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CAMP DAVID APRIL 2011: THE EAGLE HAS LANDED

By • Apr 24th, 2011 •

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THE EAGLE HAS LANDED: A look back at NIGHT OF THE EAGLE a.k.a. BURN, WITCH, BURN

“I DO NOT BELIEVE.”

Written emphatically on a blackboard in the presence of his students, Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) dispels belief in witchcraft and all the trappings of the supernatural. However, Taylor’s wife, Tansy (Janet Blair), has been liberated from so much scientific logic by a mind-expanding experience in Jamaica, where a witch doctor literally brought the dead back to life, and it is Taylor’s discovery of her convictions that serves as the catalyst for BURN, WITCH, BURN.

Produced in England in 1961 under the title NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (at a time when studios on both sides of the Atlantic were making exceptional genre films) American International Pictures chose to distribute the film as BURN, WITCH, BURN, adding a deliciously demonic rendering of an incantation voiced by Paul Frees to protect the viewing audience from deadly forces from the pits of Hell. This created yet another similarity to the already renowned Jacques Tourneur film NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1958, known as CURSE OF THE DEMON stateside).

Both films are now staples in most retrospectives of the Horror genre anywhere around the world. They have secured the reputation as two of the finest examples of black magic ever put on the screen. Terence Fisher’s masterful THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1967) joins the trio, even having its title changed as well for American consumption to THE DEVIL’S BRIDE to cash in on the world wide success of ROSEMARY’S BABY.

NIGHT OF THE EAGLE was directed by Sidney Hayers, whose only other excursion into fantastic cinema was 1960’s CIRCUS OF HORRORS (featuring the icy villainy of Anton Diffring) regarded now as a truly “Sadian” motion picture whose reputation was linked to Arthur Crabtree’s lurid potboiler HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM as well as the infamous PEEPING TOM by Michael Powell. I must interject however that Powell’s film is now regarded as a masterpiece while the other two films pale in comparison; they still however form a rather unholy trinity of genre films of the period that created X certificates for all three by the British censor. This of course only made these films more desirable in the future as video nasties, constantly on-demand by collectors and fans alike.

After the success of NIGHT OF THE EAGLE Hayers went on to helm many memorable episodes of ‘THE AVENGERS in Britain, continuing to work on both sides of the Atlantic until his death. NIGHT still remains his most accomplished work. The fortuitous collaboration of writers Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont with George Baxt, turned Fritz Leiber Jr.’s thrice-filmed novel CONJURE WIFE into a taut, gripping screenplay, mysteriously overshadowed by the literary ghost of M.R James, whose own excursions into the supernatural – OH, WHISTLE, AND I’LL COME TO YOU, MY LAD – is referenced in Hayers’ film, not to mention Val Lewton’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Peter Wyngarde had just completed a career-defining role in director Jack Clayton’s version of the James novella (his performance was spellbinding as the lustful ghost of Peter Quint without relying on a word of dialogue), when he was cast as Norman Taylor in Hayer’s film.

Leiber’s work first arrived on the screen as part of the Inner Sanctum series Universal Pictures had created to showcase Lon Chaney Jr. after the success of THE WOLF MAN. WEIRD WOMAN featured Evelyn Ankers in a part similar to Margaret Johnston in Hayers’ version. This adaptation is certainly not faithful to its source, making NIGHT OF THE EAGLE the definitive version of Leiber’s novel. In 1980 a third, somewhat-pirated version, WITCHES BREW, was made without giving Leiber a screen credit. This time it was played for laughs, attempting a “horror comedy” with Richard Benjamin and Teri Garr, and featuring screen legend Lana Turner in one of her final roles. I am sure the producers were hoping for a “Baby Jane” moment here as we watched yet another Hollywood leading lady finally playing a witch.

The witch in Sidney Hayers’ version fares much better in the capable hands of Janet Blair, perhaps the least likely candidate for such a role, and she surprised her director and co-star by rising to the challenge, playing Tansy with great style and conviction. I interviewed Janet Blair for the premiere laser disc presentation of the film. The still-vivacious actress remembered the production with enthusiasm. She recalled that her first day of shooting was Tansy’s drowning scene off the Northern coast of England: “It was bitterly cold and I had to go over this rocky cliff and continue to walk into the ocean for what seemed to be an eternity. By the time I was retrieved out of the water, I was frozen and soaked to the bone. One of the grips ran up to me and made me drink from a thermos which was filled with Brandy. Being a non-drinker, I immediately spat it out; so much for the glamorous work of a movie star.

“Originally I was told Peter Finch was to be my leading man, but he became ill so Peter Wyngarde took over at a moment’s notice. I quickly became utterly bewitched by my co-star, who was so dramatic and sexy that I nearly forgot I was acting. I do believe this was one of Peter’s largest film roles at the time, and I remember after a day’s shooting he drove me to my hotel and continued that atmosphere of a happily married couple. I adored working with him.”

As Sidney Hayers fondly recalled to me, the shooting was very quick and fun to do. After some initial misgivings about the casting of Wyngarde and Blair, he was quite pleased to find these two professionals had great chemistry together. He remarked that even Ms. Blair said at the time that she gave this role her all and considered it to be some of her finest work in film. Hayers also remembers that the actress playing the true villainess of the piece, Margaret Johnston, had by then become a theatrical agent representing one of the actors in the film. Hayers persuaded her to play the unbalanced Flora, ruthlessly driven to practice the black arts against Tansy’s white magic, thereby creating one of the screen’s most memorable witches alongside such greats as Kay Walsh, whose turn in Hammer’s THE WITCHES set such a standard.

THE INNOCENTS

The giant stone eagle which terrorizes Wyngarde was in actuality an eight foot styrofoam figure that could do no harm should it fall from great heights. The script called for a full camera shot as this prop is transformed from its solid state into a living, winged gargoyle. As Hayers put it, “It is Peter Wyngarde’s acting and intense focus that really allows the audience to suspend disbelief, that and of course having a cameraman like Reggie Wyer, a real craftsman with monochrome photography, as well as an editor like Ralph Sheldon.”

Peter Wyngarde made a lasting impression in THE INNOCENTS, leaving audiences wanting to see more of this charismatic performer. As Hayers recalled, “Peter was quite a performer both on and off camera. The crew was very amused by one thing in particular: you see Peter was very aware of his physique at the time, since he took great care to be in perfect shape, and remember, in those days it was not so common to see actors going to the gym to work out. We even had him shirtless at one point in the film. However we had to keep tightening his long shots as he wore the tightest trousers in England! I mean, he left little to the imagination as to his endowments if you follow me. I don’t think this ever came up again as long as I have been directing!”

NIGHT OF THE EAGLE was one of those films I saw for the first time at the drive-in, and I carry that memory with great pleasure since it is difficult to explain to today’s film buffs the weekend ritual of going to see a film in your car, at night, out of doors, under the stars. The nocturnal trappings of the Horror genre lends itself to such circumstances perfectly.

Of course it helps to be at a certain age as well and the drive-in was a haven for teenagers to escape from the rigors of school and parents. Almost all of the films produced by American International were shown at the drive-in, and BURN, WITCH, BURN was no exception. I can still see myself sitting in the car, windows rolled up, speakers turned to full volume, as Paul Frees begins to speak to us from a pitch-black screen. By the time he is through and we are all under the protection of his spell, the titles begin to appear: BURN, WITCH, BURN…

I DO BELIEVE.

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6 Responses »

  1. I also believe, Mr. Del Valle. Outstanding film that to this day stills packs a punch. One of my favorites. Excellent article, as usual.

  2. Awww… and here and I thought I was going to get a good old fashioned earful of juicy & salacious gossip from My Pal Del Valle! I guess I’ll have to pick up the slack. David, perhaps you’re not aware of the Wyngarde follow-up. He became quite a sex god on TV in the UK (albeit not over here) playing some sleazeball private eye character (whose name escapes me now), a too-suave super-cool international man of mystery in paisley shirts, ascots, and, yes, tight trousers– surely one of Mike Myers’ inspirations for Austin Powers. Then at the height of his 15 minutes of fame, he was arrested for “cottaging,” iffn ya knows whut I mean, and I’m guessin’ ya do. That pretty much put an end to his stardom, and his attractiveness to the female audience, although I’m sure there were plenty of loyal cool cats in TV land who still dug the tight Nehru jackets and hip-hugging bell-bottoms in reruns.

  3. I think the show Ted’s referring to was Department S which was briefly syndicated in the US. Peter Wyngarde’s moustachioed character of Jason King was quite memorable, as were his outfits.

  4. well Ted old buddy of course I knew all that but it really didn’t seem to fit into a discussion of NIGHT OF THE EAGLE…..perhaps I can “pick up the slack’ if and when I get into a column on CRUISING….or BOYS IN THE BAND…..maybe….FYI the series Peter was in was called JASON KING and he was ultra camp with huge sideburns very “behave”

  5. One of the finest films of this type ever made and for some reason doesn’t seem as well seen as I thought (many I talked to said they have heard about it but not have viewed it) and find it quite an intelligent and hypnotic experiance. My laserdisc of “BURN WITCH BURN” (with extras) is as great a view now as it was when I first bought it too!!

  6. The series was DEPARTMENT S – two seasons – followed up by JASON KING, where he played the same character: A crime writer, working for some kind of Secret Service. Through that, he really became a super star all over Europe for quite a few years. The incident mentioned happened a few years after the series had finished, though. It’s interesting that there was such a fuss over it – much more than over John Gielgud twenty years before that, and much more than over every other famous guy catched in a similar situation since.

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