The Beguiled (1971):

The setup is Boccaccio's tale of Masetto, modulated into psychosexual fable -- the descending crane locates a Brothers Grimm sepia forest, only it's the Civil War, with Union soldier Clint Eastwood bleeding in the bushes. He's helped by pre-teen Pamelyn Ferdin, the youngest of the occupants of a local all-girl boarding school, where Geraldine Page reigns primly and Elizabeth Hartman teaches the pretty young maids French, a "smilin' language," while the war smokes outside. A circular pan-zoom leads the wounded corporal through the gates, Eastwood quaking in fevered POV but increasingly steady as he plays on the desires and insecurities of the repressed matriarchal universe he has invaded. The pastoral fields only hide the Gothic chiaroscuro inside, muffled incest and bludgeoning horniness, the atmosphere so weighty with starved estrogen that even the skeptical maid (Mae Mercer) begins doting on the limping guest's torso; Eastwood evokes Sleeping Beauty for his hosts, soon Page and Hartman are hopefully leaving doors unlocked at night, a mÚnage-a-trois forming in the headmistress' mind, then dissolving into a macabre pietÓ. But Prince Charming gets uncloaked as lecher with willowy filly Jo Ann Harris, so Page caps the castration anxiety by severing his splintered leg. A deliberate anomaly in the oeuvres of Eastwood and Don Siegel, a break from macho policiers for excoriating inquiries into male unease amid female empowerment. Ants and caterpillars, wounded ravens and overheard thoughts, though the patch of gentility, isolated in the middle of a nation-splitting conflict, is as perilous as the director's writhing urban landscapes, his patented outsider-hero turned into a scheming cad, about to be induced into the community at dinner via a 360░ turn cut short by news from the outside world, along with his own sexual arrogance. Hobbling on crutches with pistol in hand after his amputation, Eastwood's castrated blue-belly is as much of a sharp fraying of his screen image as Siegel's keen staging of hothouse hysteria is of his, men as accomplices in unleashing the women's force, the camera not in fear or hate, but in awe. With Darleen Carr, Melody Thomas, Peggy Drier, and Patty Mattick.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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