Miller’s Crossing

The Crucible is not great drama, but it is stirring melodrama.

The Crucible

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

20th Century Fox

The label of “drama” is given to works that contain within them two valid (if often irreconcilable) points of view; by that definition, it can scarcely be applied to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. What’s to argue about? In 1692, in Salem, Mass., 24 people, often convicted on the vaguest hearsay, were executed (or died under torture) for consorting with the devil. Miller conceived of his play in 1953, in a rush of fear and disgust over the House Un-American Activities hearings, in which leftists (sometimes no more than well-meaning liberals) were persecuted in a frenzy of anti-Communism, and during which Miller watched his old friend Elia Kazan (the virtuoso director of Death of a Salesman) “name names” to a congressional committee.

When pressed, Miller has admitted that, while witchcraft posed little threat to any but the most emotionally fragile deists, some Communists actually did work toward overthrowing the American government. But his argument that the devil was as real to Puritans as communism would be to 20th-century Americans dodges the point. In 1953, few could have known the scale of Uncle Joe Stalin’s atrocities, but none would have mistaken him for Gandhi. In The Crucible, Miller suggests no reason why his characters should quail before Satan. Miller might, in interviews, cite the paranoid culture of Puritanism and the Bible’s exhortations against witchcraft (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”), but his play has been pointedly denuded of context. To borrow a 17th-century moniker, the victims are all too clearly Goody Good.

Yet, if The Crucible isn’t great drama, it’s rattling good melodrama–a spectacular piece of liberal propaganda and a thing of mounting excitement. Although it failed on Broadway in 1953 (the Jed Harris production was, by all accounts, rather stodgy), it is now, Miller has claimed, his most-performed play; I’d guess that half the population between the ages of 12 and 45 have either seen or been involved in a high-school or college production. Me, I played the Rev. Parris at a drama camp in New Hampshire. It was 1973, the summer of the Watergate hearings, and The Crucible seemed eerily contemporary, not just because the nation was steeped in a congressional inquisition, but because a McCarthy ally–one of the very witch hunters who had inspired Miller to write the play–was getting his grand comeuppance. Pie-eyed as it might sound, simply performing The Crucible made us feel as if we were striking a blow for civil liberties.

The new film of The Crucible triumphantly captures that fervor. Adapted by the 81-year-old playwright and directed by the young Englishman Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George), it is a thinking person’s version of the Oscar-winning potboiler Braveheart–in which Mel Gibson, in the midst of being drawn and quartered, shouts “Freee-dom!” and thereby liberates the Scots. Questions of dramatic complexity can be set aside in the face of sheer narrative sweep, a sense of place (The Crucible was filmed amid the marshes of Hog Island, off Boston’s North Shore), and some primal images of dread; here we can see, as we could not on stage, the rickety wagon that comes to collect the accused (many of them old and infirm) and carry them, in irons, to prison. Hytner evokes the Kafkaesque terror out of which The Crucible was born, the wild incomprehension in the face of a plague of un-sense, in which the impulse to impugn obliterates all others. When the hero, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), cries out Miller’s banner line–“Are the accusers always holy now?”–we want to shout back, “Fuckin’ A!”

I n Miller’s treatment, the Salem witch trials were kicked off by the Amy Fisher of her era. She is Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), a beautiful and hot-blooded orphan who, in the film’s opening seconds, swings her tiny feet out of bed, dresses breathlessly in the dark, and joins her schoolmates in a race through the fog-shrouded wood to a clearing where a Haitian slave, Tituba, is casting spells. This overture is faintly absurd (the girls would surely sneak separately into the forest instead of bounding en masse like 8-year-olds off to recess), but it does launch the action on a determinedly cinematic note, and the events that follow have the tidal pull of a nightmare.

Abigail, who has bedded Proctor and nurtures a fierce grudge against his wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen), has a spell of her own to cast, but the frenzies are disrupted by the chance appearance of Parris (Bruce Davison, a good deal better than I was). And so the girls (among them Parris’ daughter, Betty, who takes to her bed in a catatonic stupor) must concoct an explanation for their clandestine romp. They claim possession–not merely by Satan, but by Satan via various members of the Salem community.

Hytner and Miller superbly convey the way a lie can gather speed, as fear and greed and something else–an appetite for persecution–take hold. Parris, the town’s minister, accuses others to cover for the misdeeds of his daughter; Thomas Puttnam (Jeffrey Jones), his rich neighbor, covets land he cannot legally obtain; and young Abigail will do anything to resume her affair with Proctor–even bear false witness against his wife. Hytner lets their ludicrous accusations build to a near-farcical momentum–until the farce blackens with the arrival of the witch hunters, at first the fresh and well-meaning Rev. Hale, and then a trio of inquisitors from Boston, led by Judge Danforth (Paul Scofield). By this point, the government has too much invested to pull back from its course. Any evidence, however slim, becomes proof of demonic conspiracy.

It’s hard to recall another occasion where a major playwright has had the opportunity to rewrite a work for a different medium half a lifetime later. In the intervening years, Miller has learned a lot about film syntax; this Crucible retains his pidgin Puritan (some of which sticks in the ear), but otherwise feels nothing like a play. And Hytner is a specialist in spectacle. Here, as in The Madness of King George, he tends to over-hype his images, and he never breaks free of the proscenium arch; he has Orson Welles’ hambone, but not his eye for layered space. Yet, he also has a gift for hubbub, and for underlining the ironic in pageantry. (“The afflicted girls, your excellency,” says Parris to Danforth, as the “victims” curtsy in unison.) His courtroom scene is a triumph of pacing; you’re caught between outrage and laughter at the legalistic shamelessness (“If you know not what a witch is, how do you know you are not one?” asks a judge). It’s no mystery why The Crucible is said to be much-beloved in authoritarian countries with a penchant for show trials. And, as the camera swoops down on the screaming girls–who have nearly convinced themselves there is, indeed, an invisible bat in the courtroom–it evokes our own wild debates over repressed memories of sexual abuse.

It’s in the courtroom that Day-Lewis begins to show his stature, and the film grows with him. He starts out stoic, with a manly, Eastwood-esque stubble, his feelings under wraps, enduring his loveless marriage by sticking to his hoe. When Ryder’s Abigail reaches for his genitals, we see by his rage that he has sinned in his own eyes, and that the sin has left him paralyzed, incapable of action. Day-Lewis’ Proctor becomes a hero because he has no choice, and the actor shows us the cost of that heroism, the agony that comes with exposure. He has no more wrenching moment than when, haggard from imprisonment, on the verge of giving up his life for the sake of his name and those of his fellow condemned, he confronts his wife and hits a note of baleful self-mockery: “I–am–not–that–pure!” In the face of this confession, Allen grows in stature, too. The actress, over-praised last year as Pat Nixon (not her fault, the role was as thin as a Republican cloth coat), dares to make Elizabeth dislikable–painfully erect and severe, with an almost caustic sexlessness. But when she breaks, The Crucible finally comes within hailing distance of tragedy.

That it has not thus far is because Miller’s villains don’t grow; they stay stubbornly fixed. Abigail is pure destructiveness, and Ryder can’t fill her in. The actress is neither especially bad nor good; she is, as usual, an amateur, with no more inner resources than a high-school girl who gets the choicest parts because she’s lovely. More disappointing is Scofield, so exquisitely blinkered as Mark Van Doren in Quiz Show. We wait for Danforth to articulate some worldview, however ignoble, to justify these trials; instead, the character (and the actor) become increasingly fogged-in. Miller simply will not give the man his tongue: That would be a rival viewpoint, and that would slow things down. And yet, what keeps The Crucible so racily melodramatic is doubtless what keeps it so popular. We can identify with the man who sacrifices himself for the good of the community, and forget the danger from the witch hunter within. The question for the dramatist would have been not, “How can we stand up to such evil?” but, “How come we go along with it?”

A failed seduction: Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams with Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor (28 seconds):
{{Sound01 - crucible1.avi or {{Sound03 -; download time, 4.50 minutes at 56K {{Sound06 - Movie-Crucible1.asf for sound only

Confrontation: Proctor threatens Williams, who is on the verge of accusing his wife of witchcraft (24 seconds):
Sound04 - crucible2.avi or Sound05 -; download time, 4 minutes at 56K Sound02 - Movie-Crucible2.asf or sound only