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.
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.