It’s already shocking enough to imagine Clint Eastwood as the centerpiece of a film about female sexuality… kind of. The fact that he’s the smoldering handsome slab of manliness that women are all over is completely expected of Eastwood, but that he’d be willing to play that objectified role in a movie more indebted to the perspectives of the women surrounding him and how they respond to his presence rather than just how much of a sexual dynamo he is is what makes me surprised at the man’s involvement at the peak of his grizzled masculinity.
That this generous ensemble look into the shuttered lives of frustrated women in the depths of the Southern summer heat like a Tennessee Williams work went gothic is directed by Don Siegel, Eastwood’s regular collaborator and who probably surpassed Sergio Leone as the biggest hand in coding Clint Eastwood as a lonely tower of violent machismo, is fucking mind blowing.
Because The Beguiled, adapted into a screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp (pseudonymed due to Maltz’s blacklisting into “John B. Sherry and Grimes Grice”) and based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, is frankly successful at shading in dark the stresses of these women in their humid prison, something the qualifications of both of its most prevalent authors (Eastwood being the one who introduced the material to Siegel).
Those women being Miss Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page), the sophisticated and maternal headmistress of a girls’ school run in the middle of the Mississippi woods and one of only three adult figures around, the others being frail teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) and weathered slave Hallie (Mae Mercer). The school is surrounded inescapably by the chaos of the Civil War and that chaos leaves in their midst one day the near-dead Union Corporal John McBurney (Eastwood), who young child Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) finds and helps bring to the school even after McBurney alarmingly kisses the twelve-year-old girl – ostensibly to hide from Confederate troops seeking him, but in an unmistakably sensual manner.
From McBurney’s entrance into the walls of the school, The Beguiled becomes most interested in simmering the sexual tension slowly to a boil based on the various ways every single inhabitant responds to the sudden presence of this rugged piece of virility healing in their comforts. Martha quickly announces her intentions to relinquish McBurney to the Confederate troops once he heals, but clearly finds McBurney an entertaining replacement for her late brother. Edwina is positively smitten by him in an unhealthy pushover way. The eldest teenage student Carol (Jo Ann Harris) is lustful and attempts to seduce McBurney. Hallie is reasonably conversational but more than a bit wary of McBurney’s intentions.
This is a story that could easily develop into “guy trapped among libidinous woman must escape these crazies” and to be fair, I’m not entirely convinced that’s not what Siegel’s picture is. While the movie is interested into what brings the women into such malaise, it’s hard for Siegel to make a movie starring Eastwood not mostly interested in Eastwood and The Beguiled feels most tonally engaged when it gets to function as thriller with the women, but I’ll get to that soon. Still it is clear early on that McBurney is more than a little bit manipulative (though his injuries are legitimate and life-threatening) and he’s aware of the carnal inhibitions he is ripping out of the women all around him. As Eastwood’s chilly and smug inhabitation of the role informs us, McBurney’s certainly trying to turn those things to his significant benefit and the movie is only waiting for it to blow up some explosive manner, which it does in the third act thanks to the unhinged high-scale performances of cold and deliberate Page and especially Hartman, who gets to take hold of the conflicted feelings of lust and rage that Edwina has beaten over her in an explosive scene connecting the second and third act and spins between them in a deliriously pitiful yet vicious way.
Page and Hartman are supported by Don Siegel’s possibly most nakedly heightened work to date, indulging in flashbacks to the potentially sordid affair between Farnsworth and her brother to punctuate the ugliness behind Page’s facade (as well as certain ones introduce to us how clearly McBurney is not above dishonesty or self-preservation), the occasional double exposures on images to establish a meditative mood that still manages to hold an edge on the characters, or Lalo Schifrin’s score rising like steam in a boiling pot to warn us of the duplicity still in delicate choral strings. And we still don’t get to the most outrageous element yet, Bruce Surtees’ use of shadows into sculpting scorned female gargoyle faces on Page and Hartman at their most enraged. Up until that climactic sequence, Surtees is restrained in framing the house as anything more than an innocuous yet prison-like cage for the women, partly funereal with just enough delicacy in its soft tones to give the visuals a lilting feel. Mind you, there are those who might consider these elements hokey or overwrought and they do handily seem dated in a manner that feels less digestible if you aren’t quite into it. For me, I eat that right up and find it utterly compelling as thriller.
After all, it’s what heightens the film enough to melodrama so that Siegel and company into slapping one in the face with the toxicity of the situation, from McBurney’s smug ability to take hold of these women in a creepy manipulative way unconcerned with their well-being (or any principles at all, one of the most horrifying moments late in the film where he goes on edge and threatens to rape the characters now that he’s much once he’s asserted his masculinity at gunpoint), Edwina’s helplessness in her own self-destructive path throwing away the security she previously had in this aristocratic home, Carol’s excitement at exploring her newfound sexuality with a tall male object to aim her open blouse at, Hallie’s necessary resilience to the cruelty of McBurney and the Farnsworth clan (another flashback cutting into a sinister exchange as through triggered by past trauma to Hallie), and above it all Miss Farnsworth herself psychologically fencing with McBurney to contain control of her girls for completely selfish reasons as McBurney attempts to put her under his wiles and avoid being further under her mercy as he already is.
But perhaps the true indicator of there being no moral center in The Beguiled, only culpability in human darkness, is the young child Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), who is our first character – the one who finds the half-dead McBurney – who is kissed on the lips, who remains so smitten by McBurney that she spends an amount of the runtime his biggest advocate against being turned over to the Confederates, and at the end has a very key involvement in the lethal finale of such a sharp and moody descent into the vices and violence of repressed sexuality.