“Night of the Eagle” is based on a story by Fritz Leiber, and the screenplay was written by Fritz Leiber, Richard Matheson and two others. It concerns a university professor who is a sceptic, dismissing all superstition and insisting everything can be explained rationally. When he discovers his wife has been practising magic for years, he is appalled and insists she destroy all of her charms and protective devices. This appears to backfire, as the couple immediately run into a great many problems.
The hero, Norman Taylor, is played by Peter Wyngarde, who is excellent in the role. Taylor starts the film as someone it is hard to like. He tends to be somewhat condescending and superior, and belittles his wife’s fears. Even if Norman doesn’t believe in magic, we have to question why he is so dismissive of her judgment of their acquaintances at the university? The jealousy is quite open, and in fact later in the story he admits he is aware of the animosity of Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston). So, his put down of Tansy (Janet Blair) does come across as sexist, as he tells her she is being ridiculous, hysterical and so on. He shows little sympathy for her fears and imagines that treating her like a child and overruling her will fix everything. He is very blinkered by his so-called superior intellect. However within minutes of the magical items being burned, he received an inappropriate phone call from a female who turns out to be a student (we see her at the start of the movie, and it is obvious she has a crush on him), and within 24 hours she has accused him of sexual misconduct, while a male student (who has been failing his course) confronts him and threatens him with a gun. The further development of the plot gradually erodes Norman’s rational mind, until he comes to believe in the apparent magical occurrences. Wyngarde is excellent in this role – he is the epitome of intellectual elitism at the start of the movie, and as his life falls apart his poise is rattled until the climax when he is in an absolute state of fear and panic, and completely believing the unbelievable. His performance in this film is really good and very convincing.
Tansy his wife believes fully in what she is doing. We learn the couple lived for a while in Jamaica, and Tansy learned from a shaman there, later doing research and learning more. The ‘magic’ appears to be what is called sympathetic magic, with the use of dead spiders, dirt and other objects placed around the home to protect it. Tansy insists to her husband that there is evil at work and her magic is all that is protecting him. We observe petty jealousies and spiteful remarks from the other academics over Norman’s success, so Tansy is quite obviously correct about their animosity. She is fully committed to keeping her husband safe, whatever the cost.
What I like very much about this is the ambiguity. Everything that happens could be explained rationally, however everything that happens could be witchcraft.
Starting with the female student, the audience sees in the very first scene that she quite obviously has a crush on the professor. She phones him saying she knows he wants her and various other suggestive remarks, whereupon he is naturally horrified and ends the call. Her subsequent complaint to the college insists that he raped her the same night. This of course is easily refuted as he was at home with his wife. If it is witchcraft then she could have been used by occult practices to believe all of these things. Alternatively, she could have mental health issues.
In the same initial scene, a male student has not done his work and is quite rude to the professor when he asks where it is. The professor does not deal with this particularly well, threatening to have him removed from the class rather than trying to get to the bottom of his problem. He is also shown outside the class talking to the girl – he is obviously interested in her and is very annoyed about her infatuation with the teacher. So, when the boy makes threats, and points a gun at the professor, he could also be being used by occult forces, or he is using violence out of jealousy and fear of failure.
A tape is delivered to the couple’s home, ostensibly of a lecture Norman gave. However, there are other sounds added to the tape, sounds that upset Tansy terribly, but which Norman says are just some kind of background noise. There is a storm outside, and there is thudding and banging at the door, as if something is trying to get in. Norman goes to open the door, but Tansy turns off the tape just as he does so, and there is nothing there. Is it the storm, or is there something sinister about the tape?
As the situation escalates, everything that happens can be explained as coincidence or by rational means. The escalation of all these events are working on the rational Norman’s mind, however, leading up to his confrontation with Flora, who says she is also a witch and wants to destroy Norman because he is going to take a senior position at the university that she does not think he deserves. She also uses sympathetic magic, setting fire to a house of cards. At the same time Norman’s house, with Tansy asleep inside, is set on fire by an apparent accident. She has obtained the tape she sent him and starts to play it. He scoffs at her and leaves, which leads into the climax, when a stone eagle (seen in background shots on the building throughout the film) appears to come to life and attack him. It shreds his coat, and after he heads back inside the building it appears to smash through the door and attack him down the corridor, becoming larger at every moment. This could be a symbol of his increasing belief as the situation escalates – the more he believes the larger the eagle becomes. Norman takes refuge in his own classroom, a fantastic stroke by the director, as his notes from the lesson at the start of the film are still on the board. He wrote ‘I do not believe’ and circled ‘believe’. This is behind him while he cowers from the attack. It is only the purely accidental intervention by Flora’s own husband who turns off the tape that stops everything happening to Norman. He finds his coat untorn, and the door he saw broken in is now whole.
The way the exterior of the college building is filmed, with shots always showing the eagle, is very good and adds to the atmosphere. Often there are shots with just the stone eagle early in the film, and of course the title tells us there is something significant about the eagle. I think it is a simple but effective means of creating a tense atmosphere. It has a great deal of dark night and twilight scenes that also serve to escalate tension. It is a very good example of the amount of suspense that can be created with a small budget.
The ambiguity of this film, where everything that happens might be witchcraft or a series of coincidences and accidents, is what I like most about “Night of the Eagle”. Even the apparent manifestation of the eagle can be explained by the fact that Norman has been awake for hours, frantic for Tansy’s safety, and has been in a car accident (with potential internal injuries causing hallucination). Or maybe it’s witchcraft. The eventual fate of Flora could simply be another accident, or her own bad magic rebounding on her. I think this is a clever film, and I would definitely recommend you check it out.