Two Mules for Sister Sara opens playfully. Then it gets serious. Then it gets playful. Then it gets serious. Then it gets playful. Director Siegel never lets it keep one tone for too long, not until the end, when he shows what happens when you take it all too seriously. After a hundred minutes of occasionally violent, occasionally indiscreet situation comedy, Sister Sara all of a sudden turns into this very real battle scene during the second French invasion of Mexico.
And it gets there beautifully. The first two-thirds of the film is a road movie. Mercenary Clint Eastwood runs across nun-in-danger Shirley MacLaine and saves her. She takes advantage of his pious nature, softly conning him into being her escort as she works to help the revolutionaries fight the French. Eastwood complains, but not too much and it’s only set over a couple days. Things move very fast in Sister Sara, it’s one misadventure to the next.
And it’s just MacLaine and Eastwood. There are pretty much no other main speaking roles in that first two-thirds. You can probably count the close-ups on one hand. Maybe not at all if it weren’t for action sequences–which feature Siegel using some kind of terrible zoom-ins, which are about the only thing wrong with Siegel’s direction. His two or three uses of a contemporarily popular visual device. When it counts, during that crazy battle scene finish, Siegel isn’t messing around.
Anyway. It’s just MacLaine and Eastwood. They bicker, they sort of seem to flirt, which creeps everyone out–particularly Eastwood, there’s the adorable Ennio Morricone music. It sort of cradles MacLaine through the idea of a nun in a Spaghetti Western. Because Two Mules for Sister Sara is an American production shot in Mexico starring Clint Eastwood. Siegel doesn’t go for that directing style, but when he does have a similar shot? It’s eerie. So MacLaine doesn’t belong, especially not as a nun. And there’s this playful Morricone music to keep everyone at ease.
It’s a road movie.
Then it turns into a movie about revolutionaries mounting an attack and it gets real serious. That shift in tone works so well because Sister Sara has been setting MacLaine and Eastwood up to do more than banter. Their relationship escalates perfectly for comedy and perfectly for action drama. It’s perfectly plotted up until that transition and then there’s sort of second movie. The first two-thirds is just prologue. Siegel, editor Robert F. Shugrue, and composer Morricone pull off something spectacular with that second-to-third act transition.
Great photography from Gabriel Figueroa. He does really well with the comedy Western, has a few problems with the revolution drama–but it’s hard lighting, cavern lighting, and he’s trying–and then he nails it on the battle scene.
And excellent supporting turn from Manolo Fábregas. He’s the Juarista colonel. He really helps out in the final act hand-off as well. The present action jumps a number of days and the last scene could be stagy–it’s in a cavern, it’s Eastwood, MacLaine, and Fábregas having a heated conversation–but it doesn’t. Siegel’s directing of the actors is good throughout; sometimes it’s amazing. Sister Sara has a handful of difficult expository scenes and Siegel moves them along thanks to his direction of his actors.
It’s even more interesting as MacLaine and Siegel apparently hated working together.
Siegel, Shugrue, and Morricone do such exceptional work–and MacLaine and Eastwood are so game in their performances–Two Mules for Sister Sara is almost too good for what it wants to do. It’s an unintentional overachiever.
Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Albert Maltz, based on a story by Budd Boetticher; director of photography, Gabriel Figueroa; edited by Robert F. Shugrue; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Martin Rackin and Carroll Case; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Shirley MacLaine (Sara), Clint Eastwood (Hogan), Manolo Fábregas (Colonel Beltran), and Alberto Morin (General LeClaire).