Film Reviews

That Old Black Magic

Why a movie of The Crucible now? Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witchcraft trials was first staged on Broadway in 1953, when McCarthyism was still in flower, and it was not a resounding success. Now, of course, it's a staple of rep theaters and high school and college drama societies -- it's the warhorse in Miller's stable of righteously neighing nags.

I've never really believed Miller's assertion that the play was written as a response not only to McCarthyism but to all forms of hysterical political intimidation. I mean, not many archconservatives in 1953 went around championing The Crucible as a commentary on, say, the Stalin show trials in Czechoslovakia. If you hold a copy of the play up to the light, the words "House Un-American Activities Committee" clearly shine through.

And yet the dubious "universality" of The Crucible -- which the great critic Robert Warshow dismantled in a 1953 essay reprinted in The Immediate Experience -- turns out to have some credence after all. Except that the "universality" has less to do with the play's all-purpose political application than with its stagecraft. The Crucible is one hell of a contraption; all you have to do is give it a nudge, and it zooms off on its own power. Miller's gift for high-toned melodrama allows the play to work for audiences who don't know HUAC from a Humvee.

If you are still thinking of The Crucible in terms of the McCarthy era, the movie will likely seem irrelevant. But why limit yourself to history? Miller, who adapted his play, and his director, Nicholas Hytner, realize there are always new fish to fry. Don't relate to the blacklist anymore? Try repressed memory syndrome, fatal attraction syndrome, Proposition 209. Filmed in the clear wide open spaces of Salem (actually Hog Island, Massachusetts), the play reduces itself to a kind of domestic revenge fantasy. Despite all the political finger-pointing in the play, maybe it is this aspect -- the adulterous hubby brought low by a jezebel and redeemed by a Good Wife -- that explains its enduring appeal. It's The Young and the Restless with broomsticks.

The film opens with antic girls cavorting like a pack of pagans under a full moon. Abigail (Winona Ryder) smears chicken blood on her face; the Barbadian slave Tituba (Charlayne Woodard) bubbles her caldron; nearby and unseen, Abigail's uncle, Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison), watches aghast. Found out, the girls evade punishment by claiming the Devil made them do it -- and since they finger many devils among Salem's Puritan elders, the community comes apart in a scourge of trials and hysteria. Accused "witches" can save themselves from the gallows only by "confessing" -- and accusing others.

Almost alone among the elders whom we see, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) sees through the sham. Miller makes Proctor a progenitor of the modern liberal freethinker; it may be 1692, but he stands apart from the crowd of the panicked, the vengeful, the mad. It's easy for him to stand apart -- Hytner hasn't exactly re-created Salem as a real-world place. It's a theatrical construct with everybody in it assigned their appointed roles in the moral shakedown. And of course Miller doesn't complicate matters by depicting Salem in the full flush of its Puritan sympathies. (As Warshow pointed out, the religious community of Salem was "quite as ready to hang a Quaker as a witch.") The film makes it easy to feel superior to these Satan-wracked folk because we are made to feel that, like John Proctor, we too would have the liberality to break through superstition.

But Proctor has his own frightened core, and this also is presented to us in "modern" terms. It is not the Devil that wracks Proctor, but adultery -- with Abigail. Because he will have no more of her -- she still pants for him -- Abigail accuses his wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen). Proctor's wailing over his wife's fate and, soon, his own comes across as the elaborate prostrations of a penitent philanderer. Elizabeth, frosty at the outset, becomes his saintly soul mate. Nothing like being accused of witchcraft to patch a bad marriage.

The British have been getting a lot of mileage in the past few years from their "literate" adaptations of Austen, Forster, Hardy, Shakespeare. Hytner, an English stage director who made his feature film debut with the more freewheeling The Madness of King George, combines with Miller for some stateside classicism. The Crucible is America's rough-and-ready answer to all those carefully mounted British museum pieces. It has the heft of an American "classic." With its air of moral rectitude, its blazing-eyed performances by A-list actors and its political pedigree, The Crucible is Oscar-ready.

Given the creeping retro-ism in movies right now, the resurfacing of The Crucible isn't so strange after all. It presents us with a four-square hero who finally refuses to knuckle under to the State. Miller's view of Proctor posits a world in which a single individual can make a difference. And all that jazz. Proctor martyrs himself for a greater good. His redemption redeems society. It's an exalted view of the common man that also comes across as an exalted view of Arthur Miller.

Of course, Proctor is presented as just about the only hale fellow in all of Salem. In fact, just to be on the safe side, Salem seems bereft of boys, too. It's a wonder that Proctor, striding about open-shirted and fashionably unshaven, has only Abigail on his tail. Day-Lewis acts as if he hasn't quite shaken off The Last of the Mohicans, but at least he's not musty. (His teeth are browned and rottenish, though -- a concession to period accuracy I could have lived without.)

Winona Ryder fits less successfully into period, and her role never transcends vengeful vixenhood. Still, she brings something extra to Abigail's hurt -- a frenzied bewilderment -- that isn't on the page. You believe the damages this girl is capable of.

Joan Allen is magnificent as Elizabeth. It's tough playing a saint, but Allen gives this one so many layers of hurt and pride that you kind of wish the movie had been all about her. Allen inhabits her characters so thoroughly she seems to have lived her whole life in each of them. In Nixon, she transformed Pat Nixon into an almost tragic figure. In The Crucible, the tragedy on view in Salem is best reflected in her resigned, beseeching eyes.

The other actors -- including Paul Scofield as the hanging judge, Danforth; George Gaynes as Danforth's less austere cohort, Sewall; Rob Campbell as Reverend Hale, the cleric who slowly awakes to reason; Peter Vaughan as the magnificently pigheaded farmer Giles Corey; and Bruce Davison -- also do extremely well trying to inhabit their roles fully, even though Miller doesn't give them much room to shimmy.

Miller wrote several years after the play's premiere that he thought he erred in not making the judges even more villainous. Get thee behind me, Satan! What The Crucible needs more of -- and what these actors try to provide -- is a greater sense of human ambiguity. But if The Crucible were richer, it wouldn't be The Crucible, would it?

The Crucible
Directed by Nicholas Hytner. With Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Joan Allen, Paul Scofield and Peter Vaughan.

Rated PG-13.
123 minutes.

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Peter Rainer