Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nuanced Terror - Jack Clayton's "The Innocents"

Light and shadow flicker across the screen. Sobbing is heard as a pair of praying hands, clasping and unclasping, come into view. The sobs continue.

A woman’s suffering face appears above the tortured hands. Birds twitter…her distraught voice whispers…

All I want to do is save the children not destroy them. More than anything I love children. More than anything they need affection, love, someone who will belong to them and to whom they will belong.

And then, as a man’s voice asks Do you have an imagination?, the screen focuses, suddenly revealing a well-appointed office, an elegant gentleman and the woman we have already seen…who now sits in a chair and speaks animatedly with the man who continues to ask questions and explain the situation he offers.

Director Jack Clayton
These first moments of Jack Clayton’s masterful 1961 film, The Innocents, set the stage for a chilling and absorbing tale of bewitchment.

Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, an anxious, fragile-seeming young woman who begins her first assignment as a governess for two orphaned children on a remote estate.

Michael Redgrave briefly portrays the gentleman, Miss Giddens’ employer, whose questions and revelations prime and subtly spook her, before she sets foot in the stately home where events will unfold.

The action intensifies when Miss Giddens arrives at Bly, a magnificent manor that far exceeds her expectations in its grandeur and beauty. She is “very excited, indeed” to be there and her two “angelic” and precocious charges easily charm her. An earthy housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), serves to ground the excitable governess…whose journey proceeds from enchantment to confusion, to torment and disintegration.

Henry James
American novelist Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw in 1898 while living in England in a large rambling mansion. James has recorded that the story was suggested to him by an anecdote he heard from the Archbishop of Canterbury. This scrap of a tale concerned young children haunted by the malevolent ghosts of a pair of servants who tried, again and again, to lure them to their deaths.

The James novella depicts a young governess on her first assignment, the care of two children living in a grand mansion on a vast estate. The plot deepens when the young woman, daughter of a vicar, begins to suspect the presence of the evil spirits of two deceased servants.

It was several years after James’ book was published before critics began to wrangle in earnest over the interpretation of the story. By the 1920s several had proposed that The Turn of the Screw was less a ghost story and more the tale of inexperienced and high-strung governess who succumbed to hallucinations and madness. A 1934 essay by prominent critic Edmund Wilson dramatically advanced this view.

Henry James himself was equivocal about his intentions, and statements he made on the subject have been cited to support both apparitionist and non-apparitionist views.

Fascination with The Turn of the Screw hasn't waned over the years and it has been adapted from the page to other mediums including opera, the stage, TV and film. In February 1950, Peter Cookson’s production of William Archibald’s stage adaption of the James novella debuted on Broadway as The Innocents; Beatrice Straight starred as the governess.

Eleven years later, the play was adapted to film by British director, Jack Clayton (Room at the Top). Though William Archibald was involved, it was Truman Capote who was primarily responsible for the polished screenplay.

Truman Capote
Capote endeavored to maintain the story’s ambiguity as he felt Henry James had originally conceived it – are the ghosts real or are they the fantasies of a governess gone mad?

Taking the modern view, it’s not difficult to interpret The Innocents as an intricately staged reflection of an unstable woman’s descent into madness: the film closely follows the increasingly erratic behavior and visible deterioration of the omnipresent governess; no one but the governess actually “sees” the ghosts she claims are present; by the film’s end, even the sensible and supportive housekeeper is at odds with the hysterical young woman…and there are many visual clues that the governess may be projecting her own imaginings onto her surroundings. It is no stretch these days to believe that a deranged governess would be capable of terrifying a frightened child to death.

But, viewed from another perspective, the tale can also be read as the story of an inexperienced but well-meaning young woman confronted with the supernatural in the form of malicious spirits. Her fervid determination to save the children from possession could explain her unorthodox behavior. And that is what most people believed when The Turn of the Screw was first published.

Enigmatic and haunting, The Innocents leaves the audience to its own conclusions.

A luminous turn by Deborah Kerr (in her own favorite film performance), Freddie Francis’ cinematography, the script of Archibald and Capote and Georges Auric’s original music all mesh under Jack Clayton’s accomplished direction to create the acknowledged masterpiece among the many adaptations of The Turn of the Screw.


  1. Eve, this is a fine review of one of my favorite Deborah Kerr films (and I'm a huge Deborah fan). I am one of those who believe it's a tale about a descent into insanity--but I still appreciate its ambiguity. The child actors are extraordinary; Martin Stephens (also quite good in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED) has some wonderfully disturbing scenes with Ms. Kerr. Sometimes, he seems more like the adult than her. Pamela Franklin is also quite effective (but was even better opposite Bette Davis in the underrated THE NANNY). Freddie Francis later directed one of my favorite Hammer films, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE. Marlon Brando and Stephanie Beacham did a prequel to THE INNOCENTS called THE NIGHTCOMERS...interesting, but not very good.

  2. Another well-researched and well-written post, Eve. The Innocents is in my top 3 truly frightening horror movies, along with the original The Haunting and George C. Scott's The Changeling. I agree with you completely about the wonderful mesh of direction, cinematography and music. Kerr was just marvelous, and those children just incredible. The Innocents is indeed so subtle in its horror that it creeps up on you until you are as nervous as Miss Giddens.
    There is one short moment when Miss Giddens is looking for the children in a game of hide and seek, and she sees the figure of a woman cross the dark hallway for just a second. The way it is done, the sounds accompanying, still makes me shiver.
    I don't agree with you, Rick -- I have always believed that it is a tale of true supernatural horror. The fact that Miss Giddens is the only one who admitted to seeing the figures did not mean to me that no one else saw them. Particularly the children, especially the oddly frightening little boy who, with a goodnight kiss with Miss Giddens, showed himself to be sexually mature way beyond his years. The housekeeper was the "stuff and nonsense" person who did not wish to see or talk about anything unpleasant. As an aside, I understand that the kiss I referred to was considered very controversial.
    I'm glad that James never let anybody know what the story meant to him. It makes for fun conversation. Rick, I never knew of The Nightcomers. Even if it isn't very good, I'd like to see what they did with it.

  3. Eve, this is a very good review. I have seen this movie and agree with Becky. I have read and studied the novella in college and it is viewed by most critics as a supernatural ghost story. This film is well done, and Kerr is rather good, but I would have preferred a young Bette Davis as the governess. It is a creepy fim. If you haven't read the novella, you need to read it before watching The Innocents. I think it the viewer would understand the plot better. I really liked your review, Eve.

  4. Great comments from Rick, Becky and Aki -

    Rick, so true about the two gifted child actors. I wanted to mention that Pamela Franklin went on to deliver a really fine performance a few years later in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE. I haven't seen THE NIGHTCOMERS, but maybe someday...once I've gotten thru the pile of DVDs and a DVR full of movies I haven't watched yet.

    Becky, you know I love research and I worked my way through fascinating stuff on both the book (which I hadn't read for decades) and the film. Of interest...most know that Henry James' brother William was a prominent and pioneering psychologist and philosopher. Their father, Henry Sr., was involved in spiritual/ metaphysical interests. It seems to me that the psychological and the metaphysical were seamlessly (and enigmatically) interwoven in this tale.

    Aki, you brought up the idea of a young Bette Davis as Miss Giddens (which brought to mind her role as Regina Giddens). You're right, she would've been magnificent. It's no stretch at all to imagine what she might've done in the role. I do like Deborah Kerr in the part very much - and it's interesting that she was about 40 when she made the film - but she was often able to portray a kind of vulnerability and fragility associated with youth.

    The comments so far seem to reflect exactly the divergent reactions to this story - "apparitionists" and "non-apparitionists" (or...ghosts vs. crazy governess). I can't entirely commit to either - though I've seen it both ways at different times. Now it seems to me that there is much in this world that can't be explained by psychology or tales of the supernatural...or anything else.

  5. great post, EVE..excellent insight into the back story...a subtle mystery/ghost story transformed by CLAYTON ET AL...great pedigree..TRUMAN CAPOTE...DEBORAH KERR...FREDDIE FRANCIS..GEORGES AURIC..why does this film succeed so well while others have not?? and why did they abandon THE TURN OF THE SCREW as the title??

  6. Great write-up on THE INNOCENTS, Eve. I agree with Rick that this is one of Deborah Kerr's best films, and I'm also a huge fan of her work. Aside from stellar acting, THE INNOCENTS has two attributes of a horror film that I love: an imposing atmosphere and a plot that is certainly open to interpretation. My uncle showed me this movie, and I remember when the ending rolled around, he just looked at me with a devilish grin which said, "Explain that." Thanks, Eve. I always love reading about terrific movies... and Deborah Kerr... and looking at Deborah Kerr photos...

  7. Doc, I'm not sure why the 1950 play did not take the title of the book - but the film was adapted from the play rather than James' book - and the playwright worked on the script. I think you put your finger on why this film succeeds so well - the incredible depth of talent involved in the film at all levels...

    Sark, I agree with you and Rick (and the actress herself) that this is one of Deborah Kerr's top performances (and there are so many fine ones). I tend to agree with you on atmosphere and ambiguity - though I don't see a lot of horror films, I do enjoy films of any genre with those attributes.

  8. Eve, I would bet that by the time of the 1950's stage play and certainly the movie, the term screw had gone from the literal meaning in James' day to meaning a cop or prison guard in the 20's and 30's, to the sexual connotation it had obtained by the 50's. Just a thought, but I imagine it might be the reason for the change of title.

  9. Aki, I consider a film and its literary origin to be separate works of arts. Taken on its own, the film version of THE INNOCENTS tilts strongly toward a portrait of insanity. That's my interpretation...and I'm sticking to it. (But the ambiguity is there and does make for entertaining discussion.)

  10. Eve, I've seen serveral stage productions of The Turn of the Screwn, but have never seen this Deborah Kerr film. Perhaps it's the title difference. Loved your review and will keep an eye out for this on TIVO.

  11. The ongoing discussion on this post is very rewarding...and it speaks to the filmmakers' (I include all who worked on the film in that term) success in creating and maintaining ambiguity throughout. I tend toward Rick's view, but am often aware while watching that any given scene can be taken either way - and that this is intentional. Which only adds to my admiration and enjoyment of THE INNOCENTS.
    Kim, hope you have a chance to see it soon - it was on HBO recently.

  12. I highly recommend the BFI blu-ray of this one.