Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Beguiled (the 1971 film) by Traverse, Cullinan et al

This is the original of the movie which was recently and badly botched by Sofia Coppola, as I've discussed. 

As I said in that post, the main virtue of the remake is that it prompted me to re-watch the 1971 version, directed by Don Siegel, which is a seriously impressive film.

I also synopsised the plot in my previous post. Basically The Beguiled is a fever dream about a wounded Union soldier who ends up convalescing in a girl's school behind enemy lines in the Deep South. 

His presence there lights the fuse on a powder keg of repressed sexuality. And it doesn't help that the soldier, McBurney (Clint Eastwood) is a manipulative, lying bastard.

The 1971 movie has some minor flaws. The characters are given a few silly internal monologue voice-overs, and there are a couple of ill judged and somewhat clumsy flashbacks concerning an incestuous relationship between Martha (Geraldine Page), who runs the school, and her late brother.

But other than that, this is a masterpiece

In particular, Bruce Surtees's cinematography is astonishing and beautiful. His method for evoking candlelight is moody, effective and breathtaking, with superb use of deep shadow and colour.

This is in complete contrast to Philippe Le Sourd's dull and insipid work on the remake, which always looks lifeless, colourless and underlit.

Amazingly, The Beguiled was Bruce Surtees's first credit as a cinematographer after years labouring as a camera operator.

Lalo Schifrin's score for the original is also superior to Laura Karpman's for the remake.

But where the 1971 movie really excels is in the quality of the acting and the writing. The cast here is stunning, vastly stronger than in the remake.
 
For years Eastwood cited this film as his best work and he was right. His performance is startling. I'd tended to dismiss him as a star who didn't act (and didn't need to).

But as soon as McBurney loses his leg, Eastwood's performance moves up several gears. He's entirely effective and believable. 
 
Mae Mercer as the slave Hallie — a character entirely white washed out of the Coppola movie — is extraordinarily powerful, convincing and dignified.

Then there's Elizabeth Hartman, immensely moving in a beautifully nuanced performance as the spinster teacher Edwina whose love is awakened by the undeserving McBurney.

And Geraldine Page who is frighteningly authentic and hard as nails as Martha Farnsworth, the school's owner.

Special mention must also be made of Pamelyn Ferdin as the youngest girl, Amy, the death of whose pet turtle triggers the final tragic phase of the story.

As well written as the film is, the writing credits on it are a nest of snakes: basically it was begun by the distinguished screenwriter Albert Maltz (This Gun for Hire, Naked City). He delivered several drafts entitled 'Johnny McB'. 

Maltz refused to write anything negative about the female characters, placing all the blame on McBurney. And he flattened out the Gothic and horrific aspects of the story. Maltz was fired and ended up using a pseudonym on the film, as John B. Sherry. 

The next writer was Irene Kamp who also had a strong track record (Paris Blues, The Sandpiper). She wrote two drafts (entitled 'A Nest of Sparrows') which focused heavily on the female characters, marginalised McBurney and — ludicrously — gave the story a happy ending.

Crucially, though, Kamp is said to have strengthened the role of Hallie the slave. After being taken off the picture she too resorted to a pseudonym, Grimes Grice. Apparently the name of her uncle.

The director Don Siegel was very unhappy with all these scripts. He had a clear idea of what he wanted, which was a movie which was faithful to the book. 

(Siegel's vision of The Beguiled was entirely admirable. He perceptively compared the story to the writings of Ambrose Bierce. And he tried to hire the artist Edward Gorey to create the poster for the movie, before the studio overruled him.)

Finally Don Siegel enlisted the help of his associate producer, Claude Traverse, who had a similar admiration for the book and succeeded in coming up with an excellent version of the script.

It's ironic in the extreme that the one writer who managed to crack the story didn't get any screen credit for it. And that the two who did insisted on hiding behind pseudonyms.

So, let's pay full credit to Claude Traverse here. And of course to Thomas Cullinan, whose original novel enabled everyone to go to work and collect a paycheck in the first place.

I have drawn on several books for the version of facts presented in this post. The most informative and useful was Don Siegel's autobiography. Patrick McGilligan's biography of Eastwood also provided some interesting details.

(Image credits: 'His Love... or His Life' is from IMD Forums. 'Isolated Girls School' and a rich variety of foreign posters — including the priceless Spanish one ('El Seductor') where 19th Century soldier Clint is holding a 20th century automatic pistol — are from the excellent site Cinematerial. The black and white ('Never been in a deadlier spot') ad is from The New Bev. The striking alternative poster with rainbow colours by rob3rtarmstrong is from Deviant Art.)

2 comments:

  1. Yup, great film....and I will never understand why anyone feels the need to remake a great film

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  2. So true, Mark -- thank you for reading, and commenting, and apologies for my late response.

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