1692, Salem, Massachusetts. John Proctor is the only member in the town's assembly who resists the attempts of the rich to gain more wealth on the expense of the poor farmers, thus incurring the wrath of deputy governor Danforth. Proctor's sternly puritanical wife, Elizabeth, is sick and has not shared his bed for months, and he was seduced by his maid, Abigail. When he ends his affair with her, Abigail and several other local girls turn to slave Tituba. Reverend Parris catches the girls in the forest as they partake in what appears to be witchcraft. Abigail and the rest deny it, saying that they have been bewitched. A wave of hysteria engulfs the town, and Danforth uses the girls' accusations to instigate a series of trials, during which his political enemies are accused of heresy and executed. When Abigail blames Elizabeth Proctor, the latter rejects John's pleas to defraud Abigail as an adulteress. Eventually, both Proctors are put on trial and refuse to sign a confession. The townspeople rebel, but not before John is hanged with other defendants; his pregnant wife has been spared. Elizabeth tells the angry crowd to let Abigail live.Simone Signoret as Elizabeth Proctor
Yves Montand as John Proctor
Chantal Gozzi as Francy Proctor
Mylène Demongeot as Abigail Williams
Alfred Adam as Thomas Putnam
Françoise Lugagne as Jane Putnam
Raymond Rouleau as Thomas Danforth
Pierre Larquey as Francis Nurse
Marguerite Coutan-Lambert as Rebecca Nurse
Jean Debucourt as Samuel Parris
Darling Legitimus as Tituba
Michel Piccoli as James Putnam
Gerd Michael Henneberg as Joseph Herrick
Yves Brainville as John Hale
Pascale Petit as Mary Warren
Véronique Nordey as Mercy Lewis
Jeanne Fusier-Gir as Martha Corey
Jean Gaven as Peter Corey
Aribert Grimmer as Giles Corey
Alexandre Rignault as Samuel Willard
Pâquerette (Marguerite Jeanne Martine Puech) as Sarah Good
Gérard Darrieu as Ezekiel Cheever
François Joux as Judge
Sabine Thalbach as Kitty
Ursula Körbs as Wollit
Hans Klering as Field
Jean-Paul Sartre began writing the script in late 1955, during what author David Caute defined as "the height of his rapprochement with the Soviet Union". He was inspired by the success of Marcel Aymé's French-language adaptation of Miller's The Crucible, titled Les sorcières de Salem, which was staged in Paris' Sarah Bernhardt Theater, starring Simone Signoret as Elizabeth Proctor. Sartre later said he was moved to write his adaptation because "the play showed John Proctor persecuted, but no one knows why... His death seems like a purely ethical act, rather than one of freedom, that is undertaken in order to resist the situation effectively. In Miller's play... Each of us can see what he wants, each public will find in it confirmation of its own attitude... Because the real political and social implications of the witch-hunt don't appear clearly." The screenplay was 300 pages long. Sartre's version was different from the original play in many ways; Elizabeth saves Abigail from lynching and the townspeople rise up against Thomas Danforth, who becomes the chief antagonist.
The film was one of four major Franco-East German co-productions made during the late 1950s - the others were Till Ulenspiegel's Adventures, Les Misérables and Les Arrivistes. The Democratic Republic's government authorized the DEFA studio to collaborate with companies outside the Eastern Bloc in order to gain access to Western audiences, thus bypassing the limitations imposed by West Germany's Hallstein Doctrine; eventually, they intended their films to reach also the public in the Federal Republic. The French, on their part, were interested in reducing costs by filming in East Germany. Principal photography took place in DEFA's Babelsberg Studios from August to mid-October 1956, with additional shooting in Paris during early November.
Pascale Petit made her debut in the film. She was discovered working as a hairdress by Françoise Lugagne who recommended her to her husband Raymond Rouleau.
Les Sorcières de Salem sold 1,686,749 tickets. For their appearance in it, Signoret won the 1957 BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress and Mylène Demongeot was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Newcomer in the same year. In the 1957 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, the Best Actor Award was given to "all actors of Les Sorcières de Salem in collective, and especially to Yves Montand."
The New York Times' critic Bosley Crowther wrote that "out of The Crucible... Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Rouleau have got a powerful and compelling film... For now Mr. Miller's somewhat cramped and peculiarly parochial account... comes forth as a sort of timeless drama... This is a persistently absorbing film." The Time magazine's reviewer commented that "Witches of Salem is a foredoomed but fascinating attempt... But it hardly helps the scriptwriter's case... When he sums the whole story up as an early American instance of class warfare."
Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, who edited and annotated Sartre's writings, noted that he introduced a strong element of communist class struggle into his adaptation of Miller's play, especially by turning Danforth from merely sanctimonious to a calculated villain who pulls the strings behind the trial, while making the character of Abigail more complex and consequently, almost sympathetic. In the introduction to the 2010 edition of The Crucible, editor Susan C. W. Abbotson described the film's plot as a "conflict between capitalists and heroic Marxists", writing that "Miller felt the Marxist references were too heavy-handed. Most critics agreed." Abbotson also commented that "Sartre changed the play's theme... His version becomes despiritualized... As it desires to present us the heroic representatives of Communism." In another occasion, Miller told that he disliked the film because it "reduced man to a digit in the socialist dialectic."
According to Susan Hayward, the picture's release shortly after the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising by the Soviets caused several critics to attack it as a work of pro-communists, who resisted Joseph McCarthy and the French War in Algeria but supported the Kremlin. Hayward, however, viewed it as standing in favor of the right to exercise free speech in general.