Lionsgate // 1972 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // July 20th, 2007
Two children. Two adults. One unspeakable crime.
The Godfather: Part II was a rare work of film art created by melding two often-unsuccessful genres: the sequel and the prequel. Sequels at least have a better chance of doing well commercially, since they continue the story and often use the same cast. Prequels have it tougher. Since they take place in the past, it generally means recasting the major roles with younger actors. Remember Dumb and Dumberer or Butch and Sundance: The Early Days or The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas? Me neither.
The Nightcomers is a prequel to the Henry James story, The Turn of the Screw. It stars Marlon Brando -- ironically, the only major cast member of The Godfather who did not make an appearance in Part II.
The English countryside, 1901. When their uncle leaves their estate to return to London, recently orphaned Miles and Flora (Christopher Ellis and Verna Harvey) are left in the care of their governess, Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham, Dynasty), and the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Thora Hird). Also on the premises is Peter Quint (Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront), a rough-hewed Irishman who cares for the horses and the grounds. The children adore Quint, his coarse manners and sense of adventure a contrast to their otherwise proper upbringing. But Quint is a dangerous man, with a dark heart and twisted passions. He and Miss Jessel are lovers, though "love" is hardly the word to describe their violent affair. Too innocent to fully comprehend the depravity in their midst, Miles and Flora treat it all like a romantic game. But when Mrs. Grose realizes what is going on, she becomes determined to put a stop to it.
The legend that was Marlon Brando began with his second film, A Streetcar Named Desire, and was built throughout the 1950s, when he made a series of films that were, for the most part, commercially and/or critically successful. He earned five Oscar nominations in that decade, winning one. In the 1960s, the Brando phenomenon did a reversal. Audiences stopped turning out, and critics who once couldn't find enough superlatives to describe his work turned against him. Behind-the-scenes stories of temperamental, self-indulgent behavior became legend. Viewing these films now, our appraisals might be bit kinder, for in each one, we get a performance that is uniquely Brando -- not always successful, but consistently interesting.
The Nightcomers was released in 1972, just weeks before Brando was once again being celebrated, for his "comeback" in The Godfather. Nightcomers is a quirky, moody film that doesn't really work but is saved from failure by Brando's presence.
Henry James' The Turn of the Screw has been filmed many times for both television and theatrical release. Perhaps the best interpretation (and, I think, one of the best ghost stories ever put on film) was Jack Clayton's 1961 version, The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr. The Nightcomers purports to be a prequel, telling the story of the doomed affair between Peter Quint and Miss Jessel as seen through the eyes of young Miles and Flora. It's not a ghost story, since the characters who would be ghosts in The Innocents are alive here. The Nightcomers fleshes out the back story that was merely hinted at in the earlier film. It's a decent enough film in its own right, but it is subverted by its premise as a prequel, and its execution in relation to that premise is all wrong.
Part of what made The Innocents and the story on which it was based so disturbing was that so much was left to our own interpretations. We know that the children saw "wicked" things involving Quint and Miss Jessel, following them around, and perhaps, in their innocence, emulating them. Here, we see the adults engaging in rough sex, including some rather elaborate bondage games, conveniently leaving the door open so Miles has the chance to spy on them. Later, the children try their own tie-up game and when caught by the housekeeper, they proudly announce, "We have been doing sex." They also construct an elaborate romantic fantasy about the adults and arrange for them to spend time together, discussing openly with the governess and groundskeeper how they feel about each other. It is the children who are really in control; they are hardly innocents being manipulated by callous, passion-driven grownups.
In terms of both the book and the earlier film, this is just wrong, wrong, wrong. These children are far too knowing, given how sheltered they have supposedly been. It doesn't help that they look to be teenagers (Harvey was actually 20) rather than 9 or 10, the ages we usually associate with Miles and Flora. Perhaps producer/director Michael Winner was afraid the film would have been too disturbing had the children been that young; of course, he would have had to have toned things down and been more subtle about the sex, but I think it would have worked to the film's advantage. The ending also betrays the original in a number of ways, including having Miles, whose expulsion from school sets The Innocents in motion, never going to school and being on hand to meet the new governess.
Differences are also evident in the look of the two films: The Innocents, shot in black and white, is dark and filled with shadows. Nightcomers is a Technicolor production with bright skies and verdant pastures. The estate, so foreboding in the Clayton film, is neat and well-lit here. It's a handsome film, and Lionsgate does itself proud with the transfer, which is clear and relatively damage free. The mono audio track is alright, but there times that background music overwhelms the dialogue.
The only real extra is an audio commentary by Michael Winner, which is mainly a series of reminiscences about Brando. Apparently, they were friends off-screen as well, and Winner shares a lot of anecdotes about the actor, as well as the production. Most interesting: Vanessa Redgrave was originally signed to play Miss Jessel but had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts. Brando and Redgrave...now that would have been something to see. Beacham is fine, but she's no Vanessa Redgrave and doesn't quite hold her own against the actor as we imagine Redgrave would have. There is also a brief "introduction" to the film, which is just an excerpt from the interview that produced the commentary.
Brando is great as the earthy groundskeeper who loves, and is loved by, the children. He is at his best in his scenes with them and clearly relishes the role of "bad-boy uncle." The script and direction seem to constrain him later in the film, which is too bad. Left to himself, he's a great choice for Peter Quint (or a character based on Peter Quint), who in some ways resembles a latter-day Stanley Kowalski. (Ironically, as written, Kowalski was supposed to have been an older man; Brando was in his 20s when he made Streetcar and is in his late 40s here.) Also turning in excellent work is British character actress Thora Hird as the housekeeper whose efforts to take control of the situation lead to terrible consequences.
On its own terms, this is an interesting and disturbing film that plays much better if you can forget the pretense of its being a prequel. Frankly, there are enough deviations between this film and the original that merely changing the characters' names and making a few tweaks in the script would have taken away the onus of this being a run up rather than its own story.
The Nightcomers is a well-shot, well-acted film, and it offers the chance to see Brando just before his re-emergence as an acting god. If only it didn't have "prequel" hanging over its head like the Sword of Damocles. It's an interesting experiment, it's just hobbled by its premise and doesn't come together. Worth a rental for Brando's performance and Winner's commentary.
Guilty of attempted identify theft.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Introduction by Director Michael Winner
* Audio commentary by Winner
* DVD Verdict review of The Innocents