Sidney Hayers’ Night of the Eagle (1962) was based on the 1943 Fritz Leiber novel Conjure Wife, which had been filmed once before by Universal as Weird Woman (Reginald Le Borg, 1944), one of its “Inner Sanctum” series of mystery films. The original version stars Lon Chaney Jr. as university professor Norman Reed and Anne Gwynne as his wife, Paula, who is secretly a voodoo priestess, having adopted the practice of witchcraft during a long sojourn in the South Seas. Reed is a rising star in the sociology department, and a prime candidate for the recently vacated position of chair; but, as is often the case, he has enemies in the department who feel he’s moving up the ladder too quickly. Paula does her best to protect Norman, but when he discovers that Paula has been practicing voodoo to ensure his career advancement, Norman destroys all of Paula’s amulets and good-luck charms, setting off a chain of misfortune that nearly derails Norman’s promotion and even threatens their lives.
Weird Woman is modestly successful, but with a running time of just 63 minutes, a 12-day shooting schedule and a decidedly miscast Chaney in the title role, it’s merely a sketch of what might have been a really effective work. Cut to 1961; Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, fans of Leiber’s novel, especially for its all-too-accurate description of campus politics, decided that a remake was in order. Knowing that Universal still had the rights to the source text, they made the unusual decision to write the screenplay “on spec”, with no official mandate to do so.
They worked quickly on the first draft of the screenplay: Matheson wrote the first half, and then handed it off to Beaumont to finish. Since both men were working for American International Pictures at the time, they took it to AIP’s bosses, James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, who surprisingly agreed to buy the rights to Leiber’s novel from Universal so the film could be remade. The only catch was that, after the studio had been paid off, there was just $10,000 left for Matheson and Beaumont to split for their efforts, which they somewhat ruefully accepted.
Film production in England was then decidedly cheaper than in the United States, so AIP gave the project to the British firm Anglo-Amalgamated, which handed off the Matheson and Beaumont script to scenarist George Baxt for a rewrite. In Baxt’s final version, Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is a psychology professor at a small British university, again a rising star in the department, aided by his voodoo-priestess wife Tansy (Janet Blair). However, Norman’s ascent is blocked by the equally adept voodoo practitioner Flora Carr (a superb Margaret Johnston), who wants her husband, the mediocre Lindsay (Colin Gordon), to become the chair.
In Night of the Eagle, barely disguised interdepartmental discord is brought forward with much greater intensity; it’s clear from the opening sequences, in which Tansy hosts an uncomfortable evening of bridge at their home, that Flora hates Norman and Tansy with a passion, and will do anything to stop Norman’s rise to power. Even more interestingly, there is an implicit understanding between Flora and Tansy that they are indeed both practitioners of the magic arts, and their mutual dislike and distrust is telegraphed from the first frame. Despite this, all of the men in the film remain entirely oblivious, even as events begin to spiral uncomfortably out of control.
As the film opens, Norman is giving a lecture on the futility of superstition and witchcraft – chalking on a blackboard the bold-face words “I do not believe!” – but trouble is already brewing. A young female student, Margaret Abbott (Judith Stott) is clearly smitten with him, while her boyfriend, Fred Jennings (Bill Mitchell), attending the same lecture, seethes with jealousy. During the evening bridge party sequence that follows shortly after this, Tansy finds a voodoo charm that Flora has hidden in a lampshade, meant to harm Norman, and destroys it. With her sinister, twisted smile and sharp, sarcastic manner, Flora is a formidable opponent, and Tansy knows it.
But the real problems arise when Norman discovers Tansy’s magic paraphernalia and destroys it all in the fireplace, even as she pleads with him not to – that she’s protecting him from Flora’s malignant powers. Almost immediately, things start to go awry. Margaret falsely accuses Norman of rape; her boyfriend Fred tries to physically attack him; and, suddenly, his academic future is in grave danger. It’s only after Norman realises that Tansy’s powers of protection and Flora’s appetite for his destruction are truly rooted in the supernatural that he begins to effectively aid Tansy in her campaign to destroy Flora once and for all.
The film was shot in six weeks in atmospheric black-and-white, on a miniscule budget of £50,000, by the gifted journeyman cinematographer Reginald Wyer, but it is Hayers’ inspired direction that really brings the piece to life. A.H. Weiler in The New York Times compared the film favourably to Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943), one of Val Lewton’s famous productions for RKO in the 1940s, writing in part that
Simply as a suspense yarn, blending lurid conjecture and brisk reality, growing chillier by the minute, and finally whipping up an ice-cold crescendo of fright, the result is admirable. Excellently photographed (not a single “frame” is wasted), and cunningly directed […], the incidents gather a pounding, graphic drive that is diabolically teasing.1
Indeed, Hayers’ direction is clearly influenced by the British New Wave, making extensive use of handheld cinematography, dynamic close-ups, sharp editing and a deeply rich use of blacks and whites to create a menacing atmosphere that rapidly envelops the viewer, and makes the story all the more believable. Then, too, the last-minute casting of Wyngarde (after Peter Cushing and Peter Finch both turned the project down), musical-comedy star Blair’s winningly sincere performance as Tansy and, most importantly, Johnston’s limping, cunning, entirely assured turn as Flora take the film out of the usual realm of supernatural thrillers by using actors not associated with the genre.
The US release, titled Burn, Witch, Burn, features a spoken prologue by voiceover artist Paul Frees, in which he declares that the film is “cursed” and then offers a long, meaningless incantation to counter the supposed effects of the film’s “evil spell.” This is unfortunate; it’s another gimmick from AIP to bring in less sophisticated viewers. But once the opening credits roll, the film unreels with calm, unnerving assurance, making the fantastic seem almost believable, offering further proof that what is not seen, but rather sensed, is often more terrifying than anything that can be depicted on the screen.
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Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn) (UK, 1962, 87 minutes)
Prod Co: Independent Artists, Anglo Amalgamated, American International Pictures Prod: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Albert Fennell Dir: Sidney Hayers Scr: Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, George Baxt (uncredited) Phot: Reginald Wyer Ed: Ralph Sheldon Prod Des: Jack Shampan Mus: William Alwyn
Cast: Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston, Anthony Nicholls, Colin Gordon, Judith Stott, Bill Mitchell
- A.H. Weiler, “Supernatural Thriller Is on Double Bill,” The New York Times, 5 July 1962, https://www.nytimes.com/1962/07/05/archives/supernatural-thriller-is-on-double-bill.html ↩