Saturday, October 13, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE INNOCENTS (1961)

Adapted from Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, director Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) is a masterpiece of supernatural suspense that claims its place among cinema’s greatest ghost stories. Visually and thematically, The Innocents occupies a space halfway between Jane Eyre (1943) and The Haunting (1963), combining the conventions of Victorian Gothic with modern psychological insight. The result is a thoroughly chilling horror story whose insidious suggestions take root in the viewer’s mind and blossom like poisonous flowers.

Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, who arrives at the great country estate of Bly as the new governess of Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), the orphaned wards of a distant, disinterested uncle (Michael Redgrave). Although both of the children seem charming at first, Miss Giddens begins to experience strange, disturbing visions that she believes are connected to her charges. Convinced that the spirits of the former governess (Clytie Jessop) and her sadistic lover (Peter Wyngarde) have possessed the children, Miss Giddens adopts increasingly desperate measures to reclaim their souls.

Imagination is an important theme of the story. Gothic hysteria invests ordinary things with extraordinary horror, from an insect in a broken statue’s mouth to a music box that plays a familiar tune. What does Miss Giddens imagine, and what does she really hear or see? We never know for certain, and therein lies the sense of dread that lingers in the mind long after the picture is finished. Camera angles and lighting add to our doubts, infecting us with the same paranoia that troubles our heroine. Lights reflected in the characters’ eyes give them an unearthly expression, as if they looked indeed beyond the veil between the living and the dead.

Deborah Kerr gives an excellent performance as the nervous Victorian woman rapidly unraveling beneath the strain of her own fevered imagination. She obviously longs for male attention, has no professional experience, and suffers from a turn of mind that rural isolation can only exacerbate. She is, in short, the perfect candidate for a complete psychological breakdown. Like any traditional Gothic heroine, she climbs shadowy staircases and wanders through whispering corridors in her white nightgown, but unlike most of her forebears she lacks the spirit to recover from the inevitable shocks. Jane Eyre would give Miss Giddens a hard slap and command her to get a grip on herself.

Of course, Miss Giddens does have two rather unnerving charges in Miles and Flora. Miles in particular, a miniature copy of his dissipated uncle, seems morally empty, his coy remarks accompanied by an inscrutable look in his emotionally dead eyes. Both children smile at strange moments, evade their keeper’s questions, and run off at every opportunity. The secret to their uncanny effect, however, is the way that they are underplayed. This is not The Bad Seed (1956) or Village of the Damned (1960). Nothing that Miles and Flora do really suggests more than the influence of their upbringing, as pernicious as their past experiences with Miss Jessel and Peter Quint might have been. Are they really possessed, or are they simply damaged by the unnatural actions of the adults who ought to have protected them?

Jack Clayton also directed The Great Gatsby (1974) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). See more of Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus (1947), From Here to Eternity (1953), and The King and I (1956). Martin Stephens, ironically enough, turns up as the leader of the alien children in Village of the Damned (1960). Pamela Franklin also appears in The Nanny (1965), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), and The Legend of Hell House (1973). For more classic movie adaptations of Henry James, try Berkeley Square (1933), The Lost Moment (1947), and The Heiress (1949).