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Beguiled (Special Edition), The
Although the Civil War rages in the fields and forests nearby, inside the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, little has changed. Ms. Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) keeps a strict eye on her six young students, with the help of graduate and fellow teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), and Hallie (Mae Mercer), a slave. They are content to keep their heads down and weather the storm, but the storm finds its way to them in the form of Corporal John McBurney (Clint Eastwood), a wounded Union soldier who is discovered by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) while she is out picking mushrooms. After some hemming and hawing, Ms. Farnsworth agrees to let McBurney stay until his wounds are healed, at which point they will turn him over to Confederate soldiers, but the curiosity of the girls -- and McBurney's own aggressive manipulation of them -- is a powder keg of ingredients waiting to blow up.
Clint Eastwood has done many things throughout his career as an actor, but The Beguiled is particularly fascinating as one of the few times he's played a villain (High Plains Drifter is the only other example that comes to mind). Eastwood is arguably at the height of his star power and charisma here -- rough enough around the edges to evoke his rugged cowboy persona, but cleaned up and boyishly handsome enough to look like a traditional sex symbol (especially his thick, sweeping hairdo) -- and The Beguiled gets most of its hypnotic, unsettling mileage out of watching him weaponize it, as McBurney tries to worm his way into the upper hand.
For the viewer, there's no question right from the start that McBurney is up to no good. When Amy, who is only twelve years old, finds him and offers to help him, his first move is to plant a kiss on her so as to not be seen by someone passing by. Upon his arrival at the school, you can see him sizing up each of the girls or women that interacts with him. Amy is bright and naive, easy to manipulate by being friendly, and makes for a good cheerleader. Ms. Farnsworth is less enamored with him at first, but her desperate loneliness is an obvious weak spot, easy to exploit. Carol (Jo Ann Harris) is an aggressor, driven purely by sexual curiosity. Edwina is Carol's opposite, someone who has either repressed or ignored any sex drive and focused on the more immediate possibilities of career and responsibility, only to find herself considering it with McBurney's appearance in the house. Finally, Hallie arguably poses the most danger to McBurney, who reacts to him with a wry sense of humor that hides a fiery sense of self-preservation.
Some critics in 1971 called The Beguiled misogynistic, and one could make the case that the fact that almost all of the girls fall for him (except for the younger girls who have no interest) sells the women a bit short. On the other hand, this seems to ignore the way the film insistently underlines McBurney's reprehensible nature, cutting back to show the viewer the brutal reality whenever he tells a lie. Even if the women are overly naive, there's no question that McBurney's self-serving nature drives the plot, and there's a great sliminess to the way he calculates each story to play a certain way to each member of his audience. There is also an argument to be made that The Beguiled ends up being a bit of a revenge picture, after McBurney's manipulations work so well that he can't keep them all in the air at the same time. The final stretch of the picture brings out another side of Eastwood -- sweaty, angry, and desperate, as McBurney leans fully into his callous and ugly nature.
The Beguiled was one of Eastwood's collaborations with director Don Siegel, a partnership he viewed as hugely important. Performance-wise, Siegel's record is flawless, with pretty much every featured member of the ensemble cast doing great work. Page, in particular, is a great foil for Eastwood, putting up an authoritative front even as her resolve is clearly fraying. Her character is saddled with an uncomfortable backstory (apparently added for the film), an incestuous relationship with her brother who has probably since died in the war, which Siegel seems to present mostly as an element of her loneliness, which is a strange choice (it's not particularly surprising that Sofia Coppola did not preserve this in her 2017 remake). Siegel's least-effective choice is a dream sequence, which makes the subtext literal, and is simply not as compelling as the character work that serves as the film's backbone.
The Beguiled comes to Kino with reversible artwork that features two original theatrical poster designs. The side of the wrap displayed by default features a profile of Eastwood in shadow with a psychedelic swirling red pattern laid over top, with the faces of the women below. The image is a rectangular one, framed inside a blue border that takes up the rest of the cover. This artwork also appears on the thin matte slipcover on the release. The other side of the sleeve features Eastwood, lying down, in full color, with Geraldine Page in front of him in a monochromatic sort of color, and three of the girls in the background in blood red, with one girl's hand resting on Eastwood's face. This artwork makes the film look like more of a horror movie than anything. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
The Beguiled was one of the titles that, to my memory, escaped the Universal catalog movie curse. Nonetheless, that transfer is improved upon with this new 2K remastered edition from KLSC. Presented in 1.85:1 1080p AVC, this Blu-ray offers beautifully saturated colors, a strong grain field, rich black levels, and excellent depth and detail. The image is soft, but the softness is clearly natural and in some cases is part of the intended look of the film (and there are some optical effects as well). I wouldn't argue that a 4K master wouldn't have been even better, but it's hard to imagine anyone being dissatisfied with this. Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track, which has an impressive crispness and clarity to it that supports the remastered picture nicely. English subtitles are also provided.
Two new extras grace Kino's edition of The Beguiled. First, there is an audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger. Ellinger uses Siegel's autobiography to help flesh out some of the director's approach to the movie, places it and contextualizes it within Siegel and Eastwood's careers, talks about the differences between the book and the movie, and fills in backstory on the rest of the cast and crew. Pretty standard for a scholarly track -- nothing wrong with it, but, pretty much what one would expect. The other is a charming interview with Melody Thomas Scott (17:53), who has some wonderful stories about working with Siegel on multiple pictures, as well as the experience of acting next to Eastwood. A second video extra, "The Beguiled, Misty, Don and Clint" (6:13), is a port from Universal's DVD edition of Play Misty For Me (and does double-duty appearing here and on Kino's release of Misty).
Trailers for (deep breath) Coogan's Bluff, Two Mules For Sister Sara, The Duel at Silver Creek, The Gun Runners, Madigan, Charley Varrick, and The Black Windmill are included under the special features menu. There is also an original theatrical trailer for The Beguiled, as well as a "Trailers From Hell" version with commentary by John Landis (2:51).
The Beguiled is a bleak and often ugly film, but it's all by design, and made all the more fascinating thanks to its star lead. Those interested in Eastwood's screen performance and image will find it to be an essential outlier. Kino's new remastered Blu-ray improves on Universal's previous effort, both in terms of A/V and extras. Recommended.
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