This is a cringe-worthy crisis in, what turns out to be a horror film, as Martha (Geraldine Page), the head of the household decides to amputate John McBurney’s (Clint Eastwood) leg. What makes matters even worse and adds to the terror of the situation is that Martha reads instructions from a book on medicine.
The overhead shot of McBurney strapped to the table establishes the relationships between the characters in the scene. There is a single shot of an incision made with a knife or scalpel, a detail of bloody hands, but it’s the hacksaw and the really effective use of sound that make the scene work so well. It’s the grating sound of the blade cutting through bone, pausing for a moment, and then continuing that makes this scene so uncomfortable to watch.
We don’t see the amputation itself and the scene is constructed out of suggestive shots (shadows), reaction shots and combining the primary action with reactions in the same frame. An example of this is the silhouette of the hacksaw in the foreground and Edwina’s (Elizabeth Hartman) reaction in the background. The mirror is also used effectively to combine multiple perspectives into a single frame.
The little girl Amy, collects wild mushrooms so that they can poison McBurney during dinner. The tension is successfully established as everyone around the table, except for Edwina and McBurney, are complicit in the plot to murder McBurney. The irony is that, after taking a few bites of the mushrooms, McBurney announces that he and Edwina are planning to marry and will be leaving in the morning.
True to the book, this film does not have a happy ending.