Face-Off: The Beguiled 1971 vs. Play Misty for Me

Director Sofia Coppola's take on THE BEGUILED will be in theatres by the end of this month, so now is the time to look back on the original BEGUILED, which was a 1971 Clint Eastwood / Don Siegel collaboration. I wanted this week's Face-Off to deal with that film in some way, and when considering movies to put up against it there was one which really volunteered itself. It's another 1971 release that shares star Eastwood and has at its core the same idea of Eastwood facing the fury of a woman scored. That film is PLAY MISTY FOR ME. Eastwood was at the mercy of women in two separate films in 1971... so which one does it better?
The year is 1863, right in the middle of the American Civil War. Wounded Union soldier John McBurney is found in the Mississippi countryside by a young student from the nearby Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, a school populated entirely by females. McBurney becomes the only man there when they take him in and nurse him to health, against their better judgment. Knowing that the women could hand him over to passing Confederate soldiers at any given moment, McBurney turns up the charm and starts wooing various residents. Problem is, he's too successful at charming the women, and must face the vengeance of scorned lovers when they realize that none of them are his one and only. Based on a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, THE BEGUILED rides on the questionable concept that a house full of women will fall all over themselves if a man shows them some attention, but the setting and the characters make it uniquely interesting.
PLAY MISTY FOR ME is FATAL ATTRACTION sixteen years before FATAL ATTRACTION, just with a less morally complicated lead character. When radio DJ Dave Garver meets Evelyn Draper in a bar one night after work, he quickly recognizes her as a regular caller to his show, the one who's always requesting the song "Misty". Evelyn seems like a nice, normal person at first, but after she and Dave sleep together in a one or two night stand it becomes clear that she has some serious mental problems. Evelyn has a violent temper and is totally obsessed with Dave - she has been in love with him since before they even met, and she is willing to kill people to make sure she and her reluctant beloved end up together. This "violent, obsessed lover" concept has been the basis of a lot of movies, especially after FATAL ATTRACTION, and it's usually fun when done right. PLAY MISTY FOR ME does it right, and gets extra points for being one of the first films to do it.
It's really not that tough to understand why the women at Farnsworth's fall so hard for McBurney, because the man is played by a youthful and handsome Clint Eastwood, who exudes an amazing level of deceptive charm in the role. McBurney is a liar and a master manipulator who will say anything he thinks he needs to in order to get through any given situation. He'll lie about his religion, what he did in the war, the favors he'll do for someone, and the way he feels about someone. It's clear that he would be willing to promise the world to every woman in the school, and would sleep with any of them without hesitation, as long as it got him to safety. The movie wouldn't work if it had a leading man any less charming than Eastwood, but with him in the role it's easy to see why the teachers and students are so enthralled by McBurney.
To ensure that the audience will be with him every step of the way, Clint Eastwood's Dave Garver is a perfectly acceptable bland and generic hero. He's a guy who's starting to get some attention for his hosting style while presenting five hours of mellow groove at night on a local radio station in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Women are into him and he takes advantage, a little too much, which causes trouble with the serious relationship he really wants to have. When Evelyn shows that she's more into being with him than he's comfortable with, he does his best to let her down gently, and he even keeps his composure when she starts getting angry and violent. He's just "A Good Guy", and there's nothing particularly memorable about him. It's a role that could have been played by pretty much any actor and it wouldn't make much difference.
The women who become the most infatuated with McBurney are teacher Edwina Dabney, who has trust issues thanks to her adulterous father, but starts to let her guard down as McBurney convinces her that he's a better man than her father; 17-year-old student Carol, who Edwina considers to be a hussy, and who proves her teacher right by aggressively pursuing a sexual relationship with McBurney; 12-year-old student Amy, who falls for McBurney as soon as he kisses her to keep her quiet as Confederate soldiers ride by; and Miss Martha Farnsworth, who is unsure about taking McBurney in at first, but starts to feel drawn to him while having flashbacks to moments with her previous lover. Who was her brother. Each is drawn to McBurney in different ways - Edwina falls in love with him, Carol really wants to have sex with him, Amy has an innocent first crush on him, and Martha's interest has a twisted undercurrent.
If an "obsessed lover" film is to work, the majority of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the obsessed lover herself/himself, and this is a category in which PLAY MISTY FOR ME truly shines. The obsessed and violent Evelyn Draper is played by Jessica Walter, who does a great job performing the two different sides of her character. When Evelyn is being nice, you can't see any reason why it shouldn't work out between her and Dave, even if she is a bit too clingy. But when her hair-trigger temper is activated, it's very jarring. Evelyn starts stalking Dave, watching his every move and getting more and more jealous. She trashes his home, she attempts suicide (just like in FATAL ATTRACTION), she goes after her rival for Dave's affections, and attacks anyone who gets in her way. Dave is our hero, but the movie belongs to Evelyn, and Walter's performance makes it worth seeing.
When the women figure out that McBurney has been playing all of them, the immediate response causes him to re-injure his hurt leg... which then needs to be amputated in a cringe-inducing at-home amateur surgery which may or may not have been necessary to avoid gangrene. McBurney doesn't take this lightly, heightening the tensions between them even more, until most of the women decide that the only way to deal with him is to kill him.
When Evelyn snaps and turns to violence, she prefers a bladed weapon. Not only does she use a blade on herself, cutting her own wrists, she also uses blades on others. Caught destroying Dave's place, she attacks and cuts up his maid. Later she kidnaps Dave's girlfriend, goes after Dave with a knife, and in the middle of it all kills a man by burying a pair of scissors in his chest. If Evelyn had a higher body count, we'd be calling her a slasher.
Director Don Siegel found a terrific location to make his film in and shot much of it like a sweaty, Southern, Civil War drama. It's made up of conversations between McBurney and the women, but there's still a palpable, building tension throughout - we know this is all going to go terribly wrong, we're just waiting for something to snap. There are also some good moments of suspense here and there where we're concerned that McBurney might be found by the Confederates. When things get even darker and turn to painful horror, you begin to think that maybe he would have had a better fate if he had been captured.
PLAY MISTY FOR ME was Clint Eastwood's feature directorial debut, and he did a serviceable job with it. There's not much in the way of visual flourish, he just brings the story to the screen in a straightforward manner. It looks like a typical 1970s drama, with some nice dramatic lighting. The most notable thing about it is the imagery of picturesque Carmel-by-the-Sea locations - it's clear that Eastwood loved this place, it's no surprise that he went on to be the mayor for a couple years. When Evelyn wields a blade, Eastwood also proves adept at shooting moments of bloody slashing.
PLAY MISTY FOR ME is a strong thriller, but it can't pull off the win when competing against THE BEGUILED. THE BEGUILED has more to it; there are more interesting layers to the story and it's a more stylish film. It's really great in a wonderfully twisted way, and it's going to be very tough for Sofia Coppola to live up to it with her own adaptation of Cullinan's novel. I look forward to seeing how she did, but regardless of how the new version has come out, we'll always have the original film to appreciate.

Do you think I chose the right winner, or do you think PLAY MISTY FOR ME should have been the victor? Share your thoughts in the comments section below, and let us know if you'll be seeing Coppola's THE BEGUILED. If you'd like to suggest ideas for future Face-Offs, you can contact me at [email protected].



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