THE LADY’S NOT FOR BURNING. Made-for-TV movie. KCET / Hollywood Television Theater / PBS, 1974. Richard Chamberlain, Eileen Atkins, Jacques Aubuchon, John Carradine, Keene Curtis, Scott Hylands, Tom Lacy, Stephen McHattie, Rosemary Murphy, Laurie Prange, and Kristoffer Tabori. From Christopher Fry’s play (1948). Directed by Joseph Hardy.

   With its frequent references to tumult and celebration off-stage, this cries out to be made as a movie, but the nearest it’s come is two made-for-TV tapings of the play, and the 1987 version was ruined by Kevin Branagh’s over-acting. This 1974 production, however, is a joy to watch: perfectly cast, well-paced, and directed with an affinity for Fry’s wit and melancholy in equal measure.

   Set in the Mayor’s house in a medieval village, the story builds itself on the contrasting characters who come and linger: Thomas Mendip, a wandering veteran back from some meaningless war, wants to be hanged; Alizon, a young innocent, is trothed to marry Humphrey, the Mayor’s snarkey nephew — or possibly his loutish bother Nicholas. Jenna, an alchemist’s daughter, arrives pursued by a witch-hunting mob, soon joined by a musical Priest and a hedonist Magistrate. Stir in the Mayor’s supremely serene sister, composed of equal parts Gracie Allen and Margaret Dumot, add a sensitive young Clerk smitten with Alizon, and you get a story that almost writes itself.

   Well actually, Christopher Fry wrote it, with his usual wit and obvious love of the characters. Nor does he stint on the action. There’s a lot of talk, to be sure, mostly about love, death, God and the Devil, but there’s more conflict than conversation here, and much more wit than piety. I particularly enjoyed Jenna’s debate with herself over whether to sleep with Humphrey or burn at the stake, and her carnal indignation when Mendip threatens to kill her option (“Sluts are human, too.”)

   I said this was perfectly cast, and it is, from Kristoffer Tabori’s callow swain to Jacques Aubuchon’s venal magistrate, but Chamberlain and Atkins rightly dominate the piece — his ghastly grin when she asks why he wants to be hanged and he replies, “I owe it to myself.” is a marvelous bit of sheer theater. They dominate, I should say until the last few minutes, when John Carradine staggers out onstage as old Skipps, the drunken Rag & Bones man, and proceeds to blow everyone else into the wings. A small part, but unforgettable.

   Try to catch this one. It’s one of those that manages to entertain and make you feel a bit smarter.