough for kisses,” John replies, pulling her close and kissing her on the mouth. He's too weak to do anything more than that, but it's easy to guess what would have happened under different circumstances. The moment he begins to recover his strength, John starts making an effort to seduce three different women: the headmistress, the virginal schoolteacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman, A Patch of Blue) and the sexually voracious young Carol (Jo Ann Harris, Rich Man, Poor Man). He does so partially in an effort to craft an escape plan for himself, but mostly because he has an insatiable sexual appetite.
Though The Beguiled initially looks like the story of a bad man working his way to some nasty comeuppance, the reality is considerably more complicated than that. Nearly everyone in this film (save for the sweet Edwina) has a nasty side, and there are moments in which we pity almost all of the characters (even the repulsive John, impossible as that sounds). The school is a cauldron that contains conflicting shades of lust, jealousy, anger and bitterness, and when all of those elements reach their boiling point, the film explodes in startling fashion.
Siegel's direction is tense and sensuous – the camera restlessly moves around the house with serpentine fluidity, and the humid southern atmosphere he conjures effectively enhances the film's fever dream quality. Lalo Schifrin's score is used sparingly, but offers spine-tingling shades of dark romance when it appears. The film seems to slip in and out of a dreamlike haze, with ugly flashbacks resurrecting themselves in the minds of these of these troubled characters. In one memorable sequence, Martha has a dream of a bizarre foursome involving herself, John, Edwina and Carol, and the sequence feels less like cheap titillation than something pulled out of an unpublished Flannery O'Connor tale.
It's no surprise that Page is terrific, and that she's ultimately playing someone far more complicated than a conservative headmistress. She's haunted by memories of her incestuous relationship with her brother, and she begins pondering whether John might make an effective substitute. When she discovers that John is not as noble as he claims, her reaction is horrifyingly dramatic. Meanwhile, Eastwood transforms his masculine screen presence into something unnervingly slimy – a murderous serpent with an unyielding libido. Siegel stages the film as an unsavory battle between the worst qualities of men and women – violent lust vs. vengeful jealousy – and he has the courage to deliver the tough ending the film demands (something both Eastwood and Siegel had to fight for, as Universal wanted something more light-hearted – a move that surely would have been both absurd and inappropriate).
Though Eastwood's fan base reacted negatively to The Beguiled during its initial theatrical run, the film remains one of the most striking efforts of the actor's early years. It's a strange, stormy nightmare of a movie that reaches deep into the dark corners of human emotion and retrieves something profoundly unsettling - a bold, distinctive film with an unforgettably bitter aftertaste.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 1971