Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Target #225: The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton)

TSPDT placing: #552
Directed by: Jack Clayton
Written by: Henry James (novella), William Archibald (screenplay), Truman Capote (screenplay), John Mortimer (additional scenes & dialogue)
WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

The secret to mastering the horror genre is atmosphere. Modern directors can keep their unrealistic monsters, their overuse of gore, their sudden cheap scares – great horror is all about atmosphere. For this very reason, Alejandro Amenábar's The Others (2001) is one of the finer chillers to have come our way in the last decade, and it's not altogether unsurprising to discover that the film borrowed extensively from an earlier film, Jack Clayton's masterful ghost story, The Innocents (1961). Adapted from Henry James' 1898 novella "The Turn of the Screw," the film's screenplay was co-written by William Archibald and Truman Capote. Like James' original story, which has been endlessly debated by literary critics for over a century, Clayton's film has, after all these decades, retained its tone of ambiguity. Is it a ghost story? Is it a psychological exploration of a sexually-repressed woman? Whichever way you interpret it, 'The Innocents' remains one of the horror genre's landmark achievements, and the secrets of an old, dark mansion have rarely been more sinister, nor indeed, more beautiful.

The elegant Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, the reserved daughter of a country parson, who agrees to become governess to two orphaned children in the care of a wealthy, indifferent businessman (Michael Redgrave). After travelling to a remote country mansion, Miss Giddens meets Flora (Pamela Franklin), a warm and vivacious young girl with a fondness for her pet tortoise. However, when Flora's brother Miles (Martin Stephens) is mysteriously expelled from school and sent home early, life at the house begins to take a sinister turn, despite the boy's charming and seemingly-innocent demeanour. Peculiar apparitions begin to appear, supplemented by an unnerving selection of unidentifiable creaks, voices and music. Large homes, it seems, breed large secrets, and it doesn't take long before Bly House reveals its tragic past, a scandal involving the former valet Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and Miss Giddens' predecessor Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), who were romantically involved and who both died in bizarre circumstances. Could the mansion's past, long thought forgotten, be returning to haunt and corrupt its current residents?

Placing Kerr in the main role was a very deliberate and effective casting decision. Few actresses are able to project such grace and reverence, and, consequently, the audience is expected to treat her character's suppositions as sensible and well-founded suspicions. But, indeed, is it sensible to suppose that two former lovers, to allow their continued romance, have inhabited the souls of two young children? Why has Miss Giddens alone witnessed these perplexing manifestations? The participation of author Truman Capote contributes elements of Southern Gothic literature, and the perceived haunting might justifiably be approached as the metaphorical personification of Miss Giddens' repressed sexual desires. Having endured a confined childhood with a smothering religious father, she has taught herself to suppress these desires, and her feelings towards Michael Redgrave's prosperous businessman instead manifest themselves in the form of the ghost of Peter Quint, a handsome rogue who represents everything from whom her parson father had shielded her; Quint's former lover, Miss Jessel, could conceivably have been her in different circumstances.

In the film's most shocking and unsettling twist, Miss Giddens' ill-directed sexual desires transfer themselves from the absent businessman to his roguishly-charming nephew, Miles, a pre-pubescent boy. Their frictional relationship, which must have caused severe headaches for the censors, culminates in a alarmingly-sensual kiss, which Miss Giddens' feebly returns in the film's final moments. If we were to exclude for the moment the possibility of ghostly possession, the perceived "corruption" of the two young children could be viewed as a result of their abuse by the now-deceased lovers, and it is strongly implied that the children may have been present when the pair performed sexual acts; it is only when forced to confront these memories that the children finally deteriorate into hysterics, and permanent emotional damage is done. Both children are excellent in difficult roles, but Martin Stephens is the genuine sensation, approaching the role with maturity and assuredness that suggests an actor twice his age. Stephens recognises perfectly that young Miles should not be an openly sinister character, and yet every charming complement is undertoned by the subtlest hint of sardonic menace.

At the end of the day, whether one accepts The Innocents as a psychological thriller or a traditional ghost story, the unambiguous truth is that Jack Clayton's film is brilliant. The black-and-white Cinemascope photography by Freddie Francis {who also worked on The Elephant Man (1980), and has directed his own share of films} is breathtaking to behold, with many scenes seemingly lit only by the flickering flame of a single candle. The sound design, particularly in a virtuoso sequence of "things that go bump in the night," employs bird and insect calls, wind and faceless human voices to evoke the desired atmosphere, and Georges Auric's musical score complements the tone beautifully. The film is similar in style to Robert Wise's haunted-house chiller The Haunting (1963), itself one of the horror genre's greatest entries. Surprisingly underseen in most circles, The Innocents deserves to be lauded among cinema's finest horror movies, not just due to its extensive creepiness, but because of the film's impeccable artistry and thematic depth. What a treat this would be on the cinema screen.

Currently my #1 film of 1961:
1) The Innocents (Jack Clayton)
2) One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder)

What others have said:

"Our vote for the most intelligent and evocative ghost story ever filmed, Jack Clayton's adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is cryptic in ways that force us to find clues insinuated in single lines of dialogue, or in the spaces between the lines. It's a movie that speaks in ellipses, not exclamation points. It sneaks under your skin, subtly and suggestively portraying something sinister and perverse that may exist only in the protagonist's head, but that doesn't mean it can't mess with yours."

"This unresolved mystery charges the events of THE INNOCENTS with a dreadful sense of uncertainty far more thrilling than the simple supernatural chills of a typical haunted house movie – another “turn of the screw,” as James would have said. At the same time, the ambiguous narrative serves up its share of suggestive shivers; its ghostly apparitions, achieved without special effects, convey a palpable sense of horror... Their supernatural stillness, as much as anything else, sends shivers down the backbone, playing the vertebrae like a skeletal hand tapping on a xylophone."

"This creepy but ultimately perplexing thriller was one of the first films designed to scare you without showing, say, severed limbs and nonstop gore. The Innocents features a wide-eyed Deborah Kerr as a governess sent to a stately manor where she will care for two children. When they start communicating with ghosts, demons, dead people, the devil -- what they are, we'll never find it -- the poor governess comes unhinged. Not altogether frightening, but it has a few creep-out moments that mostly redeem its totally ambiguous ending."
Also recommended:

"Gaslight (1944) is shot beautifully in black-and-white, with cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg making excellent use of shadows and lightning to create the ominous and silently threatening atmosphere of the old home. The whole film has the subtle feel of an Alfred Hitchcock picture: it includes two actors who would star in the director's films, and the mysterious plot always keeps us wondering whether what we are seeing is real. Overall, Gaslight is a wonderful and engrossing psychological thriller, with stunning photography and great performances. Not that you need an excuse to spend 100 minutes watching the lovely Ingrid Bergman…"

"Secret Beyond the Door... (1947) borrows elements from the then-prevalent film noir movement, adding shades of post-marriage paranoia from the likes of Rebecca and Cukor's Gaslight (1944). Lang also mixes in snippets of Freudian psychoanalysis, not unlike what I find be found in Hitchcock's own Spellbound (1945). The final product is not without its charm, and contains various moments of precisely-articulated suspense, but you can never overcome that niggling feeling that you've seen it all done better."

"Fortunately, multi-talented director Robert Wise understood that there is little more frightening than what we can't see, and I was pleased to discover that The Haunting (1963) is one of the most frightening horror films ever made, a masterpiece of paranoia, suspense and near-surrealism. Throughout the film, an always-nervy Nell (Julie Harris) narrates her character's thoughts, perhaps a slightly intrusive and distracting film technique at first, but it later becomes imperative to the narrative, as we slowly realise the importance of her character, and how Nell's mind is gradually becoming unwound amid the mystery and paranoia."

1 comment:

J Luis Rivera said...

Oh man, now THIS is what I call a horror classic without the shadow of a doubt! Together with "The Haunting", it's the non plus ultra of ghost stories, in my humble opinion.

I must say that to me, Deborah Kerr never looked more beautiful than here in black & white...