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Imaginary Crimes

Robert Breuler, Paul Scofield & George Gaynes
The House Un-Puritan Activities Committee: Robert Breuler (left), Paul Scofield (center) and George Gaynes prepare to pass judgment on the impure in "The Crucible."

Set in the 1600s, 'The Crucible'
is really about the 1950s

By Rob Nelson

'ARTHUR MILLER'S timeless tale of truth on trial," announces anxiously alliterative ad for The Crucible--although this "timeless" story of the Salem witch hunt is not only set way back in the late 17th century but seems today like an antiquated product of the 1950s Red Scare era in which Miller's play was written.

Nevertheless, fans of this intense film version by director Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) have taken pains to note its supposed contemporary relevance--to day-care scandals, religious fundamentalism, media-fear mongering and the mob rule of political correctness. Certainly, any movie dealing with mass hysteria couldn't fail to resonate in the '90s, but a more interesting connection could be made to the recent revival of another '50s cultural artifact: the alien-invasion movie (Mars Attacks!, Independence Day).

Why our sudden kinship to McCarthyism? Perhaps in this New World Order, lacking a clearly identifiable enemy, we feel compelled to invent various imaginary threats to our security--either aliens or, as in The Crucible, ourselves. Or is that our women? The primal fear explored in The Crucible is that teenage girls are acting out sexually and cavorting with evil spirits by the light of the moon. The film opens with an all-female "pagan" dance ritual led by Abigail (Winona Ryder), a servant girl who drinks rooster's blood to cast a spell on Elizabeth (Joan Allen), the wife of the farmer (Daniel Day-Lewis) she'd worked for and slept with, and whom she still loves. Hell hath no fury, as the saying goes. Forced to account for these demonic actions, Abigail accuses her rival of being a witch, thus implicating Day-Lewis' upstanding John Proctor as well. This finger pointing leads to a frenzy of interconnected accusations and denials, and, under the direction of a McCarthy-like deputy governor (Paul Scofield), a dozen executions.

Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, whose legitimate horror proves the maxim that even paranoids have enemies, The Crucible is allowed to have it both ways. On the one hand, it's a critique of the irrational fear of female sexuality; on the other, it's a cautionary tale about the same. Abigail may be falsely accused of witchcraft per se, but she certainly casts a spell on the fatally attracted husband and his sexually frigid wife. And as Hytner gradually narrows his focus to the noir-style tragedy of a man undone by his mistress (too sexy) and his wife (not sexy enough), The Crucible does little to accuse larger evils. Ultimately, this is a well-made, well-acted movie whose timeliness is limited to its unconscious suggestion that not much has changed for women in 40 years--or 300.

The Crucible (PG-13; 115 min.), directed by Nicholas Hytner, written by Arthur Miller, based on his play, photographed by Andrew Dunn and starring Winona Ryder, Joan Allen and Daniel Day-Lewis.

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From the Dec. 26, 1996 to Jan. 1, 1997 issue of Metro

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