Night Of The Eagle (1962)
Night of the Eagle may be a title that sounds more suited to a spy thriller (though still better than the alternative name by which this is known in the States – Burn, Witch, Burn!), but what it conceals is an underrated gem, a taut psychological chiller that pits belief in the supernatural firmly against the realm of science and reason.
As the film opens we’re introduced to Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), a professor of psychology lecturing on the nature of superstition and how any power it has is linked solely to the individual’s belief in it, belief which gathers stray threads of chance and coincidence and fashions out of them a tapestry where all of these strands are linked in the believer’s mind by some supernatural force. In other words it’s all in the mind, to Taylor they would be coincidental fragments and explicable through natural means, for he is a sceptic who puts faith solely in that which is rational and within the realms of scientific understanding. Though he wouldn’t put it down to anything other than hard work and a little luck, Taylor and his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair), are in fact living something of a charmed life since he took his relatively new position in the university – happy relationship, wealth, nice home, well-liked and respected by (most of) his students and peers alike and despite being the most junior member of the staff it’s rumoured that the Dean will be awarding him a much-coveted position of seniority, so he’s a man on the up, a rising star. All of this, however, begins to change almost overnight when he discovers that Tansy is secretly a practising witch and fully believes that not only is his success attributed to her ramshackle collection of charms and paraphernalia, but that her protections are the only thing keeping him safe as outside forces are at work against them. Scoffing disbelief and mockery become outright anger, so fervent is his scepticism, that he demands everything be removed and burnt before his eyes, and it’s at this point that their lives are turned upside-down – but is it witchcraft at work, or a series of more tangible, unfortunate events assailing them from every angle?
The intelligent script wisely leaves this battle open and up to the individual viewer’s discretion as to which explanation for Taylor and his wife’s maladies that he wishes to accept, and whilst that’s not in itself an original concept (you can see the same thing being played with in several of those Val Lewton produced RKO pictures of the 40s, most notably Tourneur’s Cat People, and even the original Wolf Man has a stab at offering a psychological reason for phenomena that could just as easily be supernatural), it’s the quality of how well done it is that sets Night of the Eagle apart from others in the field, having a script that’s canny and puts it up there with the likes of The Innocents or Rosemary’s Baby (to which it is something of a precursor) which do a similar job.
From the moment Taylor insists on burning his wife’s trinkets, thereby challenging her beliefs with his own, director Sidney Hayers does a great job of keeping an understated sense of tension and foreboding running throughout, yet most everything is implied, gathering momentum in a chilling crescendo right up to the climactic finale, excellent pacing and not a single frame of film is wasted. It plays with the audience’s expectations too as it follows Taylor, whose wavering between the warring sides within him – his cold belief in logic versus primitive, superstitious panic – will have the audience wavering too as to what they truly think is the cause of it all. It works because no matter what your personal views might be, you’re at the mercy of celluloid’s agnosticism in these matters, particularly in the horror genre where supernatural, paranormal and the occult are everyday and are accepted without need for explanation, so there are times when it seems perfectly reasonable that he may indeed be the victim of black magic, but deciding to offer no definitive answer either way and leave it ambiguous is a smart move. Amid all this on the surface, Hayers manages to still balance the subtler threads of the movie, such as the quiet way that Taylor’s seemingly idyllic world is shown to be a bubbling pit of hidden lust, envy and hatred (the true motivations behind his struggles, whether the means are supernatural or not). One plot strand which relates to this is entirely prescient despite the film’s age, given how often the precarious roles of teachers and their relationships with students amid the current society-wide concerns (bordering on media-stirred neuroses) with abuse is constantly being reported on by the press.
There’s also a great deal to be said for seeing the film as being read in terms of the gender politics which were prevalent at the time, where the Women’s Liberation movement was a gathering storm waiting to explode and become one of the ’60s focal points of sociological change. Taylor, railing against his wife’s beliefs belittles at one point her supposed “women’s intuition” and in his rage there’s something which is an extension of paranoia almost, disliking her stepping beyond the sweet, domesticated wife role he clearly sees her as fulfilling, and if one is to believe the “beset by witchcraft” explanation for their troubles then it’s a battle between a domineering man and woman that is at the heart of the movie. There’s also more than a hint of pressure built up from sexual repression, it’s evident in the apparently passionless relationship Norman and Tansy share, and when he is at one point propositioned by a student, his outrage is so palpable that it feels like a statement about a particular entrenched viewpoint, one unable to cope the changing moral compass that the ’60s heralded and represented by the youth who would have been aware of it.
The performances of Wyngarde and Blair also merit a mention, each with their own levels of mounting terror at different stages of the story’s development – with Blair her initial claims that they are being threatened by supernatural forces and her ensuing hysteria seem tragically like the ramblings of a paranoid, delusional mind, but as the film then cleverly plays with the levels of coincidence and Wyngarde begins to show his own character’s ice-cold confidence and discipline being eroded, it leaves us in a limbo state (much like the character) and her performance then looks more like someone who is truthfully frightened and given genuine credence for her concern, a subtle but clever manipulation of the audience’s viewpoints.
Night of the Eagle is definitely a hidden gem in the crown of British horror cinema – smart, taut and chilling, it deserves greater recognition and if you’re a fan of that brand of implied, slowburning, ambiguous storytelling, then it’s a must see.
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