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The Devil Made Them Do It

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 20, 1996

"The Crucilbe," pared down for the screen by Arthur Miller, wrestles with myriad weighty moral issues, but on its most basic level, the film is a 17th-century "Fatal Attraction."

Like its racier modern cousin, Miller's sober drama explores the dreadful aftermath of a soured affair between a family man who should have known better and an obsessive lover who blames the breakup on his family. If she could just get rid of them, she's certain he'd come to his senses.

Set in Salem, Mass., in 1692, the story opens with a girlish escapade that leads to dancing naked by a bonfire in the spooky virgin woods. Clearly the youngsters -- mostly teens and preteens -- are rebelling against their pious elders, a fundamentalist sect that sees Lucifer's hand in this shocking lapse of Christian values.

The girls are rounded up by the pillars of the community and urged to confess their sins, which the terrified children blame on the witches secretly living among them. Spurred by the girls' accusations, no matter how absurd, the superstitious villagers hang 19 of their own before the mass hysteria subsides.

Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), the teenage group's cunning ringleader, inexorably turns on her romantic rival, Elizabeth (Joan Allen), the long-suffering wife of John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis). Though John casts the teen aside in hopes of rekindling his relationship with Elizabeth, Abigail continues to aggressively pursue the affair. To make matters worse, she does so with the persistence of the woman who keeps breaking into David Letterman's home.

Though Abigail's reputation is sullied by rumors of her affair with John, she becomes a great favorite of Salem's religious right and the special pet of hanging Judge Danforth (Paul Scofield), an ambitious politician who presides over the witch trials. Danforth hopes to further his statewide reputation by running Satan clean out of Massachusetts.

Other locals -- the clergyman (Bruce Davison) foremost among them -- also see the opportunity to boost their agendas: An entire pew is emptied of contrary parishioners and the town Scrooge adds to his vast acreage by turning in his neighbors.

In Miller's 1953 play, these characters were the allegorical alter egos of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, his henchmen and all those finks who testified against colleagues during McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade. The play's political underpinnings aren't particularly obvious in this streamlined adaptation, though we get the idea that McCarthy's ilk eternally dwell among us.

Miller and British director Nicholas Hytner ("The Madness of King George") have been less successful, however, in righting the odd makeup of the play's depiction of Salem's population -- there's a dearth of teenage boys. Perhaps they were all sacrificed to the corn god; in any case, no wonder the teenage girls are so interested in taciturn middle-aged farmers. Otherwise, Hynter's handsome period production is authentic right down to the cast's stained teeth and grubby nails.

Handsome and well-acted, the film's ultimate success depends on the heat between Ryder and Day-Lewis, and it simply isn't there. The attraction is fatal alright, but it certainly doesn't seem mutual.

THE CRUCIBLE (PG-13) -- Contains sexual situations and violence.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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