Beguiling Genre Guy
Tomorrow’s stateside opening of the new film version of the Civil War-era Southern Gothic melodrama The Beguiled, written and directed by Lost in Translation Academy Award® winner Sofia Coppola, who won the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for it, marks an occasion to fondly remember the man who directed the first film version of the 1966 Thomas P. Cullinan source novel. With 1971’s The Beguiled, Don Siegel (1912-1991) and his five-time collaborator Clint Eastwood (the other occasions being Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz, plus the one-off kick of Siegel playing a cameo in Eastwood’s maiden directorial effort Play Misty for Me) went for something different than expected from the director/star duo; the unflashy but spookily flavorful result went underappreciated at the time but has grown in stature in the intervening years. But throughout the iconoclastic moviemaker’s four-decade career, Siegel was nothing if not a canny depicter of milieu and seething energy, despite whatever low- or generous-budget circumstances, and also an intellectual realist who always applied a moral rigor to his treatment of genre material. That skill was already on display in two fine outdoor adventures he helmed 12 years prior to The Beguiled. Siegel was resistant to filming Edge of Eternity (1959), a mystery thriller about murder and the search for concealed loot set in the open spaces of desert-sprawling Arizona, in Cinemascope, but turned it into an astounding asset. He told Don Siegel: Director writer Stuart M. Kaminsky: “It is difficult to make good use of the camera with a wide screen process. So, what I do is ignore all the rules.” But “the canvas interested me, shooting it against the Grand Canyon” [courtesy of the great cinematographer Burnett Guffey], he would later tell Peter Bogdanovich, and the breath-stopping final confrontation on a wire-hung, trolley car, stalled hundreds of feet above the canyon abyss, involving a plucky deputy sheriff (Cornel Wilde), a kidnapped woman (Victoria Shaw) and a loose-cannon killer (Mickey Shaughnessy) delivered a sensational, sweat-inducing climax that the 70 prior minutes of sleuthing built toward.
The toughest challenge for Siegel on the second picture that followed was its leading man but untrained actor – Elvis Presley – and the baggage audience expectations brought to any screen project showcasing the singing idol-turned-movie star. Set in southwestern frontier territory in 1878 and based on Clair Huffaker’s 1958 novel Flaming Lance, the Western Flaming Star (1960) – again in Cinemascope, this time by veteran Twentieth Century Fox ace Charles G. Clarke – is the story of a mixed-roots family – a white patriarch (John McIntyre) wed to a Kiowa woman (Dolores Del Rio) and two step-brothers, Clint (Steve Forrest, born to McIntryre’s deceased first wife), and Pacer (Presley, a half-breed born to Del Rio) – that struggles to remain peaceable when Native American warriors commit a nearby massacre and the mob prejudice inflamed among the settler townspeople closes in on them to take sides. It would be a deeper dive for Presley following five largely song-accented vehicles and Siegel was alert to the singer’s needs. He told Bogdanovich: “Presley is a very fine actor, but he’s given very little chance of being a fine actor. For the short time I was with Elvis, he was under my Machiavellian spell and he was enormously charged up with giving a good performance. I thought he was a wonderful boy. He broke down and cried and I put my arms around him – I became a little bit like his father – but other influences were working on him all the time. It’s very hard to fight the kind of success that Elvis has.” Again staying true to the material, Siegel eliminated most of the songs planned for the film; only two remain, and that proved a thorn in the side of Presley’s handlers and studio management, a probable reason that Flaming Star was a box-office disappointment at the time, and the movie’s high regard came only later for its strong performances, Presley definitely among them, and for its tough stand on cross-cultural tolerance. In his book American Film Genres, Kaminsky keys in on the film’s downbeat but powerful conclusion: “It is interesting to note that, at the end of the film Presley – who has announced that he is so badly wounded that he is as good as dead – rides to the town to say goodbye to his brother. He does not enter the town, the symbol of conformity: Forrest comes out to meet him. Presley advises Forrest to stay in the town, to make the best of it, and to accept the loss of the unfettered part of their dual personality, which Presley represents. The movie, as it originally was written and filmed, ended with the girl [the brothers’ mutual love interest Barbara Eden] and Forrest choosing to join Presley as he went out to die. Siegel refused to use this psychological compromise, however, or to hold out any possible interpretation of hope. He cut the film so that it ends at the moment when Presley turns to leave, implying that a bitter Forrest will remain with the whites – living in the conformist society, but never coming to terms with it.” Both Edge of Eternity and Flaming Star shine as splendid Twilight Time Blu-rays, both featuring smart historian Audio Commentaries exploring their place in the Siegel canon. Through June 30, Flaming Star is available for a limited-time 50% off list.