Hysteria Resides at Heart of the Frantic ‘Crucible’
“The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s play about fear of the devil on the loose in colonial Massachusetts, comes to the screen with powerful credentials: high-profile stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, the impressive Paul Scofield and Joan Allen in supporting roles, Miller himself doing the screenplay and director Nicholas Hytner in his first film since “The Madness of King George.”
And the play itself, which debuted in 1953, has manifested a powerful durability, selling 6 million copies in paperback in this country alone and allowing Miller to recently claim, “I don’t think there has been a week in the past 40-odd years when it hasn’t been on the stage somewhere in the world.”
But whenever a film has hysteria as its subject, as this one does, the danger exists that it will become hysterical itself, and “The Crucible,” all its promise notwithstanding, falls into that trap with a demoralizing thud. Rife with screaming fits and wild-eyed rantings, this film is too frantic to be involving, too much an outpost of bedlam to be believable.
Part of the difficulty may be inherent in adapting a theater piece to the movies, with Miller himself noting in the introduction to his published screenplay that “the play wants to tell, the movie to show . . . the stage scene is written to be vocally projected onto an audience, a movie scene wants to be overheard.” Which makes hysteria on film considerably harder to tolerate than in the stage version.
Written with an eye on the anti-Communist witch hunting of the 1950s, “The Crucible,” as commentators take pains to remind us, continues to be of relevance in today’s age of mindless homophobia and child abuse trials run amok.
And, especially in its second half, when Lewis gets warmed up and Scofield and Allen do the brunt of their impeccable work, the film is not without its quietly effective moments. But they are too few and too late to make sufficient headway against the rampant tide of frenzy that is the film’s signature emotion.
The madness starts early, as Abigail Williams (Ryder) and her cousin Betty sneak out of their Salem house one night in 1692 and join other young girls for a fairly innocent voodoo bacchanal headed by the slave Tituba (Charlayne Woodard).
While most of the girls are content to wish for help with the boys they have crushes on, Abigail has darker thoughts in mind. But before it’s clear what they are, Betty’s father, the fatuous Rev. Parris (Bruce Davison) stumbles on their group and Betty is so traumatized at being caught she goes into a trance.
As modern Americans prefer to blame “the government” for all ills, their colonial counterparts put everything on “the devil,” and little Betty’s spell brings to Salem the respected Rev. Hale (Rob Campbell), a specialist in Satan and all his black arts.
Fearful of being found out, Abigail and her teenage friends raise the stakes by insisting the evil one made them do it. The new sense of empowerment they feel in suddenly being taken seriously encourages them to scream and scream again. Soon the town is rife with accusation and counter-accusation, as the high-decibel charge of witchcraft is manipulated by adults as well as children for their own power and property aims.
And Abigail, the leader, turns out to have an ulterior motive of her own. Though she likes to say, “I am but God’s finger,” she is also the recently banished lover of farmer John Proctor (Day-Lewis), who is trying desperately to reconstruct his relationship with wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen). How far Abigail, flush with her new authority, will go in her vendetta against Elizabeth and how John will respond are finally what all the shouting is about.
Though Ryder’s performance is fatally hampered by the one-note nature of her part, her co-star does somewhat better. Always adept at suffering and looking here like the brooding hero of “Mohicans II: The Colonial Years,” Day-Lewis gets to fully inhabit his part only in the film’s later stages when he attempts to be the community’s voice of sanity.
It is no coincidence that both Day-Lewis and Allen, finely drawn as the wife uncertain of her husband’s love, flourish in their scenes with Scofield as Judge Danforth, the somber leader of a tribunal sent to investigate the witchcraft allegations.
Using his celebrated presence and commanding voice, Scofield emphasizes the sincerity in the judge and makes him a figure of formidable dignity and power, able to wring everything there is out of Miller’s artificial lines. Only in Scofield’s scenes can director Hytner, whose penchant for high emotion served him better in “King George,” be persuaded to pitch things at a human level.
Despite these involving moments, “The Crucible” finally seems too schematic, more useful as an allegory than as drama, and possibly owing that undoubted popularity to its simplistic qualities as much as its insights into group psychology.
It’s also interesting to note that many of the original stage reviewers had similar reservations about the play. The New York Times said, “There is too much excitement and not enough emotion in ‘The Crucible,’ ” and the Herald Tribune’s Walter Kerr called it “a step backward into mechanical parable.” Those seeing the new film version will appreciate the wisdom of those words as much as Miller’s.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense depiction of the Salem witch trials. Times guidelines: scenes of harsh imprisonment and execution.
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Daniel Day-Lewis: John Proctor
Winona Ryder: Abigail Williams
Paul Scofield: Judge Danforth
Joan Allen: Elizabeth Proctor
Bruce Davison: Reverend Parris
Rob Campbell: Reverend Hale
A David V. Picker production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Nicholas Hytner. Producers Robert A. Miller, David V. Picker. Screenplay Arthur Miller, based on his play. Cinematographer Andrew Dunn. Editor Tariq Anwar. Costumes Bob Crowley. Music George Fenton. Production design Lily Kilvert. Art director John Warnke. Set decorator Gretchen Rau. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
* Exclusively at AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City, (310) 553-8900.