Friday, September 30, 2011

Nuanced Terror: Jack Clayton's The Innocents

Light and shadow flicker across the screen. Sobs are heard as a pair of praying hands, clasping and unclasping, appear. The sobbing continues.

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 suddenly focuses on a well-appointed office, an elegant gentleman and the woman whose face we have already seen…who now sits in a chair and speaks animatedly with this man as he 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 story 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.

American novelist Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw, the basis for this film, 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.

Novelist Henry James
The James novella depicts a young governess on her first assignment, the care of two children living in a grand mansion on a sprawling 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 failed to wane over the years and it has been adapted from the page to other mediums including opera, the stage and TV as well as film. In February 1950, Peter Cookson’s production of William Archibald’s stage adaption of the James novella debuted on Broadway as The Innocents; Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight (Network) 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. Capote endeavored to maintain the story’s ambiguity as he felt Henry James had originally conceived it by artfully dodging the central question: 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 on 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’ atmospheric cinematography, the script of Archibald and Capote and Georges Auric’s original music all mesh under Jack Clayton’s sure hand to create the acknowledged masterpiece among the many adaptations of The Turn of the Screw

Waitin' on a Sunny Day is hosting a Deborah Kerr Blogathon in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the actress's birth...Click here for more on participating blogs.

The Innocents airs today (1:45pm Eastern/10:45am Pacific) on Turner Classic Movies as part of its morning/afternoon spotlight on the films of Deborah Kerr. Here's the full schedule (all times Eastern/Pacific):

6:00am/3:00am Count Your Blessings (1959), co-starring Rossano Brazzi
8:00am/5:00am If Winter Comes (1947), co-starring Walter Pidgeon
10:00am/7:00am Black Narcissus (1947), a masterwork from Powell & Pressburger
11:45am/8:45am The End of the Affair (1955), co-starring Van Johnson
1:45pm/10:45am The Innocents (1961), reviewed here...with Michael Redgrave
3:30pm/12:30pm The Journey (1959), co-starring Yul Brynner
5:45pm/2:45pm The Sundowners (1960), co-starring Robert Mitchum


  1. I really enjoyed reading your awesome review to a film I'm watching right now on TCM.. and I'm so glad that I'm watching it in middle of the day with all the lights on.

    Everything about this movie is haunting and beautiful, like when you hear a young girl's voice singing a song in the distance.

    The Victorian mansion with all its haunting and beautiful rooms.

    I'm also enjoying the haunting black and white cinematography, which is perfect for this movie.

    Deborah Kerr's facial expressions in this movie tells it all.

    ok.. back to the movie..

  2. Great post, Eve. I watched/reviewed The Innocents a few weeks ago and loved it.

  3. Eve - Great essay! I just finished watching this for the first time and wow, Freddie Francis atmospheric cinematography really make for an eerie and suggestive ghost story, though I am on the side of those who see Kerr's character as you write "inexperienced and high-strung governess who succumbed to hallucinations and madness." Kerr is fantastic!


  4. Splendid review of a great movie. We watched this in high school English class many years ago and the class was pretty evenly split between those who thought it was in her imagination and those who thought the ghosts were real. Compelling arguments were made for each case. It truly is an ambiguous film and I don't know if there's any right or wrong answers.

    Never saw the prequel, "The Nightcomers" with Marlon Brando.

  5. Wonderful, Eve. This is one of my favorite movies, and definitely a favorite movie for fright. There are a couple of scenes in it that scared the hell out of me and still do. They are very subtle, and usually that's more scary. Knowing that Truman Capote did this adaptation explains its excellence. You are quite right about the cinematography, the music...all first rate.

    Kerr is perfect for this part, and I always found it interesting that her costumes reflect her increasing disturbance - she starts out wearing lovely light gowns, and eventually turns darker until she wears black. I have always loved the way James refused to say one way or the other what he meant by the ending. Smart move for a great writer.

    I have to mention the two children, two of the best child actors I've ever seen. Their performances were unmatchable, incredibly chilling. The scene you highlighted with Miles and that grisly poem always brought shivers to me.

    I learned a lot about the book and the movie from this article, Eve. Excellent job! Kudos!

  6. Dawn - I love it that you commented on my post while watching the movie. Were you watching for the first time? If so, you sound like you were getting a serious case of the chills...

    And "The Innocents" is a real chiller. There is the creepiness of debauched and evil spirits afoot, if it is a ghost story...even more unsettling, perhaps, is if what we are watching is a governess going mad and becoming a threat to the children under her own care.

    Meredith - I'll check out your review - and compare notes, too.

    John - My tendency is also to interpret the story as that of an impressionable woman gradually losing her grip and becoming deluded and dangerous. It is beautifully done film on all fronts and I can understand why it was Kerr's favorite performance.

    Kevin - One of the things to love about James's book and Clayton's film is the fact that the two views can be argued with equal conviction and neither side can ever win - thanks to James...and Capote. I haven't seen "The Nightcomers" either, but should.

    Becky - I love this film, too, but can't watch it very often due to the creeping chills I get every time I do. I agree about the child actors - they are absolutely perfect in their roles. I've always been curious why Pamela Franklin didn't do more film work. She's unforgettable as Flora - and was also in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie."

  7. Becky - If I remember correctly, Franklin got married and retired from acting. I believe she is or at least was living in California. She was a terrific little actress. She made another fine film with Jack Clayton called OUR MOTHER'S HOUSE; if it ever pops up on TCM you should catch it. She even worked with Brando in an overlooked offbeat film called THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY and well as an excellent TV movie, SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS.


  8. As always - first class. This is my favorite Deborah Kerr film. She is masterful - you never quite know what the devil (really) is going on with her. I always think of her as a latter-day Jane Eyre without Mr. Rochester (or maybe she would be Mrs. Rochester). As for Pamela Franklin - she's on my list of people who I am angry at for not making more movies.

  9. Great review - thanks so much for participating in the blogathon! I haven't seen "The Innocents" for a few years (it creeped me out so much), I definitely need to plan a re-watch. :D

  10. John (24 Frames) - After you listed those movies, I remembered another one with Franklin. She was an adult, before she got married, and it is called Legend of Hell House. It isn't the quality of the Innocents, but it's pretty fun as a scary movie. She was quite good in it. Thanks for the heads-up on her other movies I can watch for!

  11. John - Thanks for coming back and posting recommendations on Pamela Franklin films - I'd checked her out on IMDB but wasn't familiar with many of her films after "Miss Jean Brodie" (the TV series she appeared on - yes, later films - not so much).

    FlickChick - Really interesting take on Deborah Kerr re: Jane Eyre. What a performance she turns in here - with a delicacy of enormous power.

    Sophie - Thank you for hosting a blogathon for the most marvelous Deborah Kerr, one of the greatest of film actresses. I'm getting ready to watch "Count Your Blessings" for the first time, by the way (recorded from TCM yesterday).

  12. Becky - About your comment on the child actors in "The Innocents"... this time the little boy -

    I just happened to watch "Count Your Blessings" (1959) which I recorded when it aired yesterday as part of TCM's nod to Deborah Kerr. Was surprised to see Martin Stephens, who played Miles, portraying the son of Deborah Kerr and Rossano Brazzi.

  13. Eve, I really enjoyed this post. You summed up the film nicely when you called it "a chilling and absorbing tale of bewitchment." I've loved this film since I first saw it years ago. This is my own favorite Deborah Kerr performance (how did she fail to get an Oscar nomination?), so I was pleased to read that it was her favorite as well as the favorite of several people who left comments. I found the great photography really added to the atmosphere of the film--and the film is largely about atmosphere--and was pleased others especially noticed this too. I read the book in high school and saw that it's all about ambiguity, but that's James's recurring theme, isn't it? I lean towards your own interpretation, however, seeing this as a study in the psychology of a particular type of personality. In the end, it's all a matter of belief, and I think the screenplay, performances, photography, and direction all convey this admirably.

  14. R.D. - I don't understand at all why Deborah Kerr wasn't Oscar-nominated for this performance. Looking over the list of nominees, it's my opinion that her performance was on a par with the winner's (Sophia Loren/"Two Women")...

    Kerr's performance is in perfect accord with the atmosphere the film aims to, and succeeds in, achieving. This is, for me, what makes the film so utterly chilling.

  15. I saw this movie a long time ago.. and there were many scenes that I had forgotten.. This is one of my favorite Deborah Kerr, performances. She was very scary, not knowing.. is she good, or.. is she evil?

    I really enjoyed commenting on your post while watching the film. I hope to have the opportunity to do it again.