Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Beguiled (1971)

I've always had a soft spot for The Beguiled because it's a film that is so out of left field for both its director Don Seigel and its star Clint Eastwood.

Anyone new to the film and expecting a traditional western or actioneer similar to the pair's other films (both Coogan's Bluff and Two Mules For Sister Sara precede this film, with Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz coming later) will be somewhat bemused and surprised by this slice of pure American Gothic. Whether that surprise is a pleasant one is dependent on the viewer I guess.

Eastwood stars as a wounded Yankee soldier who is taken in behind enemy lines and tended by the ladies of a Louisiana seminary in the closing days of the Civil War. Ensconced within, Eastwood becomes something of an object of desire for each of the ladies from the 12 year old girl who first found him right the way up to the spinsterly school mistress played by Geraldine Page.

Knowing he is safe in their care and knowing they risk accusations of treason for harbouring him, he begins at first to charm and then both manipulate and terrorise the women, including the tempting Jo Ann Harris and the virginal Elizabeth Hartman. Thus begins a baroque and twisted story of the nature of desire, suppressed and repressed feelings and long simmering rivalries being brought to the boil, touching on paedophilia, incest, and Freudian trauma. 

This rich, dark and heady brew of heightened, claustrophobic emotion is ostensibly an arthouse movie masquerading through its director and star as populist entertainment. It was said to be Seigel's favourite of all his work and it's certainly his most elaborate and ambitious film  which, coming in some twenty five years after his directorial debut,  clearly shows a director who was extremely progressive and devoted to the craft of film making. The conviction Seigel always seemed to bring to his work, the desire to show cruelty and hate at its most unflinching, non sanitised state is still most evident in The Beguiled, but it's conveyed in such a curious, eerie whisper that when it hits, it punches through the strange atmosphere even harder.

If you're a fan of The Wicker Man or Picnic At Hanging Rock and would walk past anything that seems to be a Western, I recommend you rectify that by checking this one out. 

Suitably spooky artwork for Thomas Cullinan's original novel

Utterly beguiling.

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