Masterpieces of Misogyny

Revisiting The Beguiled and Play Misty for Me


The Beguiled (1971) | Universal Pictures

Iam forever doomed, when I hear the name “Clint Eastwood,” to careen past the real thing and land instead on Jim Carrey’s impression. His face, rubber band-like, bends and snaps into the angular visage of the grizzled actor, a feat he pulls off so completely he put it in not one but two of his movies. Looser imitations, too, linger in my mind’s eye. Do you—surely, a fellow cinephile—recall Spongebob’s alter-ego, the cowboy hat-wearing antihero Dirty Dan? Well, do ya, punk?

I am finely attuned to Eastwood’s hyper-masculine, teeth-grinding persona, despite having seen Bruce Almighty many, many more times than any one Sergio Leone joint (“Regrets, I’ve had a few”). But no one is as hip to the Eastwood brand than the man himself. Before he ever wrapped his mitts around a .44 Magnum, Eastwood was acutely aware of his on-screen persona—a career-making blend of tough-guy bravado and emotional reticence. 

Dirty Harry may have been the most era-defining Eastwood role of 1971, but his two other vehicles from the same year play with and subvert the actor’s unique star power more effectively. In both Play Misty for Me and The Beguiled, Eastwood finds himself at the mercy of hysterical, horned-up women scorned. Not only does he play against type as victim to some tenacious broads, but the taciturn western hero—historically smoldering yet essentially sexless—presents in both films as a total horndog. 

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Remembered at best as a curiosity and at worst a “misogynistic nightmare,” The Beguiled is the third of five collaborations between Eastwood and his mentor, the director Don Siegel (the two would pair up again later that year with Dirty Harry). Set in Mississippi at the height of the Civil War, Eastwood stars as John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier who is found by the premises of a fading all-girls boarding school. Fueled, they claim, by Christian mercy—a convenient cover for titillated intrigue—the women elect to take in and rehabilitate the corporal before turning him over to the Confederates. But McBurney is no helpless invalid. The twin urges of lust and self-preservation cause him to woo (to varying degrees of success) a few ladies of the Farnsworth Seminary. Unfortunately for the corporal, he’s a bit sloppy when it comes to discretion. When his two-timing comes to light, the resulting staircase-related “accident” busts up his leg even more, and the women, for medically dubious reasons, have to (do they? Who’s to say!) saw off McBurney’s leg.   

Released five months after The Beguiled, Play Misty for Me may be less of a fever dream than the Southern gothic melodrama, but it is nightmarish all the same, with Eastwood once again the object of desire for a wild-eyed woman with a flair for violence. In his directorial debut, Eastwood plays Dave Garver, a smooth-talking DJ living a charmed life in his Carmel-by-the-Sea bungalow. While the Eastwood of The Beguiled is introduced to us bloodied and tangled in Spanish moss, things for his Misty counterpart are, to use the parlance of the time, groovier. Garver is immediately presented as a man with an easy, enviable routine. After his nightly jazz show, where he recites poetry over the airwaves, Garver heads to the Sardine Factory and raps with the jocular barkeep, Murphy (hey look, it’s Don Siegel), before picking up the woman du jour. His days are spent cruising across the Bixby Creek Bridge in his convertible to Dee Barton’s bouncy score. 

Eastwood creates tension not through doomed foreshadowing or a menacing atmosphere, but by suggesting that everything is going a little too well—surely the other shoe will drop, and drop it does, in the form of Jessica Walter’s unnerving Evelyn Draper. A longtime listener—she calls KRML every night requesting Erroll Garner’s “Misty”—Evelyn latches onto Dave first as a devoted fan, then as a one-night stand, and finally as a stalker who increasingly bristles with unhinged hostility (and knows her way around a kitchen knife). 

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Given that both of these films tap into stereotypical female hysteria, it’s easy to read them as anti-feminist responses to an era of shifting gender norms. Don Siegel admitted about as much, acknowledging that a key motif of The Beguiled is “the basic desire of women to castrate men.” Not that he’s particularly subtle on this point. An embittered, freshly amputated McBurney growls at the women, “Why the hell didn’t you just castrate me?” (Siegel leans into obvious innuendo throughout the film, and has no small amount of fun with it; when the corporal arrives at the all-girls school, the chickens out back start laying eggs.) The amputation scene in question even plays like a horror movie—an aesthetic that Siegel teases throughout the film—with deliriously quick zooms, heady overlays, and moody, almost crude lighting as Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) lays waste to McBurney’s lower half. If that doesn’t inspire enough male panic, the film also entertains an age-old fantasy oft-discussed by men’s rights activists and their ilk: a hot to trot admirer (in this case the 17-year-old “hussy” Carol, played by Jo Ann Harris) who cries rape after the fact.

If The Beguiled stokes the fire of gender stereotypes by using castration fear as the principal anxiety, then Play Misty for Me brings the same concerns to the modern era, creating a villain who is defined by her sexual assertiveness. (It’s Evelyn, after all, not Dave, who orchestrates their first meeting at the bar, as much as he’d like to credit his pick-up strategies.) Evelyn isn’t just a terror because she’s mentally unstable and nimble with a knife; her villainy is gendered, a needy girlfriend type whose clinginess escalates to the point of violence. Misty is Fatal Attraction before Fatal Attraction, a cautionary tale of overly possessive, lunatic single women. 

Evelyn is the foil to Tobie (Donna Mills), Dave’s ex-lover and ostensible “good girl” who’s back in town after having left to get away from Dave’s philandering ways. “The thing I hate most in the whole world is a jealous female,” Tobie tells Dave as they walk along the beach. “And that’s what I was starting to be.” Eastwood’s filmmaking style is infamously lean and efficient (in Misty, as with his other work, he was often ahead of schedule and under budget) and he uses close-ups and the zoom lens to great effect. In another meetup between Dave and Tobie, Eastwood employs only two shots: one to frame the reconciling couple together, then another to zero in on the jealous brunette watching from a distance like a jilted Michael Myers.   

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To call The Beguiled and Play Misty for Me out-and-out masculine panic flicks skirts around the characterization of their supposed victim and star, Clint Eastwood. Though the films differ tonally—one a sweaty fever dream and the other a coolly shot thriller—each is ultimately a character study of its shared lead. Eastwood’s McBurney is more outwardly villainous than Dave, but they possess the same lecherous DNA, suggesting that these characters aren’t entirely undeserving of their fates. There’s a case to be made about both films, that each is a text of male anxiety—a “masterpiece of misogyny” that evinces uneasiness towards second wave feminism—that also functions as revenge fantasies against manipulative lotharios. 

There’s no slow reveal to McBurney’s duplicity in The Beguiled, no resentment that oozes out or ill will that erodes his character as he lies locked up, bedridden. The corporal is a monster from the very first scene, immediately using his sexuality to manipulate Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), the first Farnsworth girl he meets. Through his wheezing, he asks Amy her age, deems 12 years “old enough for kisses,” and plants one on the child. The nonconsensual maneuver not only silences Amy from screaming out to the passing Confederate troops, but it shows the lengths to which McBurney is willing to seduce, assault, or charm his way out of harm’s reach. 

From the moment the injured McBurney is carried into the seminary, he is a chameleonic smooth operator, changing his routine and affect to best anticipate the needs of whichever woman he’s working. For the virginal, cautious Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), the school’s sole teacher, McBurney is a doting suitor with promises of marriage; for the high-minded headmistress Martha, he penetrates her guarded loneliness; in teenage Carol he reciprocates her hormonal lust; and he takes advantage of trusting Amy’s burgeoning puppy love. McBurney even attempts to fabricate an alliance with Hallie (Mae Mercer) by appealing to her status as an enslaved person and his as a blue-bellied Yank (she’s instinctively, and correctly, skeptical). The corporal also traffics in fictions about his past in order to appear sympathetic to the women, including a claim about his pacifist role as a medic in the war, but flashbacks to a gunslinging McBurney on the battlefield betray his lie. 

McBurney’s scheming is often a means of self-preservation, but there are moments when his sex-crazed opportunism gets in the way of survival. The Northerner can’t hide his true depraved demeanor, as evidenced through cheeky asides. Upon offering the wounded soldier wine, Martha claims it’s “for your pain, not for your pleasure.” He retorts, “It’s just that sometimes the two do go together.” It’s this sort of behavior that proves to be his downfall; it is Edwina who pushes McBurney down the stairs after she finds him in bed with Carol (in an inspired moment of horndog blocking, McBurney literally needs to move Carol’s bare rear out of the way to see a stunned Edwina in the doorway). Still, it’s hard to sympathize completely with the maimed soldier; when the women numb him up for “surgery” with wine and laudanum, his true colors come out, and he’s unable to stop rambling about breasts. The unwelcomed procedure ratchets up McBurney’s bitterness. “Why don’t you leave this place,” Hallie asks the corporal when he, no longer under lock and key, lingers menacingly around the property. “Not ‘til I’ve had my fill,” he answers. The response is sinister, revealing the extent to which he’s willing to weaponize sex.

The Beguiled may be one of the horniest films ever committed to celluloid, as evidenced not only by the unscrupulous McBurney, but also his female counterparts. “If this war goes on much longer I’ll forget I ever was a woman,” Martha says early in the film in voiceover, and the corporal hones in on her repressed desire. Flashbacks paint a fuller picture of Miss Martha, whose incestuous relationship with her brother proves that even the most seemingly morally upstanding characters are not so reliable. (A psychedelic threesome dream sequence, with Martha as the unlikely dreamer, gives us even more insight into the headmistress’ libidinous impulses.) Carol is less subtle about her interest in McBurney, even when he arrives bloody and covered in dust: “I might sponge parts of him you wouldn’t.” 

Despite the varying levels of interest in McBurney (some want to wed him, others want to bed him) it is undeniable that the strange man casts a spell over the school. Even as he works his way through the women, identifying their wants and weaknesses, the women treat him as something to be looked at, a strange and sudden sex object that appeared on their doorstep. There’s a debate among the women as to whether the corporal should be shaved, since, after all, they have to look at him all day. It might be a sin to shave off the whiskers that the Lord gave him, Hallie remarks. McBurney’s rejoinder: “Sinning oughta be saved for much more important things.”  

Eastwood is given the same objectified treatment in Play Misty for Me. On more than one occasion he fumbles around his bungalow half naked, inviting the audience’s gaze (and implicitly causing the viewer to, however mildly, identify with Evelyn, the lovelorn voyeur). We can gather, however, that Dave doesn’t mind being an object of attraction (for those of his lovers who aren’t stalkers, anyway). In fact, the attention benefits his swinging lifestyle. Like McBurney, Dave also enjoys playing the field, albeit without a deceitful agenda. No, Dave is merely a guy, as my notes indicate repeatedly, who fucks. This fact is a well-known facet of Dave’s character, as elemental as his wraparound sunglasses or his convertible. It’s also a light-hearted gag among those who know him well, his reactions to which are simultaneously cocksure and breezy. “What is this,” he clucks when his love life comes up, “some kind of Kinsey report?”  

Dave’s extracurricular activities would be all well and good if they didn’t smack of infidelity, a fact of which Eastwood is sure to remind us (not always subtly—Dave has a huge poster of a pig in his bedroom). It’s Dave’s pattern of cheating that drives Tobie out of town, forcing her on a four-month sojourn to Sausalito. Dave may joke about his conquests (“What are we gonna do, go through a whole list?” “Who’s got that kind of time?”), but it’s clear his philandering is a moral failure that hurts those around him. This begs the question, when a woman finally forces Dave to exchange his usual masculine bravado for a taste of victimhood: does he have it coming? Probably not—maybe! There’s no question that Evelyn, who slashes both Dave’s housekeeper and a detective, is terrifying. Similarly, the Farnsworth women, with their predilection towards poisonous mushrooms, cannot merely be considered innocent hens to the corporal’s duplicitous fox. But neither Dave nor McBurney are entirely upstanding or faultless, resulting in two films with fuzzy, if not entirely absent, moral centers.  

In her landmark 1992 text Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol Clover distinguishes the two types of character that fuel horror—a genre to which Misty and The Beguiled are hugely indebted. There is the menacing Other and, at the other end of the knife (or poisonous mushrooms), the victim. While our primary identification lies with the victim, an on-screen mirroring of our own vulnerabilities and smallness, we also see in ourselves flashes of the Other, the projection of our repressed “blind drive to annihilate those toward whom we feel anger, to force satisfaction from those who stimulate us, to wrench food for ourselves if only by actually devouring those who feed us.” 

If Misty and The Beguiled exist in some liminal moral space, it is because the victim/abuser dichotomy in those films is even more precarious, more porous. Eastwood and his female counterparts offer a cinema that stretches that boundary thin, at once acknowledging the desires of smooth operators and cold killers alike. “We are both Red Riding Hood and the Wolf,” writes Clover. “The force of the experience, the horror, comes from ‘knowing’ both sides of the story.” That same force of experience in Play Misty for Me and The Beguiled isn’t in watching a grizzled tough guy, eyes all asquint, get put in his place by raging women. It’s that both films suggest a universe in which red riding hoods and wolves are considered in equal measure.