Wednesday, August 5, 2009

1961: The Innocents (Jack Clayton)

Released: November 1961 (U.K.)

Director: Jack Clayton; Screenplay: William Archibald, Truman Capote and John Mortimer (additional scenes and dialogue) based on the novel The Turn of the Screw by Henry James; Cinematography: Freddie Francis; Studio: Achilles, 20th Century Fox; Producer: Jack Clayton

Cast: Deborah Kerr (Miss Giddens), Peter Wyngarde (Quint), Megs Jenkins (Mrs. Grose), Michael Redgrave (The Uncle), Martin Stephens (Miles), Pamela Franklin (Flora), Clytie Jessop (Miss Jessel)

An attempt by a filmmaker to create a movie so ambiguous as to allow different interpretations that are equally plausible can be very dangerous. By this I am not referring to small plot details or individual situations that can be read differently by each viewer and can slightly alter one’s perception of a film. I am talking about instances when a director leaves fundamental questions concerning the story and its characters unanswered, leaving it exclusively to the viewer to determine exactly what might or might not have happened. At its worst, it can create an incomprehensible mess in which an impossibly convoluted story overshadows any other merits that a film may contain (Inland Empire, anyone?). When done properly, it can create a rare cinematic experience in which a film remains fresh to repeat viewings.

This is what makes Jack Clayton’s The Innocents such a special film for me. Many similar films that rely on supernatural intrigue lose much of their punch once the mystery is solved. Films that were enjoyable the first time can quickly be cast aside, as once all of the questions have been answered there is little appeal left in the film. The genius of this film, and due to the skill of writers William Archibald and famed novelist Truman Capote, was to remedy such a situation by never answering whatever questions may have built up in the minds of the viewer. Instead, they lay out what appears to be happening and leave to each person to decide whether it is reality or hallucination.

The story is very simple and is based on the classic novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a young and inexperienced governess, is hired by a rich Londoner (Michael Redgrave) to care for his niece and nephew on his country estate. The Uncle is an admittedly selfish man, making it clear to Miss Giddens that he has little time for the children and that she will be solely responsible for what happens at Bly House.

Upon arriving at the mansion and its beautiful lands, Miss Giddens at first believes that she has arrived at paradise. She meets the young girl Flora (Pamela Franklin), who appears to be the model of a courteous young lady, and Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), who had been caring for the children until Giddens’ arrival. Shortly thereafter, the young boy Miles (Martin Stephens) also arrives at Bly House after having been expelled from his boarding school. For a time things are idyllic, but soon Miss Giddens begins to experience strange events – mainly, she hears voices and continually sees two mysterious people roaming the grounds. Slowly she begins to learn of the circumstances of her predecessor’s death and comes to believe that Mrs. Jessel (Clytie Jessop) and her lover Quint (Peter Wyngarde), also recently killed, are haunting the property. Not only that, but she believes that their spirits have taken control of the children and are manipulating them in order to keep their presence a secret. Suddenly Miss Giddens begins to observe what she perceives to be conniving on the part of Miles and Flora, putting her into situations in which she is taunted and terrified by the sudden appearance of ghosts and sounds of voices.

Miss Giddens’ response to the ghosts becomes the central issue to the film. Throughout all of the sightings of a lone woman in the swamps or a solitary dark figure in the distance moving toward a window, Miss Giddens is the only one who sees them. The children claim to be absolutely oblivious and Mrs. Grose is always nearby to offer a harmless explanation. The question then becomes, are these ghosts real? Are these supernatural beings actually there or are they all in Miss Giddens’ mind? Are the children truly in danger of being consumed by these wicked spirits or is Miss Giddens really the one that poses the greatest threat to them? And if everything is in fact in the mind of Miss Giddens, what is causing her to wreak such havoc on herself and the children? Everything from frustration with her work to sexual repression are alluded to and become conceivable possibilities. The answers to each of these questions will depend on who you ask, and the film was intentionally designed this way. While it has been a long time since I read James’ novella, my personal recollection is that there is much less doubt concerning the ghosts. I never remember doubting their existence (I could be wrong on this – as I said, it’s been a while, but this is how I remember it). In Archibald and Capote’s script, the doubt is interwoven into everything that happens.

Amazingly, all of this uncertainty works. Far from being a cop out as one might wrongly suspect, this ambiguity allows the horror created in the film to be inescapable. The two options left for the viewer to decide between lead only to two equally terrifying interpretations. Either the ghosts suspected of inhabiting the country estate are real, meaning that there are two slain lovers possessing innocent children. Or, the perceived voices, images and haunting are purely in the mind of Miss Giddens, and the audience is witness to a deranged woman so obsessed by her visions that she drives children to madness as well. Neither option is comforting; both are equally tragic in their result.

While it has become cliché to lament the current state of horror films, watching The Innocents only reinforces how simple it can be for a director and his staff to make a story chilling without any reliance on gore or violence. There is no need to use sudden shocks, such as ghosts jumping out from behind a wall or loud shrieking music to tell the audience that they are supposed to be scared. The horror instigated by Clayton is much more psychological and as a result is much more effective. Even in moments where there are perceived ghosts appearing, they don’t simply pop into the screen for once quick scare. Clayton allows the audience to see Quint’s approach to the window, to experience the dread as you slowly realize what is happening. It is highly effective because it forces the viewer to go through the same fear and second-guessing that Miss Giddens is going through in that moment. And then there is the stunning photography of cinematographer Freddie Francis, which is arguably the most impressive element of the entire film. Francis is able to create a fitting Gothic atmosphere to perfectly set the mood of all that happens. Equally as effective is the inventive camera work that he employs during Miss Giddens’ solitary walks through the halls of Bly House, in which the camera is sometimes completely engulfed in darkness, picking up only the lights that are in Miss Giddens' line of sight.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1961: While I don’t think this is quite as strong of a year as those surrounding it, there is still a lot depth in the number or outstanding films. In the United States, come three particular films that I really like. Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss seem to get the most attention during this period of Samuel Fuller’s career, but I prefer Underworld U.S.A. over both of them. Judgment at Nuremberg has also always been a favorite, containing a number of superlative performances, both large and small. Montgomery Clift, although on screen for a very short time, is amazing and was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award. And finally there is the classic Robert Rossen film The Hustler. Paul Newman gets adoration for his role as Fast Eddie, but my personal favorite role in the film has always been Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. Also, I can appreciate the greatness of West Side Story (Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise) and even enjoy it, but I wouldn't call it a favorite film.

Films made outside the United States in this year elicit interesting reactions from me. Among my favorites is Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style, with the murder dream sequences always providing excellent black comedy. For two other highly acclaimed films from this year I’ve never been able to determine exactly how I feel about them. Even after multiple viewings, I can;t completely decide whether I really like or really hate Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. I would guess others have had similar reactions to this film. Now that I’ve started approaching it just to watch it rather than try to get wrapped up in a story (which is how I pretty much approach Fellini now too), it’s enjoyable. I have had similar mixed reactions toward Bunuel’s Viridiana, although I lean more towards not being a great fan of it. I like Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, but throughout his whole Faith Trilogy I can’t shake the feeling that I’m watching a movie that is trying to be Dreyer-like, but never quite reaches that level.

In regards to Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, I’m unsure whether to comment on it in 1961 or 1962 – the earliest release date I can find is 62, but most movie guides or books label it 61. At any rate, it doesn’t really matter in my selections as it was a complete miss for me.


  1. My Own #1 Film of 1961:

    West Side Story (Wise/Robbins)


    La Notte (Antonioni; Italy)
    Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais; France)
    Il Posto (Olmi; Italy)
    Mother, Joan of the Angels (Kawalerowitz; Poland)
    Viridiana (Bunuel; Spain)
    Une Femme est Une Femme (Godard; France)
    Lola (Demy; France)
    Through A Glass Darkly (Bergman; Sweden)
    Jules and Jim (Truffaut)
    The End of Summer (Ozu; Japan)
    El Cid (Mann)
    City of the Dead (Horror Hotel) Moxey
    The Innocents (Clayton)
    Pigs and Battleships (Imamura; Japan)
    Siberian Lady Macbeth (Wajda; Poland)
    The Hustler (Rosen)
    Victim (Dearden; UK)
    Splendor in the Grass (Kazan)
    101 Dalmatians (Lucke)
    Yojimbo (Kurosawa; Japan)

    Excellent choice there Dave. THE INNOCENTS, which as you note was based on James's THE TURN OF THE SCREW, is a subtle psychological study. Even Benjamin Britten used the appealing subject to stage one of his greatest operas. Your entire argument about making a horror film effective without gore or violence of course, is the crux of this work.

    WEST SIDE STORY, which vies with Kern's SHOWBOAT as the greatest Broadway musical of all-time, certainly makes in spirity, choreography and operatic score the greatest film musical of them all. For me it is one of the greatest films of the 60's from any country in any genre.

  2. Dave – a wonderful essay on a great film. As you imply, they don’t make horror films like they use too. This film, “The Haunting” and “The Uninvited” are my three favorite ghost films. Clayton is a subtle filmmaker, suitable for this kind of material (did you ever see his “Our Mother’s House?). Alas, I have to go with “The Hustler”, though “West Side Story” gives it a run for the money as my favorite musical of all time. I selected “The Hustler” because it is not only a personal favorite, then so is “West Side Story”, but it contains four excellent performances from Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason and the great George C. Scott. Rossen also fashioned a great script creating the first in a series, for Newman, of classic 1960’s anti-hero roles. Rossen was always a tough hard-hitting, pull no punches writer and director.

    “Divorce, Italian Style” is a brilliant satire that I love dearly. As a kid, I loved “West Side Story” and must have gone back to the theater four or five times to see it. Over the years, the film has received some criticism but I still have a soft spot for it. “One, Two, Three” is maniacal Wilder, not as great as some of his others but still great and with Cagney!!!

    Going with date on IMDB I will be listing “Jules and Jim” on the 1962 listing. Some of the other films you mention I have not seen like “Last Year at Marienbad” and “Through a Glass Darkly.” A couple of films Sam mentions like “La Notte” and “Viradiana” are also no shows due to not seeing. “Victim” is a film I watched more than twenty years ago and has faded from my memory to comment. I do remember liking Dirk Bogarde.

    #1 The Hustler

    West Side Story
    Divorce, Italian Style
    Splendor in the Grass
    One, Two, Three
    Guns of Navarone
    The Innocents
    The Pit and the Pendulum

  3. Hey John:

    I tend to dismiss the criticisms that have ben aimed at WEST SIDE STORY over the years, as musicals in general seems to be second-guessed regularly, as they often wear thir heart on their sleeve. Our greatest film critic, Stanley Kaufmann continues to feel that it is the greatest of all film musicals. Said Kauffmann: "In the way it expresses the spirit of its subject, it is the greatest musical film I know." In 1961, the New York Film Critics Circle gave their Best Picture award to WEST SIDE STORY, a far more significant development than the 10 Oscars it won.

    Bernstein's operatic score is the greatest ever written, and songs like "Somewhere," "Tonight," "America," "Maria" and "One Hand One Heart" are standards. I realize that you stated here that you do love teh film, so my defense here is not aimed at you my good friend, but at the fickle nature of film criticism, which uses different criteria to judge the musical film.

  4. Great writeup. I wouldn't necessarily think of this one as a #1 film myself, but it's certainly enjoyable enough. I like your discussion of the way the narrative ambiguity leads to two different equally horrifying possible interpretations, but what I really love about the film is its moody, sumptuous b&w cinematography.

    My own #1 for the year is probably Viridiana, one of Bunuel's most ambiguous and challenging films. This year also boasts a minor but charming Godard (A Woman is a Woman), the wonderful Il posto (though I prefer Olmi's even more haunting I Fidanzati from 1962), and the hilarious One, Two, Three, which is probably among the few funniest films I've ever seen.

  5. Sam,

    I still love West Side Story and the soundtrack is probably one of the few vinyl albums I wore out from so much usage. The criticism it has received over the years have not diminished my love of this film.

    The first time I saw the film, I was pretty young and got my parents to go to see it, was when it was playing it premiere road show engagement at the Rivoli Theater on Broadway.
    It was big event at the time, at least for me. My first time going to Broadway! Only two shows daily, tickets were purchased in advance by mail, you were seated by ushers, etc. It must have played at that one theater for at least a year before it spread out to theaters across the city.

  6. Dave, that's an interesting choice. I've never seen The Innocents but I suppose I'll correct that omission soon.

    My own favorite from 1961 is El Cid, Anthony Mann's masterpiece and the best of the big-screen epics of the period. It has one of Charlton Heston's best performances (and his best in epic mode) along with tremendous chemistry with Sophia Loren despite their hating each other's guts offscreen.

    My runners-up include Yojimbo, Pigs & Battleships (I'll be reviewing it this week),Divorce Italian Style, A Woman is a Woman, The Hustler and John Ford's Two Rode Together.

    On the subject of West Side Story, I'll readily defend the musical genre against literal-minded detractors, but I've found myself liking this film less than I used to. The direction is fine (and more than that in the opening) and the music is brilliant, but something (?) doesn't work for me anymore. The claim of the re-release trailer that the film only grows younger just isn't true. But it's still one of the better movie musicals and I won't begrudge anyone's enthusiasm for it.

  7. El Cid is one that I haven't watched in quite a while, but as my appreciation of Anthony Mann has continually increased, I should probably revisit that one in the near future.

  8. I'll put in a vote for Il Posto though a repeat viewing of Last Year at Marienbad might steal its thunder (I'm also a fan of Through a Glass Darkly, my favorite of the faith trilogy). The Olmi film is just another great Italian film from this era - warm, observant, melancholy. And I love the short film (from a few years later) included on the Criterion disc, although that's obviously neither here nor there given the subject at hand.

    Haven't seen The Innocents yet.

  9. Less is more. "The Innocents" is a classic example of horror films which rely on fine actors and powerful scripts to convey the essence of terror. Along with "The Haunting", this still remains one of the best ghost films to be made.