One of the most frequently produced of contemporary plays but never before filmed in English, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” doesn’t emerge onscreen with its full impact intact. Designed as a class production from top to bottom, this handsomely mounted tale of witch hunts, religious persecution, sexual revenge and social hysteria in 17th-century Salem, Mass., still possesses the power to stir up wrenching emotion through its elemental crises and conflicts. But neither the establishing dramatic linchpin nor the final conversion of conscience is terribly convincing, leaving this pared-down rendition of the original work diminished in power and meaning as well. Aura of importance, prestige of the participants and likelihood of some critical support will effectively launch this as a heavyweight year-end attraction, and enough of the piece’s enduring values remain to make it a reasonable commercial bet among middle and upscale audiences.
Although Miller’s historically based drama has proved itself applicable to just about any time period and geopolitical setting, it was admittedly inspired as an allegory about the anti-Communist government witch hunts of the post-war period, in which many careers were ruined and disrupted and friend was pitted against friend in a frenzy of paranoia, finger-pointing and ideological extremism. Contempo U.S. parallel may be seen most closely in the resurgent intolerance of certain religious movements, which foster the sort of “either you’re with us or against us” attitude that precipitates the tragic consequences of the playwright’s story.
Without identifying time or place, director Nicholas Hytner’s picture begins with a group of teenage Puritan girls secretly gathering in a glade around a boiling pot presided over by a young black woman. They soon are wallowing in trancelike reveries, and one young lady in particular, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), gets so carried away that she smears blood on her face and calls for the death of the wife of one John Proctor.
Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), an industrious farmer, had an illicit affair with Abigail when she worked in his house, but when his wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen) got wind of it, Abigail was tossed out. After the revelry by the cauldron, witnessed by the local Rev. Parris (Bruce Davison), Abigail attempts to revive the liaison with John, but he resolutely refuses, rededicating himself to his family.
Part of the problem at the outset is that, just as was the case in “The Age of Innocence,” there is absolutely no apparent sexual frisson between Day-Lewis and Ryder, depriving the story of one of its motivating factors. This, combined with the relative hokeyness of the girls’ carrying on, means that the picture’s motor stalls before it even gets started.
However, things eventually pick up as the larger forces of opposition come into play. Alarmed by the deep sleep into which two of the girls have fallen, local authorities call in an outsider, Rev. Hale (Rob Campbell), who manages to prompt the Barbados native to confess to witchery. Aroused by this breakthrough, Abigail, backed by the other girls, begins accusing other women, and the hysteria begins.
When it appears that Satan may indeed be on the loose in Salem, the eminent Judge Danforth (Paul Scofield) arrives to lead the investigation and root out the plague at all costs. Sternly religious yet convinced of his absolute legal propriety, Danforth lends total credence to the girls’ wildest claims, with the result that arrests and trials mount up at an alarming rate. The way the game is played, the accused can escape the noose if they confess to being possessed, but no legitimate line of defense carries any weight; even being able to prove that one was elsewhere at the time of an alleged attack on one of the girls is insufficient, as the devil’s evil spirit is strong enough to strike on its own.
So emboldened that she now believes she is “God’s finger,” Abigail soon enough turns it upon her rival, Elizabeth, a woman considered beyond reproach. At length, Abigail’s outrage forces John to reveal their adultery, but even though the girls’ credibility is beginning to seem highly dubious, Danforth by now has so much invested in the case that he is compelled to proceed with executions and his prosecution of John Proctor.
There is no denying that the elemental and universal issues raised by “The Crucible” are stirring, even galvanizing, and the film does not exactly muzzle them. More incidentally, the work astutely pinpoints the sexual Puritanism inherent in the American character and excellently observes the potential wages of infidelity in a marriage. But it may be that Miller has somewhat overly streamlined his text in the interest of “cinema” by cutting back on the confrontational trial scenes and moving a good deal of the action out-of-doors; the picture succeeds in not feeling like a talky stage play, and yet some of the talk remains among the best material in it.
The cast is stellar, yet less than entirely satisfactory. Day-Lewis would seem ideally cast and brings fervor to his playing of John Proctor. But there is something missing, particularly at the end, when a combination of moral insight, religious conviction and personal pride provokes a fateful decision that should seem like the pinnacle of noble self-sacrifice but actually seems almost questionable as enacted here.
Once again not at her best in a period role, Ryder proves just borderline plausible as the sexual avenger who sets the deadly wheels in motion with her reckless accusations. Joan Allen endows the doubly wronged, weathered Elizabeth with an understated power.
But the dominant performance comes from Paul Scofield in a virtuoso display of pure acting technique. Blessed with a role already preeminent due to its authority and status as the principal heavy, the great actor all but masticates his dialogue with the glee of a gourmand, to his own delight as well as that of the audience.
Most notable supporting turn comes from Rob Campbell, whose initially aggressive cleric eventually emerges as the main voice of reason. Also good are Davison as a toadying clergyman and George Gaynes as a cohort of Danforth’s.
Director Hytner moves things along in brisk fashion, and yet he seemed somewhat more at ease with the camera in his exhilarating first feature, “The Madness of King George.” The hysterical girls seem a tad artificial and over-choreographed in their swooning and, more crucially, there is insufficient feeling for the importance and full character of religious belief in the Puritan community. Perhaps it is unfair to ask the impossible, but one still misses the artistic rigor and profound thoughtfulness that a great religious director such as Carl Dreyer or Robert Bresson might have applied to the subject. The more prosaic approach in effect here leaves the climactic spiritual transformation essentially unconvincing.
Shot on location on Hog Island, Mass., pic has a spare but lived-in quality, thanks in great measure to Lilly Kilvert’s production design and Bob Crowley’s costumes.
Previous film version was the 1957 French-language “Les Sorcieres de Salem” (The Witches of Salem), starring Yves Montand and Simone Signoret and directed by Raymond Rouleau, all of whom had participated two years earlier in the hugely successful Paris stage production. In 1967, CBS telecast an original vid version starring George C. Scott, Colleen Dewhurst, Tuesday Weld and Melvyn Douglas.