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Sunday, December 04, 2016

The Crucible

No witch movie marathon would be complete without the film version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, his play from the 1950s that uses the Salem witch trials as an allegory for anti-communist hysteria. No American film had been made of the play until 1996, when Nicholas Hytner directed. I thought it was unfairly overlooked (it did terrible business) and that notion was reinforced when I watched it again yesterday. It is gripping.

The film is faithful to the play, which is fairly faithful to history, but not completely. The one big change Miller made was to age Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) from 12 to 17, and to make her lust for John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) the primary motive for her faking being bewitched. There are some other things here and there but the overall sensation of paranoia and hysteria are there--a small community, gripped by panic, with a legal system full of hypocrisy and upside-down logic.

Day-Lewis is a farmer, and you really get the crazy feeling that there he is, hearing rumors about girls accusing others of being witches, not realizing he will end up accused himself, standing in water, screaming "God is dead!" If this were a comedy, it would be like one of those "Want to get away?" commercials. But it is most definitely not funny. The Crucible is dead serious, and watching it gave me the willies more than any film about real witches.

The basic story is that slave from Barbados, Tituba, puts some ideas in some girls' heads about spells and such. When they are caught dancing around a fire by Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) they, led by Ryder, dream up a scheme that they were bewitched by Tituba, who is tortured for names (here we get the parallel with the House Un-American Activity Committee). Informing and confessing are the only ways to save your neck, and it boggles the mind how the panel of judges wouldn't see how this would lead to lying, whether it was 1692 or 1952.

There is some powerful writing and acting here. Day-Lewis is incomparable, and the one Oscar nomination went to Joan Allen as his wife. But the show is stolen by Paul Scofield, as Judge Danforth. Scofield could reduce reams of lines to just a nod. You can see him struggle to not be a hanging judge, but he can't go against what he thinks is the law. And, in another touch of the McCarthy days, he tells Ryder she is "mistaken" to accuse the wife of a minister. As in the '50s, there were those who couldn't be touched.

There's some beautiful, natural light photography by Andrew Dunn. Hytner, who has experienced great success as a theater director, seemed destined for better things after The Madness of King George and this film, but since it was a box office dud he hasn't do too much film directing lately. Somebody should give him another prestigious project.

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