Exploring the obsessive nature of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood's The Beguiled

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Eastwood as subject of perverse fascination
  • Eastwood as subject of perverse fascination
Wednesday, November 28, at 7:30 PM at the Portage, the Northwest Chicago Film Society will screen The Beguiled (1971), the least characteristic of Clint Eastwood's five collaborations with director Don Siegel. Made just after their comic western Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) and just before Dirty Harry (1971), the film is a brooding psychodrama set during the Civil War, with Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier who gets taken in by an all-girls boarding school. He soon becomes an object of desire for all the inhabitants, children and adults alike, and this brings to a boil long-simmering rivalries between them. The movie touches on themes of pedophilia, incest, and Freudian trauma; it still has the power to shock those who only know Siegel as an action director.

I spoke with NCFS programmer Kyle Westphal the other day about this cinematic oddity and how it fits into the organization's commitment to revisionist film history. Our conversation follows.

Ben Sachs: The Beguiled is a bit outside of Northwest Chicago Film Society's regular programming, which tends to focus on movies of the 40s and 50s. Why select this one as a foray into 70s Hollywood?

Kyle Westphal: Our programming grew out of the gestalt of the old Bank of America screenings—which had an older audience that grew up on classic Hollywood—but we've been trying to be more varied. This isn't our first 70s Hollywood movie. Last summer we showed Charley Varrick, which is another Siegel film; next season we're showing Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. We don't want to be pigeonholed as "TCM on the big screen."

As for the film itself, it's something I've wanted to show people for a long time. I first saw The Beguiled at UCLA when I was interning there in 2005. Going into it, I didn't have a lot of expectations; it wasn't a film I'd read about much in studies of the 70s [cinema]. It doesn't factor into tributes like [Peter Biskind's book] Easy Riders, Raging Bulls or A Decade Under the Influence, which tend to revolve around films that people already know about. But if I look at any other period, it seems like the films and filmmakers we're talking about now are for revisionist reasons—calling Douglas Sirk the quintessential director of the 1950s, for instance.

With the 1970s, I feel like the canon that's been passed down hasn't received much revision. We're still talking about The French Connection, The Godfather, Scorsese, Altman . . . and don't get me wrong, these are great movies. But it seems like film historians haven't yet done a lot of the heavy lifting for this period that they have for others. When I saw The Beguiled, it struck me immediately as the kind of 70s [Hollywood] film we should be talking about.

Why?

beguiled4.jpg
Well, in a lot of Siegel's films, there are moments of cruelty and rage that aren't at all diluted. Like, in The Lineup, there's that scene where Eli Wallach's meeting the big Mafia boss who he's not supposed to see, and it's happening at this ice-skating rink with all these children around. When you see it, your mind goes in these terrible, dark directions [about what could happen], but you think, "The movie wouldn't do that. It wouldn't go that far." And then it does. I feel that the entirety of The Beguiled is like that.

As I wrote in our program notes for it, the movie really gets into the idea of Eastwood as a sex object. And it takes it quite seriously, albeit within an exploitation framework. Every scene in the film is just heaving with desire—Eastwood's [character's] desire for these women and also the women's desire for Eastwood—but none of the characters quite understand exactly what they want. These women are at different ages, they expect different things from men, and they're all attracted to this figure. And the movie lays that desire bare. There's no tiptoeing around it.

Believe it or not, Universal wanted to shoot it on the southern mansion set at the Disney studio where all these antebellum movies had been made! And they wanted to market by capitalizing on Clint Eastwood's success in the Sergio Leone westerns. But when it was done, the studio had no idea how to sell it. In the original advertising campaign, Universal tried to make it look psychedelic, with Eastwood in this lothario pose in front of a tie-dyed background—which is not what the movie is.

I've read that Siegel considered this his favorite of all his films. Do you see it as a personal work for him?

It's the only time he tried overtly to make an art film. That's significant because Siegel's interest, for much of his career, was in [filmmaking] craft. He came up through the [studio system] ranks on the basis of craft. He started as an assistant editor and worked his way up to the head of the montage department at Warner Brothers before he started directing. Even when he got into the director's chair, he still saw himself as a grunt-level studio employee.

Eastwood seems to have taken that attitude in his own career as a filmmaker, describing himself as the most seasoned professional among a hardworking crew.

And Siegel was his mentor. I've never managed to see it, but Eastwood's first directing credit is on a short making-of documentary about The Beguiled. It's supposedly all about Siegel's method.

Don Siegel
  • Don Siegel
But, yeah, the way Siegel conceived of himself as a filmmaker definitely influenced the way Eastwood conceives of himself as a filmmaker. The gruff, no-nonsense attitude. "I'm going to stay within budget and come in under schedule. I don't need any fussy technique; I want the film." And it's not that The Beguiled contradicts that—it wasn't a runaway production or anything—but it's the one film where the craft is really calling attention to itself. It aspires to create a certain atmosphere. . . . It opens with these sepia stills, then fades slowly into color, and you hear Clint Eastwood singing this Civil War-era folk song softly. Then you see this little girl picking mushrooms and stumbling over Eastwood's body in the woods. You don't usually think of Siegel films being in a whisper; you don't think of them as being soft.

It's hard to talk about the film outside the context of when it came out. Because Eastwood had never made a film like this before. Most people were expecting a shoot-'em-up, and the movie plays on this. It's continually trying to make the audience uncomfortable—on the level of character, on the level of history. . . . You know, you have the black maid in the film whom Eastwood thinks he can seduce by virtue of him being a Yankee, but she proves him wrong.

Even though the movie is focused on issues of race and sex to an almost obsessive degree, I don't think you can walk away from it saying it's a progressive film or a reactionary film. It's about subverting our expectations, no matter what they are.

Well, it's about desire, and that's what desire does. It has a way of frustrating our better natures.

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