Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Retro Review: THE BEGUILED (1971)

(US - 1971)

Directed by Donald Siegel. Written by John B. Sherry (Albert Maltz) and Grimes Grice (Irene Kamp). Cast: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Jo Ann Harris, Darleen Carr, Mae Mercer, Pamelyn Ferdin, Melody Thomas, Peggy Drier, Pattye Mattick, Matt Clark, Buddy Van Horn. (R, 105 mins)

With Sofia Coppola's upcoming Colin Farrell/Nicole Kidman remake of THE BEGUILED getting a ton of positive buzz at Cannes, there's likely to be some renewed interest in this original 1971 version.  An against-type departure and a box office flop for Clint Eastwood 46 years ago, THE BEGUILED isn't referenced much in discussions about Eastwood, but it's further proof that he was up for stretching as an actor two decades before critics finally took him seriously with UNFORGIVEN. Set during the Civil War, Eastwood is John McBurney, an injured Union soldier given refuge and medical treatment at a Confederate boarding school for girls run by Martha (Geraldine Page). It isn't long before the charming McBurney, to varying degrees, seduces and manipulates the sexually repressed older girls and basks in the obvious crush the younger ones have on him. His carousing around the house eventually costs him dearly, as THE BEGUILED turns into a sweat-soaked Southern Gothic and sits right alongside the supernatural-tinged HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER as the closest Eastwood got to starring in a horror movie.

Director Don Siegel (who already directed Eastwood in COOGAN'S BLUFF and TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA) lets the tension simmer throughout until it completely boils over in the third act, with a horrific amputation sequence and one confrontation after another allowing Eastwood to flex his acting muscles more than he ever had up to that point in his career. He's matched by a subtly powerful Page, whose Martha has all sorts of perverse emotions brought to the surface when she realizes how much McBurney reminds her of her dear brother, with whom she was a little too close. Universal had no idea how to sell THE BEGUILED, and Eastwood fans expecting another western or another COOGAN'S BLUFF or KELLY'S HEROES were left bewildered and bored. Scripted by the long-blacklisted Albert Maltz under the pseudonym "John B. Sherry" and Irene Kamp under the alias "Grimes Grice," and based on the 1966 novel A Painted Devil by Thomas Cullinan, THE BEGUILED gets pretty daring in spots, with some questionable comments McBurney throws at one of the younger girls ("13? Old enough to be kissed!") and a tawdry dream sequence where Martha fantasizes about a threesome with McBurney and Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman). An interesting precursor to Eastwood's later TIGHTROPE in that it shares the motif of the star having a large female supporting cast pretty much throwing themselves at him, THE BEGUILED was an unusual and offbeat project for Eastwood to tackle and deserved a better reception than it got in the spring of 1971. He rebounded quickly, as PLAY MISTY FOR ME (his directorial debut) and DIRTY HARRY (his fourth of five films directed by mentor Siegel) were both in theaters later the same year, but time has been kind to the dark and disturbing THE BEGUILED, and it'll be fascinating to see what Coppola has done with it.

THE BEGUILED opening in Toledo, OH on June 30, 1971

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