Goody Proctor turned Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees into a newt...but she got better.
"I am but God's finger."—Abigail (Winona Ryder)
Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible, famously inspired by the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation into communist sympathies in Hollywood, has become an American classic. Taking the real-life events that occurred in 17th-century Salem, when more than a dozen people were executed for witchcraft, Miller constructed a powerful, chilling exploration of mob mentality and paranoia. In the 1996 film adaptation, which arrives on DVD for the first time, Miller's story is presented as a relatively straightforward historical drama, but one whose timelessness is undimmed.
Facts of the Case
When a group of Salem girls is discovered dancing in the woods by the village minister, Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison, X-Men), they panic: Dancing is cause for a whipping. To cover up their guilt, they concoct a tale of witchcraft, saying that slave Tituba (Charlayne Woodard, Unbreakable) forced them to join in her satanic rites. Thus thrown to the wolves, Tituba begins naming names, and the girls chime in to give credence to the story. In this way, out of self-preservation begins a witch hunt that will bring terror to Salem and result in nearly twenty hangings.
Scheming Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder, Girl, Interrupted), the girls' unofficial leader, also has a personal agenda to pursue. Her former lover John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York) has rejected her out of loyalty to his wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen, Pleasantville). If Abigail can maneuver Elizabeth's execution as a witch, she believes she will have John all to herself. As the earnest Reverend Hale (Rob Campbell, Boys Don't Cry) and the distinguished Reverend Danforth (Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons) converge upon the village to get to the bottom of this apparent outbreak of devilry, the village is thrown into uproar. Neighbor turns against neighbor, and squabbles over land suddenly take on supernatural significance. When Elizabeth is arrested and John forces young Mary Warren (Karron Graves) to reveal her playmates' pretense, he may end up paying for his actions with his life—or his soul.
Statistics show that, every three seconds, somewhere in America a child shrieks, "I saw Goody Osborne with the devil!" Every American between the ages of eight and fifty-eight has probably participated in a school production of The Crucible or has, at the very least, witnessed one. Since so many of us have grown up cheek by jowl with Miller's play, it can be easy to forget what makes it so powerful and enduring. Its depiction of the baser tendencies of human nature—our willingness to seize upon scapegoats to save ourselves and even to serve more ambitious ends—is powerful and horrifyingly real. It's all too easy to find modern parallels to the literal witch hunt depicted in the drama—indeed, in their commentary, Miller and director Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) provide a laundry list of them—but I will leave that to others. On its own terms, as just one instance of a recurring tragedy in human history, this film version of The Crucible still packs a powerful punch.
Miller himself scripted the film from his own play, and no doubt this is why the film retains the integrity and eloquence of the original stage work. At the same time, it "opens up" the action to show events that originally took place off stage, such as the girls' dance in the woods and Proctor's tête-à-tête with Abigail in which she admits that there had been no witchcraft. Miller's distinctive version of seventeenth-century language is intact, although the northern accents are a little haphazard. (As a Southerner, I find it refreshing to see a different area of the United States represented by funny accents for once.) Also contributing to the opening-up of the play is the sweeping, elegant cinematography by Andrew Dunn (Gosford Park): The fluid camera movement draws us into the initial panic and hysteria and also makes this little village come to life instead of seeming like a stiff historical tableau.
An outstanding cast also brings the century-old events to vivid, passionate life. From the spineless fussbudget Parris, portrayed so perfectly by Bruce Davison, to the vulnerable, terrorized Mary Warren, to the dry, self-assured authority of acting great Paul Scofield as the doom-bringing Danforth, every casting decision is exactly right. The three people who form the love triangle at the heart of the hysteria likewise ring true in practically every detail. I am not a fan of Winona Ryder, but her performance here is terrifyingly effective. Fierce, self-willed, and ruthless, her Abigail is a force of anger and passion that is capable of toppling an entire village to gratify her own desires. Daniel Day-Lewis proves once again that he deserves his stature as one of the great living screen actors. As John Proctor, an otherwise sensible man tormented by a guilty conscience, he is compelling and moving. And Joan Allen, in perhaps the film's most difficult role, turns in an Oscar-nominated performance of poignant subtlety. Elizabeth Proctor is a woman misunderstood by everyone around her as cold and unfeeling, when the fact is that her insecurity makes her afraid to reveal the intensity of her feelings. Allen skillfully hints at the vulnerability and longing behind her seemingly impassive face.
I could continue to reel off many more instances of excellent performances, but I will content myself with just one more observation regarding this area. In a film thronging with so many characters, casting is critical in allowing us to tell all the villagers apart, and I was delighted to see so many distinctive faces among the cast. All the actors give fine performances, but it's especially satisfying that we can identify people by virtue of their distinctive, individual appearances even if we can't remember which Goody or Reverend is which. These people who lived and died four hundred years ago feel as real, as distinct, and as familiar as our own neighbors.
Convincing production design and location—actually an island off the coast of Massachusetts—add to the sense of realism and credibility. George Fenton's understated musical score, which utilizes period instruments, provides just the right degree of emotional enhancement. The widescreen transfer is particularly valuable for a film like this one, whose cinematography is skillfully used to create a sense of space, showing us vistas of this promising new land that is already falling prey to corruption. The visual presentation is also unusual and effective: The entire film has a slightly diffuse, even misty look, which I believe is deliberate rather than a flaw in the transfer. The clarity and detail are there, and it's not picture grain but a sense of softness to the light that is present throughout. Director Nicholas Hytner does not comment on the technicalities of lighting the film, but this diffuse quality, and the gentleness of the color palette, suggest that natural rather than artificial light was used. I saw no flaws in this transfer; even though some specks appeared in film clips in the featurettes, the movie itself looks pristine and exactly as I recall seeing it during its theatrical release.
Audio quality is likewise fine, and I think it is a reflection of the nature of the drama rather than a shortcoming of the audio presentation that dialogue is sometimes difficult to make out. When the Massachusetts accents became too thick, when dialogue overlapped, and when characters shrieked accusations, I was very grateful for the presence of English subtitles. Fenton's musical score is nicely balanced with the dialogue, never becoming overpowering. The use of surround sound adds to the dramatic quality of some parts of the soundtrack: The group of girls, yelping like pack animals or keening like sirens, produce noises that truly chill the blood.
This DVD release takes the opportunity to redesign the film's packaging and create a look quite different from the VHS cover, and I consider this a point in the DVD's favor: The VHS packaging always seemed a bit too nostalgic to me, recalling Hallmark Hall of Fame productions rather than an unnerving drama of paranoia and betrayal. I'm happy to say that the DVD cover graphics portray much more accurately the stark, somber quality of the movie. However, I am miffed that Scofield and Allen aren't featured (or even named), since they are so important to the film.
Extras on this disc are a distinctly mixed bag. The film's trailer (in widescreen) is provided, which is always welcome, but the two featurettes are practically worthless. Each is very brief: The choppy "Conversation with Daniel Day-Lewis and Arthur Miller" is only five minutes long and is padded with film clips, and the making-of featurette, which is likewise clip-heavy and actually repeats interview footage from the "Conversation," clocks in at only seven minutes (although at least it includes brief interview segments with Ryder and Allen). By far the most valuable supplement is the feature commentary by Arthur Miller and director Nicholas Hytner. The two were evidently recorded separately, as they do not interact, but this makes it all the more interesting when their commentaries reveal different perspectives on the film. This is one of the meatiest commentaries I've heard: It touches on the historical events that took place in Salem, the less distant historical and (especially) political influences on Miller, modern manifestations of the witch-hunt mentality, the psychological forces at work, the recreation of the historical setting, Miller's background in the theater, Day-Lewis's famous method of preparing for a role, and much more. I should note that this commentary, although definitely worthwhile, is sometimes heavy going: Miller is much less effective as a speaker than as a writer, and in addition the relentless political correctness of the commentary became a little grating to me. Hytner's hero worship of Miller is understandable but also becomes a touch wearisome. Despite what I saw as its shortcomings, however, it's a thorough and illuminating feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Crucible in its original theatrical form has been scrutinized and interpreted so thoroughly that it would be futile to subject it to further analysis here. This much I will say, however: The commentary by Hytner and Miller is so busy looking at the big picture that I felt that it loses sight of something crucial to the story—that just one selfish girl whose boyfriend has dumped her can do an amazing amount of damage. Sure, we can look at society, at dictatorships, at sexual repression, at power-hungry politicos, but the personal level at which this story operates is also worthy of scrutiny—and contributes exponentially to the universality and timeless relevance of the story.
As the first English-language film version of a classic of American theater, The Crucible is an important piece of cinema. Moreover, in addition to being a worthy embodiment of Miller's play, it is also a powerful drama beautifully acted. Especially at the low price at which it is being offered, I don't hesitate to recommend it.
She's a witch! Burn her!
Ahem. The court finds Fox guilty of some truly feeble extras but will exercise tolerance due to the presence of a fine commentary track. All other parties are hereby declared not guilty…but if Abigail Williams sets foot in Salem again, I say we stone the harlot.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary with Director Nicholas Hytner and Writer Arthur Miller
Review content copyright © 2004 Amanda DeWees; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.