Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Review #1,264: 'The Beguiled' (1971)

As the opening titles of The Beguiled flicker by with a collection of grainy photographs from the brutal American Civil War, it would seem we're in familiar tough, manly action territory, especially when the names of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood flash on screen. These feelings appear to be confirmed as Eastwood grizzled Union officer John McBurney comes into shot, clearly wounded and hanging on for dear life following a bloody battle with Confederate soldiers. He is discovered by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), a 12 year old student at the nearby Seminary for Young Ladies, who quickly takes a keen interest in the handsome but battered young man. As some bloodthirsty Confederate soldiers trot by and they are forced to hide, John plants a lingering kiss on the child's mouth, which immediately cause feelings of discomfort for the viewer. No, The Beguiled is not your typical Siegel tough-guy actioner, but something all the more fascinating and complex.

John is eventually smuggled back into the school run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page), a woman with a secretive past of her own. She wants the Union soldier gone immediately, but the soldier is charming and badly wounded, so she and the fellow ladies of the school tend to his injured leg and give him a bed. He is kept under lock and key, but he is often visited by the curious ladies, including virginal teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) and precocious 17 year old student Carol (Jo Ann Harris). With Martha still insistent on turning him over to Confederate troops once he has regained his strength, John seizes the chance to seduce as many of them as he can, taking full advantage of their time away from men and natural curiosity towards the opposite sex. He becomes unnervingly comfortable with his methods of manipulation, and is soon playing the women off one another. But these ladies have seen it all before, whether it be a father, a sibling or a drunken soldier stumbling onto the school grounds with cruel intentions.

The Beguiled is a film about jealousy, sexuality and bitterness, so it's no surprise that it flopped and didn't go down well with fans of Siegel's tougher, more straight-laced output. The film also threatens to venture into horror territory, as emotions begin to spill over and John's scheming becomes apparent. There were cries of misogyny upon the film's release, but although the claim is certainly open for debate, this is not a film by a director who hates women. To label the film misogynist would be to cruelly over-simplify it, as the likes of Martha and Edwina aren't just coy women to be easily taken advantage of, but incredibly complex characters both scarred and enlightened by past experiences with men. John is clearly the most loathsome character, an evil man who uses his physicality and charm to worm his way into their lives and gain their trust, and Siegel makes little attempt to make him sympathetic. It's an incredibly claustrophobic and intense experience, with career-best performances from Page and Hartman. It is Siegel's favourite of his extensive filmography, and it isn't difficult to see why.

Directed by: Don Siegel
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, Jo Ann Harris, Pamelyn Ferdin
Country: USA

Rating: ****

Tom Gillespie

The Beguiled (1971) on IMDb

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