“While the premise of an injured soldier recuperating in a house full of smitten women seems ripe for male-fantasy debasement, the film is deeply interested in the psyches of its female characters. Each key female role has a compelling, well-established personality.”
When a career is as long, successful, and iconic as Clint Eastwood’s has been, certain key works are bound to fall through the cracks. Eastwood has appeared in around sixty films, and directed over thirty, in a screen career that dates back to the mid-1950s. With numbers that prolific, smaller titles that don’t exactly conform to his much-embraced cultural image — terse, tough, cowboy-like, from the days of the Man With No Name straight through to Gran Torino‘s (2008) grizzled Walt Kowalski — are prone to being swept under the table, appreciated by those who have seen them, but less acknowledged in the larger annals of the popular canon.
One such example is 1971’s The Beguiled, directed by Eastwood’s friend and frequent collaborator, Don Siegel. Eastwood and Siegel worked on five films together, the most famous and influential of which is Dirty Harry (1971); the three others are Coogan’s Bluff (1968), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), and Escape from Alcatraz (1979). The Beguiled is by far the strangest film these two American stalwarts made together, the creepy, crawly outsider in a partnership defined by genre, gunfights, and Eastwood characters that were generally descended from the Sergio Leone mold — poised Western archetypes plopped into an American setting. Though well received critically (particularly in France), The Beguiled never attained such cultural attention: mishandled by Universal to an almost laughable extent, the film left theaters without making so much as a whisper, and remains among Eastwood’s weakest box-office showings. But a closer look reveals the critical role the film serves in relation to a number of common Eastwood narratives: the influence of his working relationship with Don Siegel; the significance of the year 1971 within his body of work as both actor and director; and Eastwood’s committed, sprawling, still-persisting engagement with his own screen image.
With the location locked down, the attention of Siegel and the producers turned to the selection of a screenwriter. Per the suggestion of executive producer Jennings Lang, first-draft duties were handed to Albert Maltz, a decision Siegel had no problem with — the two had just finished working together on Two Mules for Sister Sara.4(Maltz’s solid résumé, which is riddled with fabricated credits and dry periods thanks to his being blacklisted and imprisoned during the 1950s, also contains credits for Jules Dassin’s 1948 The Naked City, as well as a few excellent Delmer Daves titles, including the 1945 Pride of the Marines and the 1950 Broken Arrow.) Nonetheless, virtually nobody liked the work Maltz produced, largely because his vision for the project was so different from Siegel’s; in the director’s words, Maltz “wanted to write The Beguiled as a romantic love story. I saw it as strange and fierce.”5 The prevailing intention between Eastwood and Siegel was to retain a determined fidelity to the spirit of Cullinan’s book; Maltz refused, and Siegel, in his autobiography, writes entertainingly of martini-laced script meetings in which he and Lang puzzled over Maltz’s work. “I honestly and frankly didn’t think he could write the screenplay,” Siegel states bluntly at one point.6 Lang concurred, and came up with an idea that he thought would enliven the writing: hiring a woman to do it.
In the finished film, the opening credits unspool over sepia-toned battlefield photographs, the soundtrack mixing Lalo Schifrin’s score with battle cries and exploding cannons. (The second image in the film, of a Union soldier sprawled across a stretcher, is a Matthew Brady photograph selected because of the subject’s dead-ringer resemblance to Eastwood.8) Near the end of the credits, Eastwood begins singing “The Dove,” a Civil War folk song, before we’ve even gotten our first look at his character. A grand crane shot marks the beginning of the film proper, the camera descending from the peaks of the mossy trees until it settles on the figure of Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), a chipper 12-year-old girl picking mushrooms in the forest. From a nearby bush falls the blood-stained body of a Union soldier, his face burnt, charred, cloaked in dirt. This is Corporal John McBurney — or, as he prefers, “McB” (Eastwood). Amy, instinctively kind, stops to help McB, who’s concerned about the sound of approaching Confederate hooves. They take refuge in a ditch, hidden from the view of the oncoming cavalry. When it appears as if the obedient Amy might speak up at the last second to hand over McB, the Yankee plants a firm kiss on her lips, directing her into silence. McB’s pragmatic, uncomfortable gesture is intensely revealing, “establishing from the get-go his willingness to use masculine wiles to keep himself alive.”9
Indeed, this is one of the most commendable things about The Beguiled: while the premise of an injured soldier recuperating in a house full of smitten women seems ripe for male-fantasy debasement, the film is deeply interested in the psyches of its female characters. Each key female role has a compelling, well-established personality: Martha is the ambitious, intimidating matriarch with a peculiar, incestuous past; Edwina is her prized protégé, and a chaste woman whose suspicions of men in general are thrown into disarray by her attraction to McB; the 17-year-old Carol (Jo Ann Harris) is the film’s sexual deviant, sneaking out of etiquette classes to steal a kiss from the Yankee stranger; Hallie (Mae Mercer), the house slave, also enjoys flirting with McB, but not without an appealing toughness that earns the respect of the other ladies; and Amy is the impressionable youngest with a fondness for nature and animals, and whose fateful attachment to the new man of the house is sealed the minute she gets kissed in the woods.
It’s not just this feminine interest that marks The Beguiled as unusual within Eastwood and Siegel’s five collaborations; it’s also the film’s Gothic atmosphere. In a Siegel appreciation he wrote for Film Comment in 1991, Eastwood provides some clues as to why The Beguiled adopts such a bracing aesthetic: “Don became more conscious of lighting atmosphere in the films as we went along. In some of his early work, like The Killers, the lighting would be flat or conventional — studio lighting … In the late Sixties and Seventies he started feeling as if he had a chance to do more artistically.“11 This is certainly evident in The Beguiled, though one can’t underestimate the contribution of cinematographer Bruce Surtees. Having developed his skills as a camera operator on earlier Siegel-Eastwood films — Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara — Surtees, who died in 2012, was promoted to cinematographer on The Beguiled, marking his debut as a DP.12 Surtees went on to shoot a number of key American works throughout the ’70s and ’80s — John Flynn’s underseen The Outfit (1973), Bob Fosse’s Lenny (1974), Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982), Paul Brickman’s Risky Business (1983) — but the seeds of his talent were in full bloom in The Beguiled. Consider a tense scene in which Martha, confronted at the front door by a pair of libidinous Confederate soldiers on the hunt for female companionship, has to convince them to leave without discovering any suspicious behavior (namely, the harboring of McB). The scene is staged in claustrophobic close-ups, with golden orbs of light hitting the faces of Martha and her lewd suitors. As the three characters circle each other, exchanging insinuations and coded small talk, their shadows are cast across the walls of the house — dueling silhouettes marking their territory. The resulting effect is a kind of dreamlike terror, the gorgeous displays of light and shadow mingling with the white-knuckle tension of the situation.
If this can account, at least partially, for some of the gradations of light that have dominated Eastwood’s directorial work, his five-film collaboration with Siegel isn’t without its own lasting influence. Again, it’s worth quoting a chunk of Eastwood’s Film Comment piece on Siegel: “I was impressed that he’d know what he wanted when he shot it. If he got something, he said, ‘Print that — we’re moving over here now to shoot this.’ Some of these guys print ten takes; they don’t know what it looks like, or they’re not quite sure what their next setup is. Often [Don would] print just the one … It’s like when you stand up to bat, you’re not hoping to hit the third ball — you’re hoping the first one that comes over, you can knock it over the fence.”14
Though Eastwood and Siegel would make Escape from Alcatraz nearly a decade later, 1971 marked the apex of their collaboration. The year of their biggest hit, Dirty Harry, 1971 also looks now like a significant early landmark moment for Eastwood, both as an actor and as a director. If Dirty Harry further solidified the domination of his cowboy image in the public eye, his other two 1971 films, The Beguiled and Play Misty for Me, performed crucial work in establishing another side of his personality: that of the amorous, dashing gentlemen. For its part, The Beguiled postulated the seediest dimensions of that persona, as McB’s actions, as well as the brief, war-snapshot flashbacks provided by Siegel, consistently reveal the character to be an utter hypocrite; Play Misty for Me, meanwhile, presented the more innocent side of that coin, depicting a harmless local DJ who gets pounced on by a violent seductress (Jessica Walter). Taken together, these two characters and performances form a vital element of Eastwood’s star persona that is often underestimated in deference to the popular endurance of films like Unforgiven (1992), the Man With No Name trilogy, and subsequent entries in the Dirty Harry series.
1.Don Siegel, A Siegel Film (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), 341.
2. Siegel, 343.
3. Lee and Paul Malone, Louisiana Plantation Homes: A Return to Splendor (Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 2008): 18.
5. Siegel, 345.
6. Siegel, 347.
7. Siegel, 348.
8. Siegel, 349.
10. Siegel, 353.
11. Clint Eastwood, “The Padrón,” Film Comment 7.25 (1991): 35.
12. Margalit Fox, “Bruce Surtees, Oscar-Nominated Cinematographer, Dies at 74,” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, February 28, 2012.
14. Eastwood, 35.
15. Rebecca Murray, “Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman Talk About ‘Invictus,’” About.com, IAC, December 7, 2009. http://movies.about.com/od/invictus/a/matt-damon-morgan-freeman_3.htm
17. Damon Wise, “‘To Sergio and Don’: Clint Eastwood on Leone and Siegel,” Empire 240 (June 2009): 146.
18. Siegel, 356.