Burn, Witch, Burn / Night of the Eagle (1962) ****

That rare event, a piece of cinematic alchemy. None of the principals had any particular form yet it all comes together quite splendidly.

Director Sidney Hayers was a journeyman, for every Circus of Horrors (1960) or Southern Star (1969) there was Cliff Richard vehicle  Finders Keepers (1966) or Three Hats for Lisa (1965) starring pop star Joe Brown. Apart from The Innocents (1961), Peter Wyngarde did not make another movie for nearly two decades and fame eluded him until he grew one of television’s most iconic moustaches for Department S (1969).

Janet Blair was attempting to revive a moribund career that had stopped dead with The Fuller Brush Man (1948). Ditto Margaret Johnston, nothing since Touch and Go (1955).

More prominent names were attached to the script: Richard Matheson had made B-movie waves with The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and Charles Beaumont for The Premature Burial (1962). But the script itself, an adaptation of Fritz Lieber Jr.’s novel Conjure, Wife, was not in itself extraordinary.

Instead, it’s a prime example of what a director can bring to material. It begins with credits on one side of the screen and a wide-open eye on the other. Scenes brim with suspense yet often we have no idea what’s going on and with only music to guide us are sucked into a devilish plot. Most of the time Hayers concentrates on eyes, reaction, rather than lengthy scenes of dialog.

The fact that Hollywood ignored the depth of Wyngarde’s performance seems beyond belief. And you might be interested to know it was one of the earliest feminist pictures, the wife in control, acting as protector for the husband.

Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a handsome successful college professor in the running for promotion. While he locks horns with lazy pupil Fred (Bill Mitchell), he charms others to the point of infatuation, witness Margaret (Judith Stott). But after a bridge party at their home his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) becomes obsessed with finding something. Upstairs, by accident Norman comes across a dead spider that she claims is a good luck charm from a holiday in Jamaica.

Eventually, while he’s asleep, she finds what she’s looking for, hidden in a lampshade and burns it. Later, a suspicious Norman uncovers all sorts of strange objects. All three scenes of the characters looking are filled with suspense and masterpieces if you like of how to use a camera and hook an audience, no explanation given, just a background of increasingly ominous music.

Confronted, Tansy admits she is a witch, that decision triggered by an incident in which her husband nearly died. Her spells, she claims, have brought him not just good luck, but protected him from bad sorcery, his success not just down to his charm. He insists on burning all her material, including, to her horror, a locket with his picture. And no time is spent, a la The Devil Rides Out (1968), in explaining the intricacies of the occult.

From then on his life turns sour. He is nearly run over by a van. Fred makes a complaint against him and then comes after him with a gun, Margaret claims he raped her. Gradually, Norman, an atheist where the Devil is concerned, believing that neurosis causes the wrong kind of faith, comes to realise he is a victim.

They are both up against someone more powerful. Some of the events have a supernatural tinge – doors that swing open in a storm, Tansy praying to “let me die in his place” – but others appear severe accentuations of the normal, a loudspeaker blaring out his voice from a tape recording over the college grounds, an eagle that hunts him down, big enough (in one astonishing scene) to break through a door, and with a 9ft wing span appearing enormous in a corridor.

The curse plays out to a fabulous end, a tremendous finale, full of human drama, emotions ripped apart, confrontation, Norman’s failed schemes to save his wife.

To say I was mesmerised was an under-statement. Just a brilliantly-done little picture with cracking direction and excellent acting all round.

Not only is the picture ripe for reassessment you would have thought it was well worth a remake.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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