While The Beguiled is a thriller, the film keeps the thrills exceptionally grounded. The film’s set during the Civil War, with wounded Yankee sniper Clint Eastwood taking refuge at a girls school in Confederate territory. The school is quite literally set aside from the war. The war is outside the gates and everyone wants to keep it that way. And they can’t. The Beguiled opens with a montage of Civil War photographs in an attempt to sear the images into the viewer’s mind and memory (at least for the film’s runtime).
Even if the characters can avoid thinking about the war, the viewer can’t.
Because there’s enough going on in The Beguiled it could be avoiding the war entirely. Especially once Geraldine Page’s character reveals as all done. Except director Siegel keeps all the reveals as grounded as the thrills. He never wants to break tone, which is one of the film’s bolder moves as Siegel takes almost the first hour to establish the limits of that tone. The Beguiled is excruciatingly deliberate; Bruce Surtees’s photography makes that deliberateness something exceptional. He and Siegel do these despondent low light shots of the cast. Never scary exactly, but always disturbing. There’s no exposition about the difference between night and day in The Beguiled, but it’s there.
The Beguiled’s “there” is quite a lot.
Eastwood’s sniper is a deceitful, manipulative creep. He isn’t, however, a Confederate. And The Beguiled doesn’t shy from looking at how its female characters benefit from the Confederacy. Or what ugly people it encourages them to become.
Page’s headmistress is responsible, not caring. She’s haunted, which makes her sympathetic, but there’s always the threat of cruelness, which makes her not. Teacher (and former student) Elizabeth Hartman should always be sympathetic, but she too has some cruelty. It comes out in jealousy–usually after catching Eastwood paying too much attention to seventeen year-old student Jo Ann Harris–which somehow makes Hartman less sympathetic.
Yet Hartman has this ethereal, naive sadness to her, which creates omnipresent sympathy. Like everything in The Beguiled, there’s a lot going on.
Besides romancing Hartman, Page, and Harris, Eastwood also charms twelve year-old Pamelyn Ferdin (who finds him wounded and brings him to the woods in the first place) through some subtle grooming; the nicest thing, overall, to say about Eastwood’s character is when he’s manipulating Ferdin, it always appears it’s pragmatic exploitation, not perversion.
Because Eastwood starts being a little creepy about two minutes into The Beguiled and he never stops. He gets more creepy, he gets less creepy. Sometimes he’s right about something in addition to being a creep, sometimes he’s wrong, but he’s always a creep. He’s always untrustworthy and manipulative, even if he’s often too injured to be a real danger.
And then there’s Mae Mercer. She’s the school’s slave. She and Eastwood have the film’s closest thing to an honest relationship. Or at least one where Mercer thinks it’s honest; she’s able to see through the rest of Eastwood’s guile. Again, there’s no exposition about this understanding, it’s just in how Mercer’s performance and the film works. Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp’s script is just as deliberate as everything else–Siegel’s composition, Surtees’s lighting, the fantastic Lalo Schifrin score, and Carl Pingitore’s breathtaking editing.
The direction, the script, the photography, they all have askew aspects. Pingitore’s editing, Schifrin’s score, Ted Haworth’s production design, they’re always flat. They’re expansive and luscious, but they’re providing the foundation to keep the rest stable. The Beguiled’s exceptionally well-made.
All of the acting is great. Page is probably most impressive; her character has the most going on. Again, Eastwood’s one heck of a creep–contrasting ways he’s fundamentally a “better” character–but still just a creep. Hartman’s good, though she’s the first act romantic diversion. Once Eastwood starts flirting with Harris and Page, Hartman gets less to do. Harris is effective. It’s impressive how subtly The Beguiled reveals her innocence. Ferdin’s great. Mercer’s great.
And the rest of the girls–older than Ferdin, younger than Harris–are all good. They aren’t Beguiled, so they’re mostly background.
The film’s got this jarring technique of having a female character’s internal monologue play as they regard Eastwood or one of his behaviors, first as an enemy, then as a man (which, really, is the same thing). Siegel and Pingitore do it matter of fact, the insight not a narrative necessity, but a tonal one. Another fantastic little piece of The Beguiled.
The film’s full of them.
Produced and directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Carl Pingitore; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Ted Haworth; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Clint Eastwood (John McBurney), Geraldine Page (Martha Farnsworth), Elizabeth Hartman (Edwina Dabney), Pamelyn Ferdin (Amy), Mae Mercer (Hallie), Jo Ann Harris (Carol), Melody Thomas Scott (Abigail), Peggy Drier (Lizzie), Patricia Mattick (Janie), and Darleen Carr (Doris).