Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, in advance of Sofia Coppola’s remake of “The Beguiled,” we take a look at Don Siegel’s original, 1971 adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel.
Even the cinematic experimentation of the era and the loftiness of Clint Eastwood’s star couldn’t make The Beguiled a critical or commercial success – reviewers were baffled, even its own studio couldn’t figure out how the hell to market it, and audiences consequently stayed far, far away (it grossed less than $1 million in its initial run). Eastwood and director Don Siegel barely stumbled; later that same year, they released Dirty Harry, which quieted any concerns about box office viability. The Beguiled was quickly forgotten, though its quiet championing by European cinephiles and subsequent success on home video finally made it enough of a known entity to prompt a forthcoming, already award-winning remake by director Sofia Coppola. So it’s a good time to go back to The Beguiled, and marvel at its complexity and peculiarity.
And it is, make no mistake, one weird movie. It seems straight-forward enough, at the beginning – Brady-style Civil War photographs over the titles, war drum music by the great Lalo Schifrin, the sounds of battle, fading into opening frames that match the sepia tone of those photos before slowly letting the color in. Little Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), wandering the woods, makes a grisly discovery: a Union solider (Eastwood), badly wounded, growling and wheezing for help. His name is McBurney, and we get a pretty clear idea of who he is when he asks Amy’s age. “Thirteen in September,” she replies. “Old enough for kisses,” he insists, and helps himself.
She helps him back to the all-girls boarding school where she lives, only to be chastised by matriarch Miss Martha (Geraldine Page). “You know the punishment for leavin’ the grounds,” she scolds her, and indeed we do – he’s right there. Miss Martha has him taken up to a spare room so his wounds can heal before they turn him over the Confederates. But before he even arrives, his appearance is foreshadowed by an ominous proclamation: “Doris says if the Yankees win, they’ll rape every one of us.” (Eastwood and Siegel’s 1968 fish-out-of-water picture Coogan’s Bluff was a feature-length exploration of a Southerner’s deep suspicion and distrust of the North.)
He doesn’t do that – not exactly. But he goes to work on these women, young and old, instinctively picking up on what each of them wants him to be, and preying on that need. He starts with virginal schoolteacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), appealing to her absence of romance; he simultaneously hones in on Martha’s sense of honor, the lust of “hussy” Carol (Jo Ann Harris), the cynicism of slave/maid Hallie (Mae Mercer), and Amy’s first flash of puppy love, and positions himself as a remedy, for various ends, from physical pleasure to preserving his livelihood.
The first half or so of The Beguiled positions this as a kind of randy man’s fantasy (even indulging in a three-way vision that turns out to be Martha’s nightmare). But McBurney’s not smooth or smart enough to keep them from finding out about each other, so, y’know, fury of a woman scorned and all that. When Edwina discovers his indiscretions – he literally has to move Carol’s bare backside to see the schoolteacher lurking in the doorway – she loses it, pushing him down the stairs, re-breaking his leg, and necessitating (probably!) the removal of said leg with a hacksaw.
That bloody, sweaty, scary scene of amateur amputation is a triumph, shot like a horror movie, a tonal key Siegel flirts with throughout the picture. His direction is a fever dream of sexual repression and body horror; the camera is often in motion, usually unsteadily, full of snap-zooms, delirious overlays, unconventional compositions, and perspective camerawork (he loves to show us Eastwood’s point-of-view as he falls or looks, and masterfully gives us the same shot – a shaky, low-angle POV as the women carry him – twice, once as a gesture of hope, a second time to precipitate doom). The use of light and dark is moody, downright noir-ish, really – which is appropriate, since he so eagerly replicates those pictures’ disregard for easy-peasy heroes and villains.
And this is where The Beguiled gets tricky. The current conventional wisdom holds that Siegel went and made a sexist tract about the dangers of crazy, independent women – a read that’s not much of a stretch, considering its creation in a period rife with feminist theory and activism, and Siegel’s own confession that one of its key motifs was “the basic desire of women to castrate men.” (And he’s not subtle with the castration metaphors, visually or verbally.) But his film (like much of his work, and much of Eastwood’s) is too intellectually nuanced and formally wild to leave in that box. What he ended up making was a rather daring experiment in subverting audience empathy – almost an art-house I Spit On Your Grave, in which the assault/revenge elements that may satisfy one half of the audience will probably piss off the other, and then vice versa.
Because – and this should be made clear – McBurney is a monster from the jump, forcing himself on a 12-year-old in his very first scene, brazenly lying and exploiting everyone he comes in contact with (when he tells Martha his stories of “ethics” and pacifism on the battlefield, the imagery of Siegel’s flashbacks betray the lie). A healthy majority of the audience is against him, and cheers his discovery and injury by Edwina. But the film also presumes some empathy for him after the amputation (and twists Carol into the favorite male fiction: a willing female participant who cries rape after), posing that perhaps the punishment didn’t fit the crime, and carefully noting that everyone in this story is flawed, and all turn, at one point or another, on each other – until the women come together for a delicious common cause.
In other words, it’s a film that complicates our responses, and the reasonable assumptions of bad faith that are often packed into the male perspective. But that was also a product of the filmmaking environment in which it was made; films could be freer with their moral and social ambiguity in this period, and big studios, still reeling from the collapses of the ‘70s, were willing to take chances on films that weren’t crowd-pleasers, or which offered up easy answers and takeaways. It’ll be interesting to see how much of that feeling is retained by the remake – even if Coppola changes nothing at all.