Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Beguiled – Film Flashback

With Sofia Coppola’s forthcoming remake of The Beguiled (due for release in June 2017) drawing ever closer, I thought it would be interesting to look back on Don Siegel’s original movie which was released almost 46 years ago. 
According to sources, The Beguiled was released on March 31st 1971 in New York City at the Cinerama and the R.K.O. 59th Street Twin Theatres. However, there was also a screening which (arguably) took place as early as December 1970. We do know that it took place at the Directors' Guild theatre in Hollywood. Eastwood was in attendance that night, as was 21-year-old co-star Jo Ann Harris who arrived in great hippie garb which somewhat signified the closing of a particular era. Also present was legendary star Robert Mitchum. Mitchum’s younger brother John was about to star as Frank DiGiorgio alongside Clint in his next project, Dirty Harry (also directed by Don Siegel).
I have also included here, Vincent Canby’s original New York Times review from April 1st, 1971, the day following its New York release. It wasn’t the greatest of review’s, and the film failed to create much business, due largely to Universal’s failure in promoting the film accurately. The film was far better accepted in Europe, particularly in France. Today, The Beguiled is considered as something of a minor masterpiece. It will certainly be interesting to see how Coppola’s new remake will be accepted – almost half a century on.

Clint Eastwood is star of Siegel's 'The Beguiled'
Donald Siegel's "The Beguiled," which opened yesterday at the Cinerama and the R.K.O. 59th Street Twin Theaters, sounds simple enough on paper: Clint Eastwood, as a wounded Yankee soldier, charms and then terrorizes the ladies who nurse him back to health at a very peculiar, more or less forgotten, Louisiana seminary during the closing days of the War Between the States. Nothing, however, is as straightforward as it seems in "The Beguiled," not even its perversities. Take, for example, the lovely opening sequence in which a little, 12-year-old girl comes upon the body of the soldier in the forest. She is, at first, frozen with fear. Through her mind we hear her wonder whether her father died the same way. Cut to the soldier, and through his eyes we see a curious, shapeless child swim into focus. They talk, exchange names, and just before the child helps him to stand, he draws her down beside him and gives her a long, not really friendly kiss on the mouth. She's confused, but immensely happy.
The film thus begins as a quite odd Civil War romance, evolves into a battle of the sexes in which the man is more vanquished than victor, and then turns into the kind of grotesque character comedy that might—mistakenly, I think—be identified as gothic horror. There is certainly horror in "The Beguiled," but it is played for what amounts to an extended, completely silent laugh.
Whether this is intentional or not, I've no way of knowing, but there's no other way to explain the amusingly overripe excesses in a film by a man who has, heretofore, managed to make films that were more complex in effect and a good deal more simple in design ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Two Mules for Sister Sara").

"The Beguiled" is Mr. Siegel's 26th film, as well as his most ambitious and elaborate. I'm not referring to the sets, costumes and Spanish moss-hung locations (the exteriors were filmed in Louisiana at a fine, photogenic, old plantation), but to the narrative style. The movie employs, in addition to straight exposition, interior thoughts spoken on the sound-track, flashbacks that contradict spoken dialogue and the kind of fantasies commonly enjoyed—according to literary convention—by hashish smokers, sailors and sex-starved spinsters.
In fact, every major character in the movie, with the exception of Eastwood, is a female suffering to a greater or lesser degree from the need for a man, including the little girl (Pamelyn Ferdin) who first finds the soldier, the precocious 17-year-old (Jo Ann Harris), who seduces Eastwood with the graces of Belle Watling, and the sweet virginal teacher (Elizabeth Hartman), who comes close to being an unequivocally decent person, the only one in the film.
The most deprived (ergo, according to Hollywood Freud, the wildest and most dangerous) woman is the seminary's headmistress (Geraldine Page), whose initial flashback, as she stares at the bloody, maggoty soldier, is to the bed in which she and her brother made frenzied, slow-motion love. My favorite fantasy, however, is Miss Page's wine-induced dream in which she, Eastwood and Miss Hartman make love and then assume the positions of a pietà, more exhausted, I suspect, than sorrowing.
This is very fancy, outrageous fantasizing from the man who gave us "Riot in Cell Block 11" and" Baby Face Nelson," and must strike horror in the hearts of those Siegel fans who've made a cult of his objectivity. "The Beguiled" is not, indeed, successful as baroque melodrama, and, towards the end, there are so many twists and turns of plot and character that everything that's gone before is neutralized. People who consider themselves discriminating moviegoers, but who are uncommitted to Mr. Siegel will be hard put to accept it, other than as a sensational, misogynistic nightmare.
I must say that I found it interesting (even when it approached the ludicrous) because of its place in relation to other Siegel films and because I have nothing but appreciation for the performers, especially Miss Page, Miss Hartman and Mr. Eastwood, who, by simply reacting well, has become an important actor of movies. 
One final note: The screen credits list John B. Sherry and Grimes Grice as authors of the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Thomas Cullinan. Those are the pseudonyms, respectively, of Albert Maltz, who did the initial screenplay, reported to have been a romantic comedy, and Irene Kamp, who did the rewrite with help, I'm told, from Claude Traverse, the associate producer. This may explain some of the peculiarities of the completed film.

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