For Hit Me with Your Best Shot this week, Nathaniel has selected The Beguiled, the 1971 Don Siegel film starring Clint Eastwood with a newly-announced Sofia Coppola remake on the way. These words, of course, do not make any sense together. As it turns out, The Beguiled – a study of repressed female libido boiling over – is a natural fit for Coppola, and an enormously baffling one for Siegel & Eastwood, an ultra-masculine director/star pairing if ever one existed in the world. There would not be, I think, another Eastwood starring vehicle more thoroughly outside of his wheelhouse till The Bridges of Madison County, 24 years later.
That all being said, The Beguiled is terrific, and shame on me for not having seen it sooner (it was the last of the five Siegel/Eastwood collaborations that I hadn’t seen). It’s a humid, sexed-up Southern Gothic tale driven by its female characters, and if I said “imagine Tennessee Williams by way of the director of Dirty Harry“, I think you’d end up pretty close to exactly where the film lives. It’s a damn fine film, with at least four world-class performances (Eastwood as McBurney, a Northern soldier who arrives, wounded at the gates of a Southern girls’ school during the Civil War; Geraldine Page, giving the best performance I’ve ever seen her give, as Martha, the headmistress of said school; Elizabeth Hartman as the retiring virgin Edwina, who falls hardest for McBurney’s smoldering aura; 12-year-old Pamelyn Ferdin as Amy, the child whose fascination with McBurney ends up driving most of the incidents in the film).
Dancing around spoilers for a 45-year-old movie is silly, of course, but I figure if I had no clue what happened in the film, plenty of other people wouldn’t either. And this causes some difficulty, because all of the obvious picks for the film’s Best Shot are related to plot developments that occur well past the two-thirds mark. So creativity it had to be, and I even managed to get one from the back half:
We’re in Black Narcissus territory: an all-woman environment turned turned into a sweaty pile of repressed sexuality let off its leash with no clue what to do. The biggest difference is that there are, in The Beguiled, no good guys. Eastwood’s character is a pretext more than a protagonist: all we learn about him is that he doesn’t think or care about the ramifications of his actions towards the people who have saved him and who alone stand between him and death at the hands of the Confederacy. We can assume that he’s probably pretty unpleasant as a human being if you get a chance to know him. But oh, how he does ooze sensual magnetism, and oh, how he uses that to his advantage, and he has just done so prior to this point, getting found in the middle of a threesome by Edwina, certainly the character with the most unhinged response to the stranger’s presence. This is the most violent explosion of sexualised rage in the whole movie, and it’s for that as much as the qualities of the image that led me to pick it – unhealthy expressions of sexual desire are what The Beguiled is all about.
I will not tell you otherwise what’s going on in this moment – spoilers – but it’s got most of the things I enjoyed most about the film: the grand melodramatic range of emotions (surely I don’t need to tell you what Hartman is saying for you to see the snarl of fury on her face, more a silent movie villain than a ’70s movie character?); the implications of dying grandeur, because look, it’s a staircase! Staircases are the absolute best place for freak-outs in Southern Gothic tales! They speak both to the elegance size of the houses and the passing age of them. Also, check out all those thick shadows, especially the one right across the middle of Hartman’s face, a proper horror movie gesture. This was the first film on which former camera operator Bruce Surtees served as director of photography, and it was enough for him to become an Eastwood regular for the next decade and a half. As it should – that’s over-the-top lighting, but it’s an over-the-top emotional moment, and if Surtees is showing off, at least he’s doing it extremely well.
The coiled-up tension of The Beguiled, manifest in many shots of women looking, manifest in Eastwood’s willfully chilly performance, and manifest in Lalo Schifrin’s excellent score, are its most characteristic elements, and I suppose I should have picked a shot of that; but moments that explode that tension are fun too. Anyway, it’s graphically gorgeous, and I’m always a sucker for that kind of thing.