Great Films: The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961, UK)

Director Jack Clayton is by no means a household name, and is perhaps most familiar to audiences as director of Room At The Top (1959), the film which ushered in the British New Wave, later to be followed by classics from the likes of Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. But his masterpiece is unquestionably The Innocents, a truly terrifying psychological thriller whose capacity to disturb has only increased in the nearly fifty years since its release.

One first thing to say about The Innocents: it is one of the most stunningly shot films ever committed to celluloid. Cinematographer Freddie Francis, later to shoot the likes of The Elephant Man (1982) and Glory (1989), demonstrated a complete mastery of the camera and lighting, employing deep focus brilliant enough to rival Welles’ Citizen Kane or Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939). The sheer aesthetic beauty of some of the shots brings to mind elegant horror classics Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946) and Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960), and in terms of suspenseful composition, the film can easily hold its own against anything Hitchcock produced, not least Rebecca (1940) and Vertigo (1958), which are both referenced here.

Style on its own is virtually worthless, but the technical brilliance of the film is the key to this film’s dramatic tension and its questioning of narrative perspective. Based on Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, the film stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, the daughter of a country priest, who is hired to be the governess of two young children, Miles and Flora, who are in need of care after the death of their parents. They live on an expansive Victorian country estate, at the centre of which is the intimidating gothic Bly House, and are attended to by a number of servants, including housekeeper Mrs. Grose.

The children themselves are precocious, especially Miles, who despite his meagre years already appears to carry himself in the gentlemanly fashion of that of his uncle, the suave socialite who is briefly glimpsed hiring Miss Giddens at the start of the film. The two children are also both quite secretive, and seem to enjoy playing games with their somewhat stuffy new governess. Her reaction to their games is at first jovial, but a letter explaining that Miles was expelled from his school seems to trouble her – is his tomfoolery illustrative of his disruptive personality which led to his expulsion?

Miss Giddens’ somewhat exaggerated response to the letter appears to stem from her sheltered upbringing; when the children ask her if she used to play games when she was their age, she alludes to the strict discipline of her family home, at odds with the apparent freedom enjoyed at Bly House. So when Miss Giddens soon learns more disturbing secrets, and begins to see apparitions resembling former employees at Bly, we have to question whether what she is seeing is real or just a product of her fevered imagination.

The screenplay borrows more from William Archibald’s stage production The Innocents as opposed to directly from the James novella, this being more suitable for transition to the screen; the book is a much more literary piece, questioning not only the governess’ account of events, but also the narrator telling her tale’s knowledge and motivations. What screenwriters John Mortimer and Truman Capote do to the story is to allow it to have more of a sense of visual ambiguity, allowing both director and cinematographer to use their talents to make the audience question what they are seeing, along with the increasingly frantic governess.

There are some very dark undertones beneath the surface. Freudian imagery abounds, whether intentionally or not, and there is the constant presence of decay and death around the house – witness the flower and insect symbolism throughout the screen duration. There is also a very clear suggestion of misplaced paedophillic feelings that Giddens has for the young Miles, the boy in many ways acting as a surrogate for her feelings towards the dashingly suave Uncle in the film’s first reel; her repressed sexual desires seem to emerge inappropriately during two overly passionate kisses between herself and her charge.

There are so many facets to The Innocents‘ brilliance that it can almost be forgotten just how succesfully the film functions at a basic haunted house horror level. Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) is perhaps better remembered in the popular consciousness for pure jump-value, but Clayton’s film is at worst its equal on the scare front, and in terms of its ability to disturb is virtually unparallelled in all of horror cinema. Many films since have tried to better it, most notably Alejandro Amenábar’s tributary The Others (2001), but nothing is ever likely to come anywhere near close.

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