THE CRUCIBLE was the second film version of Arthur Miller’s cornerstone 1953 play. The playwright adapted the screenplay, which was directed Nicholas Hytner. Splendidly handled, with wonderful acting, the searing period drama, using the 1692 Salem witch trials as allegory for another, more recent example of public hysteria and political-judicial opportunism and cowardice—the Blacklist—failed to find an audience in 1996, ignored by a history-ignorant public gobbling up the likes of Independence Day and The Nutty Professor. *
Salem, Massachusetts, three centuries and a bit back: the fractious Puritan community is scandalized when a group of teen-aged girls caper wildly in the woods, seemingly possessed. Convinced that Satan is at hand, the flummoxed pastor brings in witch-seeking judges, while several members of the town use the trials to settle grudges and otherwise profit. Justice being what is too often is, the innocent suffer. With some strict-accuracy adjustments for dramatic flow (age of participants, condensing time-lines), Miller’s brilliant dissection of the emotion-whipsawed people (everyone plays a real-life character) and their mixed-motive actions is fascinating in its frightening trajectory and unfortunately still too-close-to-home for comfort, given how great a role distortion plays in whatever-the-Hades is left of the public square these days. “Hell and Heaven grapple on our backs, and all our old pretenses ripped away. God’s icy wind will blow.”
Hytner was renowned as a stage director and opera producer: this was his second film (following the very good The Madness Of King George) of only six. He does a superior job recreating a sense of place, attitude and milieu, with an eagle eye for casting. He gets unobtrusive assist from George Fenton’s period evocative scoring.
Daniel Day-Lewis is his usual strong self as lead voice of sanity and decency John Proctor, and there is noteworthy work from Joan Allen (Oscar-nominated for Supporting Actress), Bruce Davison and Peter Vaughan. Even better is the demented fulcrum played with demonic intensity by Winona Ryder: her Abigail Williams no sorceress in reality, but a true evil witch in spirit.
Best of all is the magnificent Paul Scofield, in his last film role, as the shrewd, scrupulously unyielding Judge Thomas Danforth: every word and look is a masterful application of craft. The Oscars were out-to-lunch, giving the Supporting Actor prize to Cuba Gooding Jr. for Jerry McGuire—a fun gig but not even a thread of a patch off Scofield, who wasn’t among the nominees.**
Miller was nominated for his adaptation. Filming on locations in Massachusetts, it cost $25,000,000 to produce, but low turnout only gathered $7,343,000, a sad 137th place for the year. The indifferent ’96 response left to its time, this superb capture of Miller’s classic remains and endures as 123 powerful minutes of history, drama and warning.
With Rob Campbell, Jeffrey Jones, Karron Graves, Charlayne Woodard, Kali Rocha, Francis Conroy, Elizabeth Lawrence, Tom McDermott, George Gaynes, Robert Breuler and Mary Pat Gleason.
* The first big-screen go at Miller’s work came in 1957–from France & East Germany (!),, starring Simone Signoret and Yves Montand. The script was worked over by Jean-Paul Sartre into a class struggle variation (Sartre enamored of Communism). Successful in Europe, it bombed in the States, released as The Witches Of Salem. MIller was displeased. The 1996 version had its trial in the year of Whitewater, MAD Cow and the Spice Girls, and while all those seem oddly tangential to Miller’s wacky Puritans, symptom-oblivious moviegoers opted for Twister and Eraser. There were some excellent small-scale films that year, however: Big Night, Trainspotters, Fargo, Lone Star and Sling Blade. The English Patient swept prizes. Fine work all, most more purely enjoyable than Miller’s story, but its relevance is lasting and its import to the Republic is/should be obvious: of course, few citizens bothered to see it. Good thing intolerance and persecution has gone away….
** Show me the justice! Gooding’s breezy athlete won over Armin-Mueller Stahl’s good job for Shine, Edward Norton’s nasty Primal Fear, William H. Macy’s perfect fool in Fargo and James Woods racist in Ghosts Of Mississippi (who remembers that one?). They could have bumped Woods to at least put Scofield’s stern judge up there with Macy’s hapless dunce.