Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dirty Harry Gets Lucky: "The Beguiled" (1971)

Director Don Siegel, who would put Clint Eastwood in a little film called "Dirty Harry," uses the action star in a way no one has before or since. Together, they create a piece of Southern Gothicism that is a great Civil War film that would have been screwed up by anyone else.

Eastwood is Corporal John McBirney, a Union soldier on the run in the deep south. He is wounded and discovered by twelve year old Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin). McB, as John wants to be known, kisses Amy on the lips to keep her quiet when soldiers pass, and she takes the incident the wrong way, falling in love with him instantly. McB is dragged back to Amy's home, the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Girls, run by Miss Martha (Geraldine Page) and Miss Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman). Right away, Siegel gives us a flash of memory of Martha's, whose relationship with her brother was incestuous. As Martha does her Confederate duty, she prepares to tell friendly troops of her new prisoner. She realizes he would die in prison, and decides to nurse him back to health first before turning him in.

All the females in the home are curious about this young man from New York. Hallie (Mae Mercer), the slave, realizes McB is fighting for her freedom, but does not feel obligated to return the favor. Edwina is a spinster, long scarred by the acts of her adulterous father, but finds herself attracted to McB. Doris (Darleen Carr) wants McB too, wants him handed over to the Rebels as soon as possible. Hot to trot Carol (Jo Ann Harris) wants McB for her very own pleasure. Amy still has feelings for him, albeit a twelve year old's crush.

Don't get me wrong, McB is no angel. Siegel gives us the verbal thoughts of the girls throughout the film, but he shows us scenes of McB lying through his teeth to impress the girls. He claims to be a Quaker, and fibs about how he receives his wounds. He also lies about how beautiful the surrounding farmland is, but thinking about the time he helped torch it. He is out for one thing- himself. His only interest is in his own pleasures, and he will do anything and say anything to get what he wants. Eastwood has never done anything like this role, before or since.

Both Edwina, Martha, and Carol succumb to the Yankee's charms, and McB decides to visit one of their rooms on a fateful night. He goes to Carol, who catches him in a hallway, and they make love until Edwina discovers him and pushes him down the stairs. He rebreaks his just healing leg, and the women fill him with laudanum and alcohol and plan their next move. Gangrene could set in, death could be painful, maybe they should do the kind thing and amputate his broken leg...and they do, in a gory scene that had me squirming more than the "Halloween" sequels and the entire "Friday the 13th" series combined.

McB wakes, and he is angry. Carol spreads lies about McB raping her, and even Hallie comes to hate him. Through her eyes, we see her rape at the hands of Martha's brother. McB gets a hold of the only pistol in the house, and tells Martha he will bed whomever he wants or else he will escape to the nearby Union troops and tell them of the beautiful young girls who are so close by. Martha and the girls, without a newly smitten Edwina, decide to take care of McB once and for all.

Despite the subject matter, Siegel does not go the exploitation route of "Mandingo." He also fights the urge to turn this into a screwball or dark comedy, something that another director may have done. Siegel gathers some impressive acting talent (including a very young daytime soap star Melody Thomas-Scott), and lets their individual stories form a cohesive whole. The verbal flashes from each of the girls is a brilliant move without becoming too obvious, or a crutch on which to rest the emotional parts of the film. Hallie, McB, and Martha's visual thoughts are used sparingly, thank goodness.

Geraldine Page is great as Martha, the actress takes a number of risks that few actresses today would be game for. A dream sequence finds Martha in bed with McB and Edwina, and it was pulled off dramatically without turning into something smarmy and salacious. The late, fragile Elizabeth Hartman is wonderful as Edwina. She committed suicide in the late 1980's by throwing herself through a fifth floor window. I could not help but consider how much of her performance was not a studied effort. Her character shows such raw pain, she is sometimes hard to watch. Eastwood dedicated "Unforgiven" to both Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. Siegel is able to get Eastwood to come off as completely contemptible. The school's girls do not seem stupid or oblivious to McB's evil, they are naive and hang on this mysterious and dashing stranger's every word and move.

This film shows another side of the Civil War. The battle scenes are only in flashback. The stark plantation where the film was made seems frozen in time back to the era, when the antebellum South was coming to an end. I descend from almost half a dozen Confederate soldiers (one of my great-great-great grandfathers was killed in battle), and Siegel's vision seems more realistic than the pretty but still thrilling "Gone With the Wind."

"The Beguiled" deserved more praise than is found. The film is so different from what Eastwood and Siegel have done before, but the two turned this one chance into something remarkable. I highly recommend it. (* * * * *) out of five stars.