The Innocents

Director: Jack Clayton
Screenplay:William Archibald and Truman Capote (based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James; additional scenes & dialogue by John Mortimer)
Stars: Deborah Kerr (Miss Giddens), Peter Wyngarde (Peter Quint), Megs Jenkins (Mrs. Grose), Michael Redgrave (The Uncle), Martin Stephens (Miles), Pamela Franklin (Flora), Clytie Jessop(Miss Jessel), Isla Cameron (Anna)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1961
Country: U.S. / U.K.
The Innocents Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The InnocentsJack Clayton’s The Innocents, an effectively unsettling adaptation of Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, is one of the best-looking horror films you’ll ever see. Its deep-focus black-and-white ’Scope imagery is entrancing, although never at the expense of the tension and chills that come with things that go bump in the night. Rather, the beauty enhances the dread by intensifying our sense of how feeble even the most luminous of surfaces can be in hiding the horrors beneath, which is appropriate for a film awash in Freudian subtext about repressed sexuality, buried memories, and the uncanny nature of children.

The film takes place almost entirely inside and around Bly, an enormous country manor that is perched at the edge of a lake and surrounded by gardens (the interiors were all studio sets, while Sheffield Park in Sussex provided the gothic exteriors). One would think that all the flowers and statuary and beautiful furniture would be enough to stave off anything bad, but Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis show us just the opposite: Although the film begins in wide open spaces and brightness and sunlight, as the story progresses the imagery gets darker and more claustrophobic, slowly trapping us inside the experience of a naïve, well-meaning woman who is either confronting the supernatural or wrestling with her own psychological demons. Either way, the effect is an unsettling slow burn that was unlike virtually anything being made at the time (remember that British horror in the late 1950s and early ’60s was dominated by Hammer’s brand of bloody-color Gothic shockers and there was virtually nothing of interest happening in Hollywood).

Deborah Kerr, in what is perhaps her finest performance, stars as Miss Giddens, a governess who is hired by the wealthy uncle (Michael Redgrave) of two prepubescent children, 10-year-old Miles (Martin Stephens) and 8-year-old Flora (Pamela Franklin), who have come into his care. The bachelor uncle wants nothing to do with the children, lest they cramp his hedonistic lifestyle, which is why he hires Miss Giddens, the unmarried daughter of a country parson whose life experience has been understandably restricted, and sends her to Bly, where the children are living, with the strict instructions that he is not to be bothered with anything at any time. Miss Giddens joins Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkin), the solid Irish housekeeper who has been watching over the children (the “innocents” of the title), and she is immediately smitten. Both children are bright and energetic and precocious, although the introduction of each is accompanied by the suggestion of something dark and sinister (before Miss Giddens meets Flora in the garden outside the manor, she hears a voice that Flora denies is hers, and Miles is introduced after having been expelled from boarding school for reasons that are left vague until the end of the film).

It becomes gradually apparent that all is not right at Bly, as Miss Giddens begins seeing the strange figure of a man and woman in and around the manor, and when she presses Mrs. Grose for information about her deceased predecessor, the much beloved Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), she learns of a dark, sordid history of sexual obsession and abuse involving her and the valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), who also died recently under mysterious circumstances. Mrs. Grose hints at all sorts of depravities that were at the very least witnessed by the children (particularly Miles, who was enamored of Quint) and, at worst, involved them in some way. Miss Giddens becomes convinced that that the figures she is seeing are Quint and Miss Jessel’s ghosts and that these ruthless spirits are intent on possessing the bodies of the children and using them to continue their evil ways.

The darkness of Bly’s past is visually realized in Clayton and Francis’s elegantly disquieting visuals, which manipulate the ’Scope frame (imposed on them by distributor 20th Century Fox) by both emphasizing its horizontal openness (for example, placing characters and objects in the extreme right and left edges) and artificially restricting it (Francis came up with the ingenious idea of putting painted filters over the lens that darkened the edges, thus creating a frame within the frame and also producing copious amount of black space in which anything could be lurking, a technique that John Carpenter also employed to delirious effect in Halloween [1978] nearly two decades later). Most of the film was also shot in deep focus, which creates a rich sense of depth and detail in the images that at times threatens to overwhelm the characters (in true Gothic fashion, Bly is very much its own character and a repository of the sins of the past).

The screenplay, which was penned by Truman Capote, who was in the midst of researching and writing In Cold Blood at the time, and the playwright William Archibald, who had already adapted The Turn of the Screw as a stageplay in 1950, adheres closely to James’s novella, although it clearly bears the weight of literary scholar Edmund Wilson’s contention, first published in the 1934 essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” that the ghosts are not real, but are rather hallucinations brought about by the governess’s “neurotic case of sex repression.” Capote, who had a fascination with the Southern Gothic, clearly infuses the film with a ripe subtext of psychological and social unease, which Clayton enhances with numerous directorial choices, including the set design, which privileges a sense of splendor in decay (note all the flower petals dropping, the insects and reptiles in the garden, and the nightmarish emptiness of the manor’s cavernous rooms), as well as a number of shots of Miss Giddens that emphasize the wild look in her eyes as she becomes more and more intent on “saving” the children (one in particular has her framed in the foreground during a conversation with Mrs. Grose, who is in the background, and her eyes look positively manic). “Do you have an imagination?” the uncle had asked Miss Giddens in the film’s opening interview scene, which has no corollary in James’s novella, and the answer may be that she has, in fact, too much imagination. Or maybe not enough.

Clayton is canny in arming us with just enough ammunition for both arguments—the ghosts are real, the ghosts are psychological projections—to make the film a study in purposeful ambiguity. For example, we always see the ghosts from Miss Giddens’s perspective (sometimes we even see her reaction to them before we see the ghosts themselves, the inverse of the traditional horror style of sudden revelation) except for one crucial shot at the end. Similarly, everything about the children’s strange behavior—Miles’s beyond-his-years sense of assuredness and candor and Flora’s creepy fascination with the brutalities of nature (“Oh look, a lovely spider—and it’s eating a butterfly!”)—can be explained psychologically (they are, after all, orphaned children who have been through their fair share of trauma) or supernaturally (their possession by Quint and Miss Jessel helps explain their vacillation between being childish and being frighteningly precocious, even adult-like).

Miss Giddens’s mission of salvation, as it turns out, is more Travis Bickel than Anna Leonowens (who Kerr had played five years earlier in The King & I), as her increasingly frantic attempts to force the children to admit to seeing the ghosts come with dire, even tragic, consequences. This is particularly true of her interactions with Miles, whose uncanny appropriation of some very adult-like behavior makes it impossible for Miss Giddens (and us) to deal with him rationally (interestingly, Martin Stephens had previously appeared in Village of the Damned [1959] where he played another uncanny child of frightening supernatural power).

The final showdown, as it were, between the governess and her charge would be harrowing enough in and of itself, but it is also fraught with that repressed sexual subtext, which had exploded a few scenes earlier when Miles laid a sensual, mouth-to-mouth goodnight kiss on Miss Giddens that is by far the most unnerving image in the film. At that point, we know that she is not in control and has no way of defeating the evil, whether it be psychological or supernatural, which is why, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. The tragic horror of The Innocents is not ghosts or insanity, but rather impotence in the face of evil, which is why the bookending images of Miss Giddens, hands clasped in desperate prayer, whispering to herself about only wanting to save the children, carry such ferocious emotional power.

The Innocents Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Introduction by cultural historian Christopher Frayling
  • Audio commentary by Christopher Frayling
  • Video interview with cinematographer John Bailey
  • Retrospective featurette
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Maitland McDonagh
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 23, 2014

    Criterion’s Blu-ray of The Innocents boasts an absolutely stunning image scanned from the original 35mm camera negative in 4K and digitally restored to remove all traces of age and wear. Cinematographer Freddie Francis’s exquisitely framed black-and-white images look fantastic, and the detail and sharpness allow us to fully appreciate the depth and richness of the deep focus photography. The monaural soundtrack has been transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print and digitally restored. The soundtrack is clean and clear, and although somewhat limited, is still impressively effective in terms of generating mood and atmosphere.
    The supplements include some of the material that first appeared on the BFI’s 2006 DVD, as well as several new pieces. From the BFI disc we have a 23-minute introduction by film scholar Christopher Frayling, although I should warn you that it’s not something you want to watch before the film since he discusses the ending at some length. That being said, Frayling is an expert on the film (he penned an entire volume on it for the BFI Film Classics series), and the introduction provides a great deal of information about its production. Also from the BFI disc is a screen-specific audio commentary, also by Frayling, that goes into even deeper detail in analyzing the film critically and historically. New to the disc is an interview with cinematographer John Bailey about the uniqueness and innovation of director of photography Freddie Francis’s work on the film and a retrospective featurette featuring interviews from 2006 with Francis, editor Jim Clark, and script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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