When Your Neighbors Use the Law to Kill You: The Crucible (1996)

This post is part of the Order in the Court! Blogathon, hosted by Theresa at CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch and Lesley of Second Sight Cinema. Read the rest of the lawful posts HERE!

Confession time (which is appropriate for a post about a legally-themed movie):

When I chose the 1996 version of The Crucible as my topic for this blogathon, I hadn’t seen it in 20 years. I remember seeing it very clearly. I was unemployed at the time and going into Manhattan from Queens every few days for job interviews. There used to be a $2 movie theater in mid-town. Since it seemed a shame to shlep into Manhattan just for an hour or so, I would often stop there to see a movie before heading home.

I saw lots of good movies, including Apollo 13 and Braveheart. It was a revelatory experience to see them in that theater, because the audiences were far less staid than those who lined up outside the first-run theaters uptown. People would actually be engaged with what was happening on screen.

I think that’s the positive feeling I recalled when I chose The Crucible, and not anything about the actual movie.

Because sitting through it this time—oh, boy. It’s just not as good as I remembered.

In fact, it’s kind of…terrible.

However, I promised to review this movie as a court-room drama, and so I will.

Many people read the play The Crucible in high school. Written by Arthur Miller (who also wrote the screenplay for the film) it is a fictionalized version of the Salem Witch Trials, meant as a metaphor for the Red Scare during the 1950s, which resulted in many in the movie industry being blacklisted.

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The film starts out with a group of young Puritan girls meeting secretly in the woods with a slave named Tituba (Charlayne Woodard) who helps them perform some love spells. One of them, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) takes it a bit far and slaughters a chicken, drinking its blood. The girls are discovered by Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison). His own daughter, Betty (Rachael Bella), faints dead away and seems unable to wake up. Another girl, Ruth Putnam (Ashley Peldon) is similarly stricken.

Reverend Parris is terrified that this will ruin him, as not only is Betty his daughter, Abigail is his niece. Soon, whispers of witchcraft begin circulating around the town. A pastor who specializes in rooting out witches, Reverend Hale (Rob Campbell), arrives to find out what is truly happening.

The girls are terrified they will be accused of witchcraft. Under Abigail’s influence, they accuse Tituba. After a brutal beating, Tituba confesses. The girls, stunned by their sudden power and importance in the town, begin naming other people as witches.

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Abigail, who is in love with married farmer John Proctor (Daniel Day Lewis), confesses to him privately that it’s all a lie. His wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen) pushes John to come forward and tell everyone it is all made up. Since he thinks it will blow over quickly and doesn’t want to publicly admit his adultery with Abigail, John refuses.

The accusations and arrests escalate to the point where judges Danforth and Sewall (Paul Scofield and George Gaynes) are sent to preside over the trials. The trials are a travesty, where the girls playact that they are being possessed by people in the courtroom, resulting in even more arrests.

To John’s horror, Elizabeth is arrested. He realizes Abigail is determined to see his wife dead. Since his servant Mary (Karron Graves) is one of the “afflicted” girls, he persuades her to tell the truth.

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In a private court session, John and his neighbor Giles Corey (Peter Vaughan) try to make their case to the judges, who are so invested in the outbreak of Satanism in the town they are hard to convince. Corey accuses Ruth Putman’s father (Jeffrey Jones) of steering his daughter to accuse people so he can possess their land. The judges are so incensed by what they consider an outlandish accusation, they have Corey arrested.

John confesses his adultery to the judges, hoping this will make the judges see Abigail’s vendetta against his wife. They bring Elizabeth into the court and ask her if her husband has been unfaithful to her. Not wanting to hurt him, she says no. The judges see this as proof that Proctor has lied and also arrest him.

Furious that Reverend Hale has had a change of heart and taken to defending the accused, Abigail accuses his wife of witchcraft in retaliation. Danforth and Sewell realize that the situation is completely out of hand and turn her out. She steals money from her uncle, hoping to persuade John to run away with her. After he refuses she disappears.

As Proctor’s execution approaches, the judges realize that because Proctor is a big influence in the town, it would be in their own best interest to get him to confess to witchcraft so they can avoid hanging him. Proctor agrees, but refuses to name other names. When he realizes his confession will be posted publicly, he recants. His is the final of the Salem executions.

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Here’s my major problem with this movie: it is really on the overwrought side. Everything is set at such a fever pitch, it gets kind of ridiculous after a while. Director Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) just didn’t know how to ratchet it down.

Worse, most of the acting is absurdly over-the-top. Some of histrionics are truly cringe-worthy.

(Me: I just realized Winona Ryder is a terrible actress. My sister: You only noticed this now?)

Sure, the whole point of the story is how a toxic combination of religious fervor, ignorance, feuds, and personal biases blew up into a horrifying use of judicial murder. And some of it is very effective, particularly when it starts from the very bottom of the social strata (a slave) to a homeless woman, to a woman with mental problems, and winds up and up to more important people in the town, only to come to a screeching halt when someone a tad too important is accused.

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It’s terrifying to think that neighbors can turn on each other that easily, and how they can use the law to brutally settle scores, steal property, or just plain erase people they feel threatened by or simply don’t like. I suspect the reaction by the audience I first watched it with was about this very element of the story.

Thank heaven for Paul Scofield and Joan Allen, who bring some subtlety to their roles. The confrontation during the private court session is easily the best scene in the movie. If only the rest of the film had had as light a touch, this might have been a good movie.

I also object (and this is a problem with the play, as well as the movie) how women are portrayed in the story, something I likely didn’t question when I read it in high school. The “romance” between Abigail and Proctor is entirely made up (Abigail Williams was 11 years old at the time of the trials) and the vendetta against the Proctors probably had to do with jealousy over the fact that they were so successful, business-wise. Elizabeth is blatantly blamed for the affair because she was “too cold” to her husband. The victims of the witch trials were overwhelmingly female, yet the story makes one of the few men the hero, who goes to his death rather than name names.

The Salem Witch Trials were an important and compelling period in our history. It seems someone should be able to make a great movie about it.

This isn’t it.

 

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15 thoughts on “When Your Neighbors Use the Law to Kill You: The Crucible (1996)

  1. Hi Debra…thank you for your submission with “The Crucible.” When we put things in a parable, it may be easier medicine to wash down. This story is just as relevant as it ever was. Thanks again!

  2. “I just wish the execution was much better…”

    (Cut to Beavis & Butthead in full Puritan get-up): “She said execution! Heh. Huh! Huh-huh! (et cetera)”. Yeah, this one was a howler all right. Some people like it. I guess those people think the have a neighbor who’s a witch they want to get rid of… 😀

  3. Good review of a movie I haven’t seen (and am now even less likely to than before). Excellent point about how the story privileges a male character, who gives the scandal “stature” that apparently female characters weren’t thought to bring to it even though historically, the overwhelming number of those executed as witches were female. As to Ryder, I find her less noticeably weak in some kinds of roles than others, and most out-of-place in period pieces (Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Looking for Richard, for example). Oh, and I also have fond memories of the “two-dollah movie,” as we used to call it, at Worldwide Plaza, right? Them was the days, just before New York real estate zoomed to the stratosphere and killed all such cheap entertainment. Thank you for participating in our blogathon!

    1. YES, the Worldwide Plaza! You are correct! Yep, those were the days.

      I agree, Ryder is much better in modern roles. She tries much too hard to affect an old-fashioned style of speech in period roles.

      Thanks so much for co-hosting this blogathon!

    1. I think sans the histrionics the play must come across far, far better. I was the opposite, only read it in school, never saw a theatrical production.

  4. I enjoyed your review; too bad the movie was a bit of a disappointment. I remember being fascinated by this play in high school in part because of the hysterical power of the young women. So my recollection is that there were some histrionics built into this, however I studied it so long ago. I was about to comment that the portrayals of these female accusers maybe indicated something about Arthur Miller’s perceptions of women however my daughter reminded me that the play was based on true events. So that blew that theory. Trying to research further didn’t make that particular point any clearer although I did find out that Arthur Miller’s daughter, Rebecca Miller, met her husband Daniel Day-Lewis on the set of this film, so it served some purpose after all.

  5. I’ve seen at least one production of the play, but never seen the movie. However, I actually own the soundtrack on CD!
    One night I was in my car, listening to the classical radio station, and they had a regular film score program playing. The soundtrack that night was George Fenton’s score for THE CRUCIBLE. It was one of those things that caught me in just the right mood, because I recall pulling into a parking lot and staying in my car until I had finished listening to the whole program. For some reason the music affected me so much that I had to go out and buy the CD.
    But I still have never seen the movie, and to tell the truth I don’t think I’ve listened to the CD in at least 15 years, so I guess I’m just assuming that I still have it!
    Thanks for your post. Very interesting.

  6. Hello wonderful post- I agree with you I first saw this film jr year in HS after we read the play- While I liked Daniel Day Lewis’ performance- as he’s just a good actor- the movie was ehh- The girl who played Abigail was just so whiny and she had no chemistry with him.

  7. A film I’ve not seen and I think will skip. I have heard of the play but never had to read it for high school english, or even in college. In defense of Ryder, I do think one period film she isn’t too bad in is Scorsese’s version of Age of Innocence.

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