The Dangers of Uppity Post-Stonewall Liberated Homosexuals
This works our way back to Play Misty, and let’s not move on without noting that Heims also wrote an obscure 1962 wonder called The Devil’s Hand, which is badly done but with intriguing premises that foreshadow the Eastwood picture. It’s about a man who’s happy with his girlfriend but dreams of a blonde in the clouds. Then he walks into a doll shop and meets a girl who casually explains that she worships the evil god Gamba, who can make all things right for you, and if the guy wants to make it with her, all he has to do is join the cult. So our guy goes what the hell and signs up!
It’s like a Tiki club where pudgy white businessmen slum while black people dance and play drums. Soon our man is rolling in dough, but his ex still hurts from where that needle was stuck into her voodoo doll’s abdomen. He tries to make good without betraying his new devil mistress, but the latter just doesn’t understand. So it’s all about the danger of dominating, sexually liberated women. And nine years later—Play Misty for Me!
As for the dangers of uppity post-Stonewall liberated homosexuals, look no further than the Eastwood-directed The Eiger Sanction (1975). This action picture is dull in a particularly ‘70s way, despite its mountain-climbing set pieces. It plods in a four-square manner as a retired art-loving hitman is blackmailed back into action (don’t trust the system, man) to find out who betrayed some operation and terminate said miscreant with dispatch.
This is unthrilling stuff, but what there is of a plot is stolen by Jack Cassidy as an outrageously stereotyped, aggressively limp-wristed villain who flounces around with a dog called Faggot! (“Faggot! Come here!”) With his hunky bodyguard, he seems to be a colorful distraction from the objective (since he’s not the actual mountain-climbing traitor) but a kind of displaced object for the audience’s hostility, since somebody so defiantly deviant must receive the treatment he deserves. However, don’t trust women either, not even black chicks. In short, don’t trust anybody, just pursue your hedonistic pleasures and your superior cultivated tastes.
This is based on a novel by the pseudonymous single-named Trevanian, and the shrieking homophobia must be explained partly in terms of the era’s determination to be hip and with-it in a world in which we’re all modern, sophisticated adults who have heard of homosexuals and such, and the newly emancipated Hollywood production code which permits characters to pronounce words on screen that no one was ever allowed to say before, and refer to things openly that no was ever allowed to admit before. It was somewhat like the sound of Archie Bunker flushing the toilet on TV, seemingly gratuitous but groundbreaking such as it was. The stereotypes were the first step, and they really look no more progressive in, say, The Boys in the Band, but at least Cassidy’s in-your-face character isn’t in anybody’s closet.
We can get a glimpse of the paradoxes of this germinally liberating era from Gore Vidal’s review of the novel in The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal. It’s actually a piece in which he reviews all of the top 10 best-sellers on the New York Times list for January 1973, including Trevanian’s novel. He says presciently that the book can easily be adapted to the screen, and indeed it was—quite faithfully, to judge by his summary.
Vidal finds the novel “sometimes well-written” and “pretty good” as an “Ian Fleming byblow”. He writes, “Fleming once remarked that he wrote his books for warm-blooded heterosexuals. I suspect that Mr. Trevanian (Ms. Trevanian?) is writing for tepid-blooded bisexuals—that is to say, a majority of those who prefer reading kinky thrillers to watching that television set ... Mr. Trevanian has recourse to that staple of recent fiction the Fag Villain. Since kikes and niggers can no longer be shown as bad people, only commies (pre-Nixon) and fags are certain to arouse the loathing of all decent fiction addicts. I will say for Mr. Trevanian that his Fag Villain is pretty funny—an exquisite killer named Miles Mellough with a poodle named Faggot. In fact, Mr. Trevanian in his comic mood is almost always beguiling, and this bright scenario ought to put new life into the Bond product.”
Just so you know where Vidal is coming from, the only book he really praises in that essay is Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, concerning which he states: “I am particularly puzzled (and pleased) by the success of Mary Renault ... In a dozen popular books Mary Renault has made the classical era alive, forcing even the dullest of book-chat writers to recognize that bisexuality was once our culture’s norm and that Christianity’s perversion of this human fact is the aberration and not the other way around. I cannot think how Miss Renault has managed to do what she has done, but the culture is the better for her work.”
Vidal, who is no slouch on queer readings or on contributing to alternative sexualities in the popular novel, is alert to yet alive to the subversive possibilities of the Fag Villain schtick, a sign of “sophistication” in pop literature and cinema of the day that appeals both to regressive impulses and the desire for “kinky” transgression within the consumers. I’ve heard the device also called Killer Fag and Psycho Fag, but they’re all subsets of the Dead Fag trope, which embraces everything from sensitive suicides to the bashing in Brokeback Mountain. Somehow I prefer the ones who go out shooting.
In a review at DooneysCafe.com, Stan Persky points out notable similarities between Trevanian’s novel, as reviewed by Vidal, and The Da Vinci Code, including the professor hero and the albino. Yes, there’s an albino representing sinister power in Eiger, another baroque element handled with ‘70s flatness.
From The Beguiled
And now let’s turn our attention to the movie here that most merits it, The Beguiled (1970). It opens with Civil War photos, presumably by Matthew Brady, and then we hear Eastwood’s low voice moaning a traditional song about not letting your boys be soldiers, and then comes a breathtakingly beautiful crane shot lilting down through Spanish moss in sepia, gradually turning to color as a little girl stumbles on the bloody leg of a giant man who collapses at her feet. This is the Yankee soldier (or “bluebelly”) Corporal John McBurney, and he’s carried into the shelter of the Farnsworth Academy for Young Ladies (filmed at a historic Louisiana plantation), where debutantes learn vital skills such as French and how to eat with a napkin.
McBurney’s a sly one. Right away he begins working the girls, playing on their vulnerable points to make himself acceptable until he heals enough to make an escape, and so they won’t turn him over to the Confederate forces. For example, he tries to convince the slave woman that she should be on his side, but she’s too no-nonsense for his slick talk and gives him philosophical arguments about his own freedom.
We know he’s a liar, because when he tells about himself, we see flashbacks to the contradictory truth. We also know what each woman and girl is thinking, thanks to odd occasional voice-overs. One of the beauties of this Southern gothic tale, aside from the plentiful visual grace notes provided by cinematographer Bruce Surtees and directed by Siegel (far from the routine hackwork of Coogan’s Bluff), is that McBurney at all times fancies himself in control, a fox in the henhouse, a cat among the pigeons.
Well, he’s stirring them up all right, but he’ll learn that their jealousies and sexual politics aren’t going to be so easy to manipulate in his favor. Again in the Eastwood oeuvre, a man who thinks he’s in control, and especially around women, finds out he’s not quite.
Another small pleasure is the score by Lalo Schifrin—again, a far cry from the functional suspense cues he provided for Coogan’s Bluff. Here he gets internal and foreboding, sometimes with period idioms like drums and harpsichord. The script is by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, listed pseudonymously as John B. Sherry and Grimes Grice; Siegel and Eastwood didn’t like the happy ending Maltz had tacked onto the story and changed it (now there’s a sign of the early ‘70s!).
This material, from a novel by Thomas Cullinan and really evoking Ambrose Bierce, brings out everyone’s best and is anchored not so much by Eastwood as by the performances of the women, especially Geraldine Page as Miss Farnsworth and the awkwardly vulnerable Elizabeth Hartman as her only teacher. This claustrophobic hothouse tale is a woman’s movie, and perhaps a subdued horror film, disguised as a war story.
Aside from trailers, the only extras in this set are several on Play Misty for Me which were already on the previous DVD release of this title. These include an interview with Richard Schickel, who draws a few parallels between Play Misty and The Beguiled, citing them as evidence of Eastwood’s early playing with his persona in stories of sexual politics.