Alan Morrison on

The Innocents

UK, 1961
(Re-screened winter 2013)

Directed by Jack Clayton
Cinematography Freddie Francis
Screenplay William Archibald,
Truman Capote and John Mortimer
Music Georges Auric

From the short story
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Cast: Deborah Kerr, Michael Redgrave,
Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins,
Pamela Franklin, Clytie Jessop,
Isla Cameron

(99 mins)

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Since this truly haunting and deeply poetic masterpiece was recently revived in arts cinemas throughout the country, I thought it was an opportunity for me to briefly eulogise on what is quite possibly my favourite film of all time.

As a child I remember my father talking with shivery nostalgia of The Innocents, a film he’d first seen as a young man when it was released in cinemas in 1961 (for me, one of the most interesting years for film), and in particular, he always spoke of a scene in which the main character, a sexually repressed governess, played with effortless neurotic élan by the pearl-skinned Deborah Kerr in, for me, her single best performance, bar perhaps Black Narcissus (1947), is sitting in a room when she is suddenly disturbed by a faint sobbing from behind her, only to turn her head and glimpse the shadowy figure of a lady sat at a desk framed by the light of a latticed window.

This is one of many masterfully subtle and genuinely chilling scenes (many of which correspond perhaps the most authentically to real life accounts of paranormal experiences than practically anything else produced through cinema) throughout this exceptionally atmospheric ‘supernatural’ film, based on the Henry James short story The Turn of the Screw (1898); and having read the original story, I would say that the formidable writing triumvirate of Capote, Mortimer and Archibald more than do it justice in terms of adapting it for the screen, as do Jack Clayton and Freddie Francis as director and cinematographer, respectively.

To my mind what stands out most strikingly in filmic terms in The Innocents is the beautifully haunting cinematography, and Francis already had prodigious cinematographic form prior to this film, being intensely gifted in both colour and black and white mediums (disputably, in this, only rivalled in cinema by Ingmar Bergman’s second and most iconic cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, who excelled in such stark chiaroscuro as Through a Glass Darkly (also 1961), as well as in the colouristic intensities of Cries and Whispers (1972) and Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976)): ironically his earlier work, in the 1950s, was significant for its rich use of colour –The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) and Moby Dick (1956)– whereas in the Sixties, Francis cultivated a talent for some of the most hypnotically poetic applications of crisp black and white, light and shadow, in the two ‘kitchen sink’ films, Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and pastoral, period settings of Sons and Lovers (1960) and The Innocents (and would later revive his singular gift for eerie and atmospheric chiaroscuro on David Lynch’s haunting The Elephant Man (1980) .

Clayton would only ever come remotely close to his work on this atmospheric tour de force with The Pumpkin Eater (1964), but whereas that film is rather languorous and rambling, The Innocents is anything but: it is exceptionally purposeful, focused and disciplined, in spite of its poetically rich parabola and deeply ambiguous Freudian symbolisms. Indeed, the running subtext throughout the film is that it might just be possible the governess, Miss Giddens, who apparently alone can perceive the various apparitions about the house and grounds of her ‘situation’, is imagining them, and subconsciously sublimating her own repressed erotic passions vicariously through her two infant wards, whom she believes to be possessed by the nefarious spirits of two deceased servants –Miss Jessel (the aforementioned woman by the window) and Peter Quint, previous valet to the uncle-guardian and owner of the house – in turn, attempting to re-enact their doomed mortal love affair vicariously through the two children (the boy being disturbingly precocious in his very ‘adult’ and masculine manner towards the beautiful governess).

And this is where The Innocents is particularly controversial, not to say, ahead of its time, in touching subtly but constantly on the almost unspoken taboo of ‘child love’, whereby it is suggested throughout the film that Miss Giddens harbours some strange kind of romantic attraction to the small boy (and this aspect inspired Kate Bush’s song ‘The Infant Kiss’ from her 1980 masterpiece Never For Ever). Clayton provides prolific symbolic nods to this disturbing subtext throughout, playing much on the ambiguity of subtle gestures and facial expressions among the main protagonists, such as dare not speak their names, thoughts that mustn’t ever be uttered –and Miss Giddens’ primness and scrupulosity of ‘responsible’, over-protective conduct towards her charges expresses much of this repressed feeling in an absolutely fascinating and mesmerising meditation on the murky interface between the erotic and the neurotic.

Nevertheless, the apparitions continue to haunt the house and its grounds –one particularly memorable and genuinely unnerving scene being when the governess seemingly alone can see the dark figure of a woman dressed in widows weeds stood in the bulrushes at some distance, whereupon she almost hysterically attempts to force the young girl with her to stare back at the figure and admit she can also see her. From this point on the film, the possibility that Miss Giddens is essentially suffering a form of nervous breakdown (or hallucinatory psychosis) –possibly induced through sexual repression– seems to come more to the fore; although towards the end of the film, the alleged ‘ghosts’ (or figments of Miss Giddens’ fevered imagination) become more visible –most shockingly in a shot which first exposes Quint’s viscerally malignant face peering impudently through a window, staring straight at the governess as if ocularly undressing her, courtesy of the imposingly sculpted, tawny Peter Wyngarde (in a much more memorable, albeit mute, appearance in a supernatural film than his lead role in the following year’s fairly risible Night of the Eagle); and even grow more tangible, with the revenant valet’s grasping hands towards the tragic climax.

In the end, Miss Giddens, driven consciously by the most honourable and protective of instincts towards her young ‘possessed’ charges, is depicted as potentially not only delusional but also inadvertently responsible for a kind of psychical infanticide via obsessive salvific fervour: her feverish attempt at ‘saving the soul’ of the young boy, forcing him to face Quint’s apparition while clutching his small body tight to her own, seems, almost unavoidably, to also involve the very relinquishing of his life force –almost like a symbolic purification through psychical immersion, and drowning. This is of course precisely the opposite outcome the governess wishes for, and Kerr expresses Giddens’ horrified disbelief after realising the price that has been paid for ridding her charge of the malevolent Quint’s spirit, or, as is also suggested, for following her own morbid suspicions through an ultimate ritual which is perhaps more about achieving her own psychological catharsis (or repressed erotic tensions via vicarious, ‘spiritualistic’ orgasm) than venting any possessive evil incubated in the boy.

Georges Auric’s eerie score lends much aural texture to the photographic and mood atmospherics of the film but without ever being intrusive or over-elaborate. The casting of Deborah Kerr in the lead role was a superlative move by Clayton, her definitive ‘English Rose’ looks and demeanour mingled with the actress’s natural facility for flinty femininity, perfectly suited to the ambivalent part; the quite phenomenal performances of the two child actors apart, the ever-reliable, ever tremulously toned Michael Redgrave, who only appears at the beginning of the film as the detached and disinterested uncle and absentee owner of the house to which he appoints Giddens as governess, nevertheless makes his own ambivalent mark on everything that follows, being clearly a man bedevilled by some nervous reticence towards his precocious nephew and niece, as well as to the shadowy personality of his house, and its ‘influence’ on them, something to which, it is hinted, he is at least partly aware.

This Rochester-like character is clearly a man of secrets, whom we assume detects something amiss of a nature not rationally explicable at the house which he chooses to be absent from; and here there is an adumbration of the duplicitous and cowardly solicitor who assigns his young employee to document the affects of the late Mrs Drablow at her eerie Eel House isolated at high tide at the end of a marshy causeway in Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black (1983; shockingly adapted by Nigel Kneale for TV in 1989, and more recently, with equal but very differently chilling overtones, in James Watkins’ 2012 cinema version) –because the senior solicitor has himself visited the place before and experienced the intense presence of Drablow’s predeceased sister, Jennet Humfrye. The Woman In Black borrows much from the haunting imagery of The Turn of the Screw; most significantly in its 1989 television adaptation, where at the climax, the eponymous spectre is witnessed standing in the middle of a lake, as if on the water, draped in her customary widows weeds, which recalls the aforementioned shot of the deceased Miss Jessel, also in a black dress, stood staring amid the reeds by a lake in The Innocents.

But, in cinematic terms, if any film has borrowed most obviously from the broad scenario of The Innocents –and, to some degree, from The Woman in Black too– it is Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001), which for its first half at least is almost a remake or re-adaptation of both the 1961 film and Henry James’ original novella: a lone woman in a shadowy house, isolated in mists, who has in her charge two young precocious children (in this setting, her actual children) who appear to be if not ‘possessed’, at least highly receptive to apparent supernatural presences. But to give The Others its due credit –and it is in itself an excellent piece of work, albeit in some aspects derivative (also in some metaphysical aspects of The Sixth Sense, 1999), and still not a patch on Clayton’s film– it does take some unexpected twists and turns in terms of scenario (these children are kept indoors permanently in windowless rooms due to suffering severe light sensitivity) narrative, resulting in a highly ambitious but very imaginative subversion of audience predictions by its end, which lifts it significantly above simple pastiche.

The Innocents’ most closely related offshoot, however, was shot only two years later, again in black and white, though to my mind, a much less crisply poetic type, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), a film which in recent years had benefited from some critical revisionism but which I watched not long ago and found largely wanting in many respects, both aesthetically and scripturally. The atmosphere is just about there, and there are some reasonably disturbing scenes and moments throughout, but I found the protagonists slightly irritating, almost like an angst-ridden live action adumbration of the Scooby Doo Gang (two men, cardboard Richard Johnson, popcorn-haired Russ Tamblyn, two women, psychic sensitive Julie Harris, and sultry Clare Bloom), and feel that perhaps had I watched it prior to watching The Innocents, I might have thought it much better than it actually is.

But after seeing The Innocents, frankly, most supernatural films pale by comparison –if not in terms of atmosphere, fright or chill factor, then in terms of poetry. The only later films I can remotely compare it to in terms of genuinely unsettling moments, a constant sense of mental unease, of unuttered dread, and haunting atmosphere, is Peter Weir’s truly unsettling, sublime poetic-masterpiece, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), and to a slightly lesser degree, Nicholas Roeg’s supremely eerie Walkabout (1971). In terms of strictly ‘supernatural’/‘psychological horror’ cinema, however, I would cite probably only Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) as conveying a comparable –albeit it very different and much more visceral– sense of unnerving dread and chilling ambiguity.

The Innocents was not without its fair share of contemporary competition in terms of standing out as a film at the time it was released: 1961 was, in my opinion, one of the most artistically interesting years for cinema, particularly in terms of producing some of the most strikingly shot black and white films of the period: Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman), Judgement at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer), The Misfits (John Huston), Viridiana (Luis Buñuel). And yet, to my mind, only Bergman’s contribution to that year –a profoundly emotive exploration of schizophrenia, which also briefly pays homage to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s piercingly poetic novella The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), as does, to a less emphatic though detectable extent, The Innocents. Taking in the slightly wider lens of the early Sixties, The Innocents still stands out among other chiaroscuro masterpieces of its period, such as Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind (1960), Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), Winter Light and The Silence (both 1963), John Huston’s Freud (1962), François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962), Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), Joseph Losey’s Eva (1962), Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker (1962), John Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving (1962), Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) and The Hill (1965), and countless others.

For me personally, The Innocents is not only disputably the most perfect depiction of supernatural/psychical experience ever put to celluloid, but also close to the perfect film: and I mean this in the sense of it being as perfect as its subject could expect it to be, so sensitively and meticulously directed, photographed and acted as it is, but also a film which fascinates and stimulates at so many varied levels, psychically, emotionally, poetically.

Alan Morrison © 2014