****/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras A
starring Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins, Michael Redgrave
screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
directed by Jack Clayton
by Walter Chaw Jack Clayton's incomparable tale of sexual repression and a very particular vintage of Victorian, feminine hysteria opens with shadows, wrung hands, and the sound of weeping. The Innocents is of a kind with Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" and Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress": that marriage of high burlesque and menacing metaphysics that is on the one hand dense and open to unravelling, and on the other as smothering and lush as a Raymond Chandler hothouse. By opening in the exact same way as Jacques Tourneur's/Val Lewton's I Walked with a Zombie--a flashback/forward to a non-diegetic scene, a sitting-room interview, a claustrophobic setting laced with musk and frustration and the ghosts of the sins of the father--it announces itself as an expressionistic piece orbiting around a Brontë heroine. Having Truman Capote adapt Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, right in the midst of his In Cold Blood period (two taxonomists of beasts in the jungle of the Id), is an act of genuine inspiration. Their shared illness infects the film.
Look at poor, bound-up governess Ms. Giddens (Deborah Kerr), whose oft-stated devotion to the welfare of "the children" is set against her introduction to little Flora (Pamela Franklin), framed before a reflecting pond that makes it look as though they're both about to fall into the sky. It suggests, visually, that Ms. Giddens's idea of protection is some sort of religious oubliette at best; the sweet embrace of death at worst. The grave, after all, offers only corporeal corruption. Later, when she whispers that her charges (there is also Flora's brother, Miles (Martin Stephens)) must be possessed by the lustful spirits of the recently-departed groundsman and Ms. Giddens's own predecessor, it swims into feverish focus that Ms. Giddens is the serpent guarding the tree of knowledge--the dilemma, the dreadful purpose of creatures unaware that Eden has already fallen. It's a Swiftian proposal, this The Innocents, and the tightrope it walks is the extent to which we identify with this Jane Eyre, even as evidence mounts that her jihad is perverted by denial and too much time spent in the company of her own purity. Of all the things unexpected about The Innocents, foremost is its topicality. Ms. Giddens's passionate intensity is the fault line beneath all religious/cultural schisms from time immemorial.
The inciting moment is Ms. Giddens's interview with the unctuous "Uncle" (Michael Redgrave) who would like to retain her services as a means of keeping Miles and Flora as far away from him as possible. One gets the impression that this is the most sustained and intimate contact she's ever had with an attractive man, someone caretaker Ms. Grose (Megs Jenkins) describes as quite the philanderer in his day--and the disturbance of that carnal tickle ripples outward for the rest of the film. It colours Ms. Giddens's reactions to the sordid story of the place: the illicit affairs and clandestine, sweaty rendezvous, all in front of the children/not in front of the children, heaven forfend! It drives her late in the game to prepare to return to the city against Uncle's strict admonition in order to tell him there's something unseemly going on. It clarifies the title The Innocents as referring to not only the vaguely-demonic children, but also the increasingly-unhinged Ms. Giddens--and the title "The Turn of the Screw" as the progressive pressure placed on Ms. Giddens's disintegrating resolve. That opening-credits shot of clenched hands and sobbing parallels images of the penitent monk, mortifying his flesh for ungodly thoughts. It's an apt image to open the film, in that it's both claustrophobic and epic in implication.
Director Jack Clayton and DP Freddie Francis (later a Hammer director, then a collaborator of David Lynch's) shoot in dazzling b&w CinemaScope, tasking it with portraying extreme depth of field against the format's shallow-focus nature. It has the effect of drawing the viewer into the film and, more specifically, into Ms. Giddens's subtly-fish-eyed point-of-view. I love the scene in the garden where she pulls back some vines to find a statue of a cherub holding two disembodied hands, and then a beetle falls from its open mouth. In the next scene, Ms. Grose declares that they could "use an extra pair of hands around here." The sequence speaks eloquent to Capote's sense of humour and to Clayton and Francis's command of the tenor and tone of the source material. Gardens, base corruption, spirits from the Jungian shadow/Freudian Id bleeding into the actions of the impressionable and the afraid. What Ms. Giddens fears most is that sex has corrupted the children. What's actually happened is that sex has corrupted Ms. Giddens. The moral of The Innocents is that experience kills innocence (Innocents) absolutely, inevitably. It always has and always shall. Posed as a ghost story, the twist, literalized by Alejandro Amenábar's homage The Others, is that everyone's innocence is dead at the start of the film. If that's what's meant to be preserved, all has always been lost.
The Innocents is a beautiful film, a frightening film, a pinnacle of the haunted-house genre that also bleeds over into the "evil child" genre that would proliferate in the coming decade. (Stephens himself had just appeared in Village of the Damned.) It even shares some themes of sexual hysteria with the same year's The Children's Hour, placing it as very much a film of its moment. And by dropping its disturbance in the proverbial lap of a sexually-repressed, emotionally-naive woman in denial of her own carnal nature, The Innocents places itself as a film very much of eternity. It's not scary because things jump out from the dark (though that happens), nor is it scary because of Clayton's/Francis's dizzyingly subjective camera, culminating in an overhead view of Ms. Giddens as she spins in confusion and fear (though that's terrifying and disorienting, too). The Innocents is scary because its bogeys are the essential weaknesses and strengths of being human.
Ostensibly a supernatural film, The Innocents is grounded in meat. It's more poetry than narrative, and in that grace it's better than Robert Wise's similarly-intentioned, better-remembered The Haunting. Set in the middle of a circle of graven images (dizzy, delirious), The Innocents' climax functions as the death of innocence in an ancient, endless ritual of sacrifice; the executioner/high priestess is the one who's most afraid. The picture predicts the mood of the decade just beginning; a marvellous companion to the eruption of the 1960s (Psycho, Peeping Tom, Eyes Without a Face, Jigoku,et al); an even better bookend to the end-of-the-decade's Rosemary's Baby, featuring another innocent pulled into something old and familiar. The Innocents is about sex, and growing up, and wisdom bringing no profit to the wise. At the end, the death of a child is a blessing held up against the death of childhood; and the greatest horror is what happens when the atrocity of experience doesn't reach you until middle-age. It's amazing.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Likewise amazing, Criterion's Blu-ray release presents The Innocents in its original CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, in a 1080p transfer the liner notes describe as "created in 4K resolution on an Oxbery wet-gate film scanner from the 35mm original camera negative." Seeing it this way, even after having screened the movie multiple times, both for pleasure and in a classroom setting as a teacher, proved something of a revelation. The image's astonishing clarity and depth refocus one's attention on how the claustrophobic compositions and imported foliage of the production design contribute to the close, hothouse feeling of the exercise. It's an internalized bodice-ripper and singular for it. Francis's cinematography appears to have been digitally corrected to compensate for the CinemaScope "mumps," and displays a seemingly impossible range of deep blacks as well as a fine patina of film grain. The opening, in particular, set against looking-glass water surfaces, is breathtaking. An LPCM 1.0 soundtrack surprises and wows with its sonic breadth and wisdom. There's no hiss that I could detect but neither does it sound airless. When Ms. Giddens hears crying in her study, or when a window leaps open during an especially Freudian storm, it's all crystal clear and bone-chilling.
Christopher Frayling optionally delivers a lengthy, definitive video introduction (24 mins., SD) to the film that originated on the BFI's region 2 DVD from 2006. He talks about Capote's contribution in addition to the casting of the inimitable Kerr and her performance, and he delves into a strong interpretation of the piece. I had to essentially start this review over so as not to parse too much of what Frayling makes obvious and illuminating. He tells a tale of how Clayton got an infamous shot of pigeons that is by itself worth the price of admission. "John Bailey on Freddie Francis" (19 mins., HD) sees the American Gigolo cinematographer discussing the then-experimental lenses used by DP Francis on the production (including Brian DePalma's favourite split dioptre) to achieve some of The Innocents' disorienting effects and its sometimes-disconcerting spatial relationships. I'd be interested to hear Bailey do a comparison between Francis's work here and James Wong Howe's later work on Hud and Seconds: There are, to these untrained eyes, cross-contaminations. "Between Horror, Fear, and Beauty" (14 mins., HD) comprises interviews conducted in 2006 with Francis, editor Jim Clark, and script supervisor Pamela Francis, offering a broad overview of the creation and execution of the film from various perspectives. Clayton emerges as an enigmatic figure and perhaps forgotten genius. My favourite recollection is that someone of great note called The Innocents the best British picture since Hitchcock left the island.
Frayling's audio commentary, also dating back to the aforementioned BFI DVD, is again something one should attend prior to presuming to have much of anything useful to say about The Innocents. He's a treasure, and though his yakker is largely dedicated to rehashing his introduction, he does provide scene-specific breakdowns of the film's signature moments. It's rewarding enough that I listened to certain parts multiple times. A fold-out insert features a multi-page overview by Maitland McDonagh, a genre critic I respect but often disagree with. Her entire book on Argento--the only one on the market for a while--is based on a fundamental misread, I felt, of the artist at that point. Here she begins with the (mis)statement that Henry James had an "oblique" storytelling style and that Ms. Giddens was a typical James heroine in her passivity (who should be "galling to twenty-first century sensibilities"). I take issue with all of that, I guess, in that the James heroine never struck me as passive (he repeatedly compares women of different types to vital energy in conflict with old tradition) and that his work is full of vigour and fearsome implication. To start there and then proceed, McDonagh's article covers the main points, offers a few quotes from the principals, and does yeoman's work, but I think she misses the point, mostly. Best to let her and Frayling fight it out. A trailer (3 mins.) for The Innocents, in full 1080p, rounds out the presentation. Visit our Tumblr site for more framegrabs