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The Innocents Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM

    The Innocents Review
    Folks, although I covered the R1 release of The Innocents some time ago, I lamented the fact that it was tragically bereft of extras. Now, we have this glorious, but long-gestating R2 edition, which is adorned with quality special features that finally do it justice. But that is only partly the reason why I have chosen to revisit Jack Clayton's inordinately eerie production. The star of the film, Deborah Kerr, sadly passed away recently and, although - as I state later in the review - I was not overly fond of her in other films, such as celebrated “The King And I” and even the otherwise awesome “Black Narcissus” from Powell and Pressburger, I will always remember her performance here in this understated supernatural yarn. Without her amazing characterisation of the beleaguered governess around whom the mysterious scenario entwines, The Innocents would be still be a fantastically stylised film, but it would have lost its twisted heart and soul and the tortured love that Deborah Kerr instilled it with. What follows is the original film review I wrote but with a few lines added by way of a tribute to the actress.

    Welcome to another entry to the RetroFest, folks. This time we leave behind the sci-fi shenanigans of body snatchers and pod-people to wander through the shadow-veiled atmospherics of psychological torment, repressed sexuality and guilt that occupies Bly House in Jack Clayton's The Innocents, his masterful 1961 take on Henry James's story The Turn Of The Screw. Although highly regarded by critics and film historians, The Innocents has remained relatively unseen by a great many people, with only sporadic showings on TV and, until now with this DVD, only a very poor release on VHS. My first acquaintance with it came via some gloriously effective stills in a horror movie compendium that immediately struck a chord with me - the eerie beauty of its awesomely crafted imagery. Occupying a similar theme and mood as Robert Wise's equally classic The Haunting from 1963 (see separate review from the RetroFest series), The Innocents deals, in a sophisticated screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, with the fractured mind of prim and proper governess Miss Giddens and the uncanny happenings at a huge and labyrinthine English mansion, that she believes is down to the ghostly possession of the two young orphan charges that she is responsible for. Miss Giddens (played unforgettably by Deborah Kerr) chips away the mystery surrounding the death of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and her roguish lover, the valet, Quint (portrayed by the great Peter Wyngarde). As strange apparitions manifest themselves and the children's behaviour becomes increasingly odd and disconcerting, she comes to believe that the ghosts of the doomed lovers are attempting to re-enact their affair through the lives of young Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). Finding the situation abhorrent, she intends to root out the obscenity of the past and banish it from the lives of her two young innocents.

    “All I want to do is save the children ... not destroy them.”

    With an astute script and a dark and sober mood, The Innocents concocts a mesmerising spell of emotional intensity and spectral ambiguity. The supernatural side of things, whilst served up with electrifying frisson, is never wrapped up, nor fully explained. Is the house haunted by the phantoms of the past, or is it all just in Miss Giddens' mind. Clayton's film teases us seductively with visions and impressions - of madness, and of tragedy - yet he is wise enough to allow us to make up our own minds as to what we are seeing, unless, like Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, we see nothing at all. Miss Giddens, though, is certainly not given an easy ride. Whilst the two children are a delight to her, and the early days are full of charm, warmth and mutually-enjoyed bonding, the unwelcome presence of figures barely glimpsed and of voices emanating from seemingly no speaker conspire to rattle her cage. And when the children take on attributes uncommon to their initially sweet dispositions and ghastly to her own somewhat puritan sensibilities, Miss Giddens becomes increasingly isolated and obsessive in her plans to save them from the evil influence she believes has returned from the grave.

    But what makes the film especially memorable is the considered and deft direction from Jack Clayton, who would later helm the vastly underrated Ray Bradbury adaptation “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1982), and the ravishing and sublime photography from the award-winning Freddie Francis, who, himself, went on to direct, with such genre items as “The Evil Of Frankenstein” and “Dracula Has Risen From The Grave” for Hammer Films as well as “Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors”, “The Creeping Flesh” and “The Doctor And The Devils” to his credit. In fact, it is the spellbinding excellence of Freddie Francis's work that elevates The Innocents into a league of its own. There are some sequences here that are truly breathtaking - the camera gliding along in front of Kerr as she leaves the walled garden after spying something unusual on the parapet above, the dreamy panning around her bedroom as the drapes billow inward in the night-breeze. And then there is the fantastic use of close-ups that heighten emotion whilst still leaving plenty of crystalline activities going on in the background, and some terrific scene-dissolves that leave the ghostly residue of a character from a previous shot lingering eerily in the frame. An amazing shot has Peter Wyngarde's evil face retreating into the shadows so that only his eyes, glinting like those of a fox, remain in the darkness. Visually, the film is remarkably beautiful. Soft candlelight punctuates the still shadows that mask the halls, rooms and corridors of the house, the flickering flames looking almost animated. The foliage in the grounds seem to add a depth and presence to Clayton's framing that borders on being 3D, so strikingly does he, with incalculable help from Freddie Francis, weave them into his lush widescreen compositions. Later auteur like Dario Argento and Sam Raimi must have been influenced by such lavish visual storytelling as that showcased here. Even John Carpenter and regular cameraman Dean Cundey seem to have taken to heart some of the filmic lessons Clayton and Francis employed to such great effect. Clayton understands the geometry of tension and atmosphere, embracing his centre-piece location of the house as though each room and every doorway or window were a character in its own right. So many scenes feature just Kerr glancing around or moving through an area that isn't, in any ordinary context, threatening. But, lit the way they are, and filmed with such immersive attention to mood and detail, he and Kerr conjure up a delicious sense of un-reality that places such set-pieces in the hinterland of the imagination. Look back upon the film after viewing it and you may wonder where all these thoughts and resonances actually came from ... because not a great deal really happens in The Innocents. But then, it is not a film about incident. The drama is slight, almost whimsical, told with the airbrush strokes of a dark fairytale. The events of the past contaminate those of the here and now via sensation and tricks of the mind, Kerr's repressed Miss Giddens bearing the brunt of the psychological torment as only she ever appears to witness the ghostly manifestations. But the impression of pure dread is so successfully evoked that every second ticking by in the presence of the two children is keenly felt and Miss Giddens' tremulous wanderings about the mansion-house of Bly leave emotional imprints that are indelible.

    Yet, for all its often boldly Freudian subtext and porcelain-etched imagery, the film is never cold. The starkly ravishing black and white photography feels inviting, every flame and light in the mansion a welcoming sight. Indeed, one of the most mysterious moments actually occurs in the bright sunshine yet, once again, Clayton suffuses the scene with an unsettlingly dark disquiet that is experienced on a much deeper, almost subliminal level. And the quaint English-ness of the tale and its setting - so much the main ingredients of the most successful ghost stories in literature, or film - adds immeasurably to the aura of disturbance. A mansion steeped in family history, the flavour of aristocracy gone wild, the subversion of decency and manners amid such ordered and pristine stateliness - there's no other genre that could attempt this level of clinical intimacy. And what of the frightening sexual undercurrents that threaten to corrupt the intense relationship between the beguiling young Miles and his starched and proper governess? The all-too shocking moment when he plants a heavy bedtime kiss upon her quivering lips is acutely uncomfortable to see, likewise his many lingering glances at her. Both Kerr and the young Stephens cope with these scenes with absolute sincerity and conviction, and I must confess that I can't fathom how Jack Clayton could coax such performances from them for what must have been difficult things to enact. Martin Stephens speaks with a voice and a diction from a different age, mixing impressively the coy mischief of a precocious boy with the sly, insidious malice and wisdom of the much older man who may, or may not, be possessing him. But then, Stephens was no stranger to such a role, having already portrayed the spooky leader of the glowing-eyed, blonde-bobbed alien children in the prissy but likeable original film version of John Wyndham's “Village Of The Damned”. Pamela Franklin is tremendously assured as well, although she really earns her keep with a loud and hysterically protracted screaming fit she, and us, are forced to undergo later on. Franklin would again venture foolishly into a dark old house with a terrible past in John Hough's enjoyably hokey “The Legend Of Hell House” in 1973.

    “You know him?”

    “Quint. Peter Quint ... the master's valet.”

    “But, you said ...”

    “Yes, Miss. You see, he's dead. Quint is dead.”

    Cue disturbing laughter from the creepy children as they look down from the stairs above.

    Megs Jenkins does a fine job of bringing housekeeper Mrs Grose to life, mind you, with her roly-poly figure and pudgy face wrapped up in a bonnet, she was clearly born to play such roles. At first, it is difficult to watch her potter about Bly, tending affectionately to the children and to Miss Giddens, without thinking about Nursie from Blackadder, such is her cheerful, bumbling nature. But as the film goes on and the tension rises, Jenkins fleshes out the role with a much deeper vulnerability and devotion. She easily convinces as someone who has witnessed and experienced far too much during her duties, and the slow peeling-away of the past history of Bly is touchingly and painfully extracted from her, bit by bit. Michael Redgrave, as the officious and selfish uncle to Miles and Flora only has a brief five-minute part during the scene-setting interview to give Miss Giddens the job of new governess, but he adds weight to the story, his character's reluctant duty to the children, that he admits he has no time for, addressed authentically several times throughout the movie to the degree that his presence - or, rather, the lack of it - is still keenly felt.

    “A man - or something that was once a man - peering in through the window.”

    As the apparition of Peter Quint, Peter (Jason King) Wyngarde never utters a word beyond some barely heard mutterings and distant gasps, yet his startling appearances come to dominate the film. A gifted, but terribly narcissistic actor, Wyngarde was blessed with a remarkable voice and it must have come as a bitter blow to him that he would be unable to use it to any conventional effect in The Innocents. Luckily he had a particularly bold and striking face as well, then. With his sharp, pointed features and scarily piercing eyes he offers a magnificent image of cruelty and menace, the mark of a great performer, once again, being the ability to convey enough presence to hang over an entire film even when hardly actually seen within it. Wyngarde would go on to make the effectively eerie little Val Lewton-esque “Night Of The Eagle” the following year in 1962. Known to American audiences as Burn, Witch, Burn, Night Of The Eagle also had a distinctive visual style full of atmospheric camera angles and odd editing, but this was, in fact, due to Wyngarde's insistence upon wearing unfeasibly ultra-tight pants against the wishes of his director Sidney Hayers, who had no desire for his witchcraft film to be viewed as a fashion statement. Wyngarde would achieve acclaim as the vicious Klytus in the exhilaratingly camp, and tongue-in-cheek, “Flash Gordon” from 1980. In an ironic twist on The Innocents, he was able to maximise only on his voice this time, as his face would be masked behind a metal visor. But, as the malevolent Quint, a deviant who bent the previous governess, Miss Jessel, to his wicked will, he exudes a cold and calculated desire to rekindle his lost lust, his gypsy appeal grasping the repressed emotions that Kerr's Miss Giddens keeps locked away within her voluminous skirts and tightly bound corsets. That his key weapon is the use of an innocent boy just adds flavour to his vile scheme.

    “Why don't you come in, Miss Giddens.”

    “How did you know I was there?”

    “This is a very old house. Things creak.”

    But, of course, all these horrible desires could just be the thoughts and impressions welling up inside the nervous and genteel Miss Giddens. We see only what she sees, hear only what she hears. Could it not be possible, therefore, that all of her suspicions are just of her own creation? Could she, in fact, be using the sordid details of the past to free her own innermost desires? This is, of course, just part of the ongoing appeal of The Innocents - it can be viewed from two perspectives - the supernatural and the psychological, and both are eminently rewarding and fascinating to unravel. Deborah Kerr is simply magnificent. An actress that I've never warmed to in anything else, it is a little strange, then, that I should do so in this. As Miss Giddens she is starched, polite, fragile and mousy all at once. That the children learn to twist her around their little fingers with ease is the quality that disarms her to both of them, and us. Not a particularly attractive woman, she, nevertheless, becomes uniquely desirable the more intense and frightened she is. In the third act, when she fashions a kind of battle-plan to rid the house of the two ghosts, she takes on a sort of religious fervour that is irritating and demonstrative. It's meant to be, though. And it only adds to her strange allure. When we see her creeping around the shadows investigating the eerie sounds and voices that appear to be luring her, she assumes the full heroine-in-jeopardy image, her hair down about her shoulders and her wide eyes lit by candlelight - and it is these scenes that seem, on purpose, to show her in more control. Her true self only revealed when she is afraid or intrigued. At other times, when she is ostensibly, and visually, in control - teaching the children, say, or ordering Mrs. Grose to dish the dirt on her predecessor - she is actually hiding behind a façade of courtesy and authority, for it is during these moments that she seems more afraid, or edgy, her true self more at home when faced with the unnatural, than the commonplace. Her final deeds, however well-intentioned they are, display a single-minded cruelty that she, of all people, is the least likely to understand. No matter how driven she may be, she cannot outrun the fear/arousal of the sexual evil that she, herself, is creating. Miss Giddens is a fascinating character that gives up secrets and yet keeps many more with each successive viewing. Deborah Kerr was always aggrieved that this film and her performance in it were not more widely recognised. She maintained that this was possibly the best work she had ever done which, from an actress who had courted Yul Brynner's King of Siam and romped in the surf with Burt Lancaster in “From Here To Eternity”, is really saying something.

    “Something secret, and whispery ... and indecent.”

    The film is rich with symbolism, too. Clayton makes great contrasts between the sunny vistas of the grounds around Bly and the steeped shadows that suffuse its interiors. The light and dark of the mind, you could say. Yet he continually reveals that the light can be just as deceptive and threatening as the darkness - a seemingly innocent game of hide and seek becomes something far more sinister, for example. Check out the great shot of a bloated beetle falling from the stone lips of a statue of Cupid, or the famous dream-montage that sees Miss Giddens imagining all the implications and possibilities of the past as it intermingles unstoppably with the present. And then there's that goodnight kiss I mentioned earlier, an act that feels positively claustrophobic and indecent - the complete opposite of the little boy we have seen playing with his pigeons on the roof of the tower. There is also a marvellous moment early on when Flora's bedtime prayer leads into a brief, but unsettlingly prescient discussion on whether or not the Lord would actually take a soul to Heaven, or just leave it to wander around on Earth. Only “the bad ones” would get left behind, she concludes. Quite so, it seems to transpire. A beautifully haunting little pre-title lullaby of “O Willow, Waly” by Paul Dehn becomes a signature for the tragedies of the past, Miles singing it with an angelic voice at one point and Flora humming it beside the lake at another. Miss Giddens encounters it again on an old music box that she finds in the attic, accompanied by a photograph of the shady Quint. The use of music throughout the film is thoughtful and considered. The score, by Georges Auric, has suitable melancholic sweeps, strong atmospheric build and some effective stingers for the relatively few - but very potent - shocks. Yet, perhaps the most jolting use of sound is, perversely enough, whenever the film has none whatsoever. Employing a considerably effective trick, Clayton drains the film of all sound at several key junctures - and these sudden silences are as almost as though time itself has stood still. The best of these, by far, is when Miss Giddens spies the male figure peering out from the top of the tower. There is also a clever use of insect noise - the unseen fly buzzing around at the base of the stairs when the governess decides to investigate the tower, and then symbolically again when she is confronted by the ghost of her predecessor in the schoolroom.

    The Innocents is a marvellously intelligent and innovative film, folks. With knock-out performances, a smartly ambiguous plot and some of the best photography I have ever seen, it more than holds its own against some of the more well-known supernatural chillers. Well paced and always entrancing to look at, Clayton's movie is experienced more than understood, deeply felt and unforgettable - the perfect movie to put on during a dark and stormy night. And, since Halloween is fast approaching (at the time of this review going online, at any rate), there is no better opportunity to take a walk down the less-than-innocent path that entices Miss Giddens from her own besieged morals.