- Clint Eastwood as John McBurney
- Geraldine Page as Martha Farnsworth
- Elizabeth Hartman as Edwina
- Jo Ann Harris as Carol
- Mae Mercer as Hallie
- Pamelyn Ferdin as Amy
A most unusual and unsettling tale of sexual repression, desire and revenge, The Beguiled represents something different from Don Siegel and his go to star Clint Eastwood. And that’s precisely what makes it so unique; it’s an unpredictable film that goes into some really dark areas and knows how to craft something shocking in the long run.
It is the Civil War and Corporal John McBurney is discovered wounded one morning in the South, by a young girl named Amy. She brings him to the all girls school she attends for help to his injuries . The stern headmistress Martha Farnsworth reluctantly takes McBurney in, despite her protestations of him being a Yankee which are discovered early on. The school also houses timid but well-meaning teacher Edwina, a group of young girls including temptress Carol and slave Hallie. These ladies haven’t been in the company of a man for a while, save for the occasional visit from the patrol with news of the war. Gradually, John is nursed into help but watched over due to him bring considered an enemy. But his very arrival signals something very dark that will shake the foundations of everyone to the core. The rigid status quo soon begins to crack as each of the women begin developing romantic longings for John. He leads them all on with his advances and manipulations, his conceit for others slowly emerging as he plays with their romantic feelings for his own pleasure. Even the rigid headmistress Martha starts to get hot under the collar and crumble as the facade of her righteousness stumbles, along with the easily influenced Edwina’s belief that John really loves her. Everything boils over eventually into shocking consequences in the school for everyone there . John is left to fend off the wrath of the scorned women that has been unleashed by his toying with their affections and is now coming back to viciously bite.
This refreshingly unusual and heated film provides Don Siegel with a really experimental film that takes a number of unexpected and shocking turns. It feels very much ahead of its time with some of the content it displays, marking it as different and pretty unsettling at the same time in a pretty psychological way. Don Siegel pitches the mood just right, suggesting the onslaught of dark content that transpires in the latter half, in the slow burn of things that allows The Beguiled to take on a measured but rewarding path to chilling finale. The mood is where The Beguiled is it; creeping away even when nothing startling is happening and throwing in little snippets of potential danger for the fun of it. The Beguiled is at its best as a Southern Gothic drama, that rises to fever pitch as sexual thoughts and betrayal tear the relative calm of the school to pieces. Super imposed frames, spinning camera to signify the unrest he will bring and Sepia toned frames are impressive tools in the arsenal of this strange film. In fact, The Beguiled feels very hallucinatory and disorientating in its construction, captured by the effectiveness of Don Siegel and his off-kilter direction. While the Civil War serves as a backdrop, another war between the sexes rages on in The Beguiled with sheer force and horrifying anguish within the confines of the school. At its core, it’s the male dominance slowly being subverted and oppressed by the female alternative that becomes the real backbone of this claustrophobic story. Stifled and feverish are words that come to mind when viewing the switch of the women in the story, slowly bubbling away until spilling over with John facing the full force of the wronged ladies. Some of it feels too over the top, but the percolating hysteria set off by the sly John is best observed in such an intense way that you can overlook these tiny flawed moments. The culmination of perverse sexuality and dark areas of the mind are evinced best in a hallucinatory dream sequence. In it John is with both Martha and Edwina, the three almost intertwined sexually in disturbing fashion through peculiar angles and overlapping images. An insidiously chilling score allows the unusual nature of this story to reveal itself slowly but surely.
Kudos must be given to Clint Eastwood for playing such an unsympathetic and nasty character. Successfully starting out quietly in his smooth manipulation of the women, his base instincts reveals themselves and his machismo emerges shockingly, resulting in all manner of hysteria among the women. Everything John experiences is by his own hand and it’s a credit to Eastwood’s abilities at capturing his moral ambivalence and greediness of his actions that makes the part an interesting one. Geraldine Page splendidly radiates buttoned-up authority under siege as the headmistress Martha, while laying bare that the morally respectable image she projects is covering something darker. Elizabeth Hartman delicately plays the meekness and abused kindness of Edwina, who falls hardest for John and completely under his spell because of her fragile disposition. Out of all the characters, she’s probably the most inherently decent throughout and the one hurt the most. Jo Ann Harris is good in the role of sultry temptress student, while Mae Mercer is wise as the slave who knows the impact John will have and resists his advances. Pamelyn Ferdin shines as the little girl who rescues him and develops a hopeless crush, only to see it dashed and shattered along with her innocence.
A film not easily forgotten is the best way to describe The Beguiled. With its lurid and unusual story, enlivened by the atmosphere and acting, it stands as a hauntingly intense psychological drama.