Night of the Eagle

Night of the Eagle (Burn, Witch, Burn) Blu-ray cover

Confident and charismatic, despite his relative youth and inexperience Norman Taylor is a rising star at Hempnell Medical College, comfortable with the students and at lecturing in his subjects with ease and assurance, currently debunking primitive beliefs in supernatural, witchcraft and psychic abilities, the blackboard clearly marked with the mantra which serves as protection against such nonsense: I do not believe.

Yet, unknown to him, his wife Tansy does not only believes but practices, seemingly innocuous objects scattered about their home which she regards as charms of protection against evil, bells and dead spiders and vials of cemetery dust, Norman also oblivious to the acrimonious ambition among the wives of the faculty members as to whose husband will receive a promotion, Norman’s ascension seemingly guaranteed until one of his students accuses him of inappropriate behaviour.

Night of the Eagle (Burn, Witch, Burn); Tansy Taylor (Janet Blair) hunts her home for malicious items which may have been secreted within.

Based on the 1943 novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber, previously filmed with Lon Chaney the year after publication as Weird Woman which preserved its American setting, the 1962 adaptation written by The Twilight Zone’s Charles Beaumont, A Stir of Echoes’ Richard Matheson and The City of the Dead’s George Baxt transferred the action to Britain where it was produced by Julian Wintle and Albert Fennell who brought The Avengers their greatest popularity later that decade.

Titled Night of the Eagle but released in the United States as the more provocative Burn, Witch, Burn, it was directed by Circus of Horrors’ Sidney Hayers who cast The Innocents’ Peter Wyngarde as Norman, initially confident but brought to reckless desperation as his career crumbles, American musical star Janet Blair as Tansy, distraught when her protections go up in flames, and Australian stage actor Margaret Johnson as Professor Flora Carr, the fellow lecturer whose young ward has made the accusations.

Night of the Eagle (Burn, Witch, Burn); her own protection charms revealed, Tansy (Janet Blair) is confronted by her husband Norman (Peter Wyngarde).

The enlightened world of academia contrasted with the dark arts, the accusations are made openly in daylight, but at night the corridors and courtyards are a different place, dominated by the towering stone eagles which give the film its name, and like The Haunting, released the following year, great use is made of sound throughout Night of the Eagle, characters reacting to things offscreen they cannot see or terrified and overwhelmed by the hypnotic cacophony.

Expertly filmed by Reginald Wyer and beautifully showcased in StudioCanal’s new restoration, there is a habit of using deep focus to separate the characters, one in the foreground with the other in the background, scenes played with a gulf between them, and the script is fast-paced with constant conversation through the early stages as the circumstances and rivalries are established, the women glaring at each other with envy and fear as their husbands blithely play cards.

Night of the Eagle (Burn, Witch, Burn); Professor Flora Carr (Margaret Johnson) burns the house of cards to demonstrate her power.

The devoted relationship between Norman and Tansy central to the film, even as she stands revealed, her tools laid out before her after they have been discovered by Norman, they do not desert each other, he the rationalist who attacks a superstitious belief, not the woman to whom he is married, a contrast to the later revelation of Flora’s bitter, twitching rage and destructive malice, an unblinking raptor poised to snatch a defenceless rabbit.

Carried by the sharp and intelligent dialogue and the complex characters, Night of the Eagle flags somewhat when Norman becomes isolated for a portion towards the end of the film, a lull echoed in Richard Matheson’s patchy and hesitant commentary track, possibly hampered by the fact that the script was written speculatively and he had no subsequent involvement in the production, though critic Anna Bogutskaya compensates more than adequately with her dissection of the film and an enthusiastic defence of free-thinking Tansy as a feminist icon atypical of the era and the genre.

Night of the Eagle will be available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download from StudioCanal from Monday 1st July

Night of the Eagle (Burn, Witch, Burn); terrified, Norman (Peter Wyngarde) flees the towering shadow of the eagle.



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