The Innocents has always been a special film, visually speaking. The AVC transfer of Freddie Francis' immaculate 2.35:1 image is about as sublime as we could hope for, and the resulting picture is an alluring beauty.
Retaining the lustrous texture of its original patina of fine grain, now a touch more gritty in the hi-def print, and suffering some very occasional and really only slight print damage - just the odd vertical line down the centre of the screen that lingers after one or two scene changes - The Innocents looks absolutely wonderful for a film that is now forty-nine years old. Blacks aren't especially solid and stray faithfully close to that filtered grey sheen that Francis and Clayton desired, but they supply splendid depth and a nice consistency throughout - the shadow-play is breathtakingly beautiful, as is the contrast of surrounding gloom around the thin strips of candlelight or flame. As with the restored SD DVD edition, faces can occasionally appear a little too bright, whites slightly bright, but again, this seems to enhance the surrealism of the black and white photography without actually being detrimental to the overall image. Freddie Francis actually made use of some intensely hot and glaring lights to create a lot of the depth to the picture, so this occasional blooming of the whites is now understandable. The disc transfer copes admirably with the simply gorgeous compositions that Clayton and Francis created, exuding a tremendous sense of scale and depth to the huge, and highly detailed interiors of the house, and to the manicured gardens outside and the view out across the lake. Check out the detail on the shot of Miss Giddens looking out over Flora to the solitary figure of a ghost standing in the reeds over on the other side of the lake. You can plainly see the marvellously captured image of a small waterfall way, way off in the distance, despite the intentional misting of the periphery of the picture to enhance the “is she there, or isn't she?” frisson. Wonderful shot, and the disc does it justice.
Detail, as we would hope, is wonderful and a very clear step up from any version of The Innocents that we have seen before on home video. We can see much more finite detail on stitching, embroidery and material texture. Eyes, and the lines around them, are far more clinically laid bare. The separation in hair is also now more apparent. And look at the rough texture of the statuary and the pots and urns in the garden, the sharper delineation of the leaves, branches and vines. Even the course surface of the walls of the house, and the smoother wooden grain of banisters, doors and sideboards yield more specific appeal. There are even more subtle details that the transfer finds and offers up, such as the reflection of the rain at the window as seen in the glass of a cabinet case, and the melted wax that has dripped down the candlestick – again, this is all presented with more clarity and definition than found on any other version. Look at the fire and the coals in the grate as Miss Giddens prods it – the gleam from the brass work, the glow from the blaze and the darker shadows around all create a detailed and vivid image. The more apparent grain, notwithstanding, this is a tremendously vivid image.
On a downside, though, this does seem have had some edge enhancement added to it, evident on the stone pillars of the lakeside summer gazebo and around Miss Giddens' dark outline against the rainstorm, for example. Personally, I wasn't troubled by this – and a fair amount of any such haloing can be attributed to the use of filters, lighting and silhouettes to aid in providing such a luminous quality, I'm sure - and you can be certain that there are no unsightly compression artefacts or signs of overt noise removal to clog up the picture. Panning shots are also smooth and free from any juddering, ensuring the graceful gliding poetry of the camera is maintained at all times. This is certainly a worthy hi-def transfer of a film that simply demands sterling video quality. It looks fabulously detailed and delightfully film-like. A strong 8 out of 10.
BFI have rendered The Innocents as evocative and atmospheric as they can with a PCM mono track that tackles the subtlety of the sound design with ease and fine clarity, perfectly capturing the mood of the pensive exchanges and the electrifying suspense of the more spectral elements. There is some very slight background noise from time to time and a couple of occasions when a vague pop emanates from the track, but this still a very clean and polished presentation. Although we would all like to think that it could supply something that, in all honesty, isn't present in the source, there really isn't much that the lossless track can do to add an extra dimension to the film's audio. However, even with the effects are largely confined to just the odd opening of a door, the shutters banging in the wind, footsteps and, in one nice moment, a sudden screeching, there is a surprising and rewarding amount of depth to the track. Although only mono, and obviously restricted, the sound design is given plenty of room and a clarity that sounds just that little bit more refined.
Dialogue is, however, very clear and strident. In fact, just like we heard on previous editions, it positively booms, and sounds like it has been topped off with a slight echo. The early sequence in which Miss Giddens is given the job by Michael Redgrave's un-named Uncle sets the tone for what will follow, with voices that sound quite harsh and raucous. But, to be honest, this effect - which carries on throughout the entire film - is probably very appropriate. For a film that is set in, and around, a gothic mansion of vast rooms and halls and the wide gardens and lakeside beyond it, this shouty quality and accompanied echo can be quite authentic to the environment. However, I doubt that this effect was completely intended. Flora's screaming fit strains at the threshold of the track's capabilities, but still shrieks out with an appropriately teeth-grating quality, nonetheless. The incredible sequence when Miss Giddens goes midnight-roaming around the halls and hears ghostly laughter and whispers from behind doors is deliciously well-wrought – the ethereal voices and murmurings very clear and distinct, yet surprisingly warm, as well, until they reach a cacophonic level that issues forth with dementia-inducing vigour. And listen to the sudden crispness and chunky detail when she grasps and turns the door-knob, or the very realistic tapping on the window of the pull-cord on the blinds. Locational ambience is extremely well integrated.
The score by Georges Auric comes across well, as do, ironically, the sudden silences that I mentioned - the transition from atmospheric swells and effects to complete noiselessness is beautifully captured by the disc. That sequence in the walled-garden when Miss Giddens spots the figure looking out over the top of the tower is the obvious standout – the sudden loss of ambience excellently conveyed. Although, to be fair, I thought the previous lossy incarnations of the film’s audio were fine, too.
I can't imagine anyone complaining about this track, to be honest. All things considered, this gets a very fine 7 out of 10 for its authentic delivery of such vintage atmospherics.
I've said many times in the past how much I admire and enjoy Sir Christopher Frayling's contributions to movies, whether they are in the form of commentaries, documentaries or essays. He has such a finely-honed attention to detail and a worthy sense of insight and opinion that just listening to him is always a rewarding experience. But, I will concede that to some people, he can sound a tad stuffy and scholarly. However, his chat-track here is inarguably an exhaustive, passionate and intelligent probing beneath the paranoid and psychologically complex layers of Clayton's film. Although there is much that is already discussed in his equally excellent introduction to The Innocents, his authoritative and intuitive nature reaches many intriguing and detailed conclusions about Clayton's style, Francis' lavish cinematography, the dominant presences seen on screen and the veiled presences that the story revolves around. There is a wealth of interesting facts on offer and Frayling manages with ease to wade through the various tangents and background trivia without becoming too dry about the subject, like so many of the rapid-fire mouthpieces who adorn other vintage horror movies, such as the Universal classics, with their constant name-dropping cast biographies and overtly intellectualised manners.
So, then there is also his lengthy introduction. Lasting almost half an hour, this is simply terrific. Not so much an introduction as an elaborate visual examination and critique of the film. Actually shot on location at the country estate of Bly, Frayling wanders the grounds and, with lots of illustrative clips from the movie, discusses the themes, undercurrents, directorial style and screenplay alterations of The Innocents. As I mentioned, a lot of this is also covered in the commentary - almost word for word in a couple of cases - but here we have the benefit of the visual involvement of the location and how certain areas and views look today. Very good value indeed. An introduction-cum-making-of!
Next, we get two short films from Clayton, both transferred in high definition.
The first is an excellent little treat in the form of Clayton's first official film, the 1955 short, The Bespoke Overcoat. Running for 35 mins, this stars Alfie Bass and David Kossof in an adaptation of the Russian “The Overcoat” from Gogol. An amazingly poignant and haunting tale about a poor worker, played by Bass, who craves the overcoat of the title enough to return from the grave for it, The Bespoke Overcoat is steeped in atmosphere and brilliantly acted. With typically incredible lighting and smooth direction from Clayton, this short film packs a tremendous emotional wallop. Although I'd seen the film on BFI's standard DVD release, I'd forgotten just how effective this was. Definitely a treat, this one.
The next is the 13-minute long Naples is a Battlefield, which was Clayton's uncredited documentary which he made during his time serving with the RAF Film Production Unit during World War 2. Shot in 1943, this historical piece shows the devastation left after the occupying Germans had been forced out of the city by the Italian Resistance and the retaliating population. The human suffering and the colossal trauma of the events leading up to the Allied efforts to rebuild the decimated shell of Naples form the backbone of this astute, frank and occasionally disturbing observation from Clayton. Score and narration come over with war-torn, News from the Front conviction. Like The Bespoke Overcoat, the BFI have presented Naples is a Battlefield in a surprisingly fine and detailed print.
Designed By Motley is a new 14-minute narrated featurette looking at the esteemed fashion house that brought such elegant and finely character-based costumes to many a period drama, but focusses primarily upon the concepts and tailored attire for The Innocents. The piece superbly interweaves footage from the film with stills and design sketches in an attempt to convey how the changing mood of the story was physically reflected in the clothing that the characters wore. This is an interesting look at the thought process and intelligence that goes into something many of us simply take for granted with a period piece and seems to replace and upgrade the old stills gallery.
Finally, there is US theatrical trailer which is very atmospheric and runs for 2.40 mins.
Overall, I'm very impressed with this package and it effectively delivers a lot of priceless material on the classic film courtesy of good old Sir Chris.
A magnificent movie that finally gets the treatment it deserves. The introduction and commentary from Frayling make this release worth the investment practically on their own, but the inclusion of those rare films from Jack Clayton are a real step in the right direction for fans of the severely non-prolific director. A film that fully deserves its status as a classic, The Innocents is technically superb, thematically stimulating and richly rewarding no matter how often you view it. Laced with an atmosphere that creeps into your veins and stays there, Jack Clayton's interpretation of Henry James's famous story is like freezing time for 100 minutes. I can only think of a handful of movies that take the viewer so successfully and resolutely out of reality for their duration - Suspiria, The Evil Dead, Halloween, The Others, The Orphanage (all devoutly influenced by The Innocents, I might add) for example - and none that do it with such measured, hypnotic ease.
Held in high esteem by a great many, this is certainly the opportunity to upgrade from the DVD editions and fully embrace Freddie Francis' achingly sublime photography in superb high definition.
Although part of an enduring family of supernatural dramas, Clayton wove something unique into the fabric of this ghostly tale ... something that is dark and disquieting. And, as far as Deborah Kerr goes, I will always remember her exquisitely nuanced and intensely intimate performance as Miss Giddens. I doubt anybody else could have pulled the role off so successfully.
Beg, borrow or steal it. It doesn't matter which ... just get a copy of this Blu-ray. The Innocents comes very highly recommended. It is a true genre milestone that has so often been overlooked by those that weren't actually involved in employing some of its tricks of the trade for their own movie magic.
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