Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees didn't think it was that big a secret that little kids are all possessed by evil spirits.
"All I want to do is save the children, not destroy them."
A child's voice sings of sorrow and death. Birds chirp in the darkness before dawn. A woman clasps trembling hands in prayer. So begins The Innocents, one of the finest ghost stories on film ever made.
But is it, in fact, a ghost story? Or is it a psychological drama about one woman's dangerously overactive imagination? The Innocents is based on Henry James's classic suspense novella The Turn of the Screw, which continues to fascinate scholars (and filmmakers) because of its central ambiguity. To its credit, whichever way you choose to interpret the film—as tale of the supernatural or portrait of obsession—it works. Often hailed as the finest screen version of James's story, The Innocents is a classic of film suspense in its own right.
Facts of the Case
For her very first position as governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr, An Affair to Remember) seems to have found the ideal post: caring for two adorable orphans at their uncle's luxurious country estate, Bly. But Miss Giddens finds that her new duties are not as straightforward as she had expected. Even though lovely young Flora (Pamela Franklin, The Legend of Hell House) and courtly Miles (Martin Stephens, Village of the Damned) seem at first like model children, Miss Giddens is troubled by what she learns about their last governess, Miss Jessel, who died under strange circumstances. Soon she begins to hear and see things that make her believe the governess and her brutal paramour are haunting Bly—and the children. Are Miles and Flora under the control of the dead, or is Miss Giddens in the grip of a dangerous delusion? As the "haunting" escalates, she decides that she must free the children from the spirits that possess them—but the result may be catastrophic in ways she can't imagine.
Like the 1963 classic The Haunting, to which it's frequently compared, The Innocents relies for its power on atmosphere and suggestion rather than gore and blatant supernatural effects. Interestingly, both films also feature a protagonist who may not be a reliable viewpoint character. Freudian scholars in particular like to interpret The Turn of the Screw, and this adaptation of it, as a study of repressed sexuality. Miss Giddens is clearly smitten with the children's uncle, and her sexual attraction to him may be the catalyst for her fascination with the dead lovers, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, and her conviction that they are continuing their affair from beyond the grave by inhabiting the children. The nuanced screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, based in part on Archibald's stage play, shows how Miss Giddens's mind leaps ahead of the "facts" as we perceive them to draw bold conclusions. It could be a sign that she's inventing the situation herself, or it could mean that she is a vigilant and perceptive woman who has learned to see through the children's innocent façade. Deborah Kerr's performance straddles the line masterfully, allowing us to see the character either way.
The duality extends to the question of the characters' innocence, a central theme in the film. The title brings up this question with its provocative reference to Miles and Flora. Yet in many ways Miss Giddens seems to be the real innocent, with her sheltered upbringing (she was a country clergyman's daughter) and lack of real-world experience. The children, in contrast, are curiously poised and self-possessed (or perhaps possessed, period). Miles addresses his governess as "my dear" and treats her with the gallant manner of a beau, not a child. Flora's favorite song is "O Willow Waly," a ballad about an abandoned lover dying of heartbreak—definitely not a children's song. It also evokes memories of the "willow" song from Shakespeare's Othello, which the innocent Desdemona sings before being murdered for her supposed infidelity, which reiterates the motifs of sex, death, and dubious innocence. Corruption, the opposite of innocence, surfaces not only in the hints of the depraved relationship of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, but also in a literal sense in the natural landscape of Bly: Dying roses drop their petals into Miss Giddens's hands, an insect creeps from the mouth of a crumbling statue, and Flora exults over a moth's death throes. The days are filled with cheery birdsong, but at night Miss Giddens hears a creature scream in pain. Every image of abundant life at Bly is counteracted by one of death or decay. To continue the paradox, if Miss Giddens is imagining the haunting, then she is the one corrupting the children—by insisting that they admit to guilty knowledge of which they are entirely ignorant.
The performances are crucial to the duality at the heart of the film, and all the actors rise to the occasion magnificently. The child actors are remarkably subtle, capturing the simplicity of childhood but also its air of secrecy and mysterious inner life. Anyone who has seen Martin Stephens in Village of the Damned will be surprised by the affable charm he often shows here. Yet in one scene he overturns the balance of power between him and Miss Giddens with a single disturbing gesture, and the sleazy satisfaction on his face makes one's skin crawl. Meg Jenkins, who would go on to reprise her role as Mrs. Grose in a 1974 television adaptation, is convincing as a well-meaning woman whose coping method is simply to ignore or deny what makes her uneasy. The crucial performance, though, is of course Kerr's. She is certainly older than one pictures the first-time governess in James's novella, and her age adds grist to the sexual-repression theory (we all know about old maids, nudge nudge). But Kerr makes us forget her actual age and focus on Miss Giddens's emotional progression from a naïve girl into a tormented woman grown old before her time. Her increasing intensity over the course of the film is riveting; we can't help but be moved by her plight even if we believe it's of her own invention. It's a tour de force, and among Kerr's finest dramatic work.
All the elements of the film, in fact, contribute to its masterful effect. The musical score by Georges Auric (La Belle et la Bête) is evocative but never overwhelming. Jack Clayton's direction creates a powerfully eerie mood and increasingly "turns the screws" to increase the suspense. The exceptional black-and-white cinematography by Freddie Francis (Dune, The Elephant Man) deserves special mention. According to a 1998 Film Comment article by Donald Chase, Clayton was dismayed to learn that the film would be shot in CinemaScope, so Francis set out to mitigate the horizontal orientation with visual technique. Thus, you'll notice that lots of shots are framed with objects that create vertical lines or break up the length of the picture. In other shots, however, Francis takes advantage of the strong horizontals of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio to heighten the atmosphere: The shadowy spaces of Bly become all the more unsettling when shown in vast expanses, and often Francis will underscore the gulf between characters by placing them at opposite ends of the frame. After years of enduring the VHS pan-and-scan transfer, I'm delighted to be able to see the entire film and appreciate the full impact of the cinematography. Francis later went on to direct some horror movies of his own, which is no surprise given his affinity for uncanny atmosphere as shown in The Innocents.
The DVD transfer showcases Francis's work beautifully. The flipper disc offers both the anamorphic widescreen version and the pan-and-scan butcher job, and both are exceptionally clean and crisp, with rich depth of grayscale tones. A few of the exterior daylight scenes do lack contrast and come off as flat, but that isn't the fault of the transfer. Aside from some flicker during the opening credit sequence, there is nothing to detract from the haunting visuals of the film. Likewise, audio is clean and remarkably dynamic; even the extensive use of treble in the bird song doesn't reveal any distortion or buzz. Occasionally there is some hollowness in dialogue, but this is a well balanced and subtly persuasive audio transfer, which enhances the impact of Clayton's creative use of sound and silence.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the quality of the transfer, I'm greatly disappointed that Fox didn't give this undisputed landmark of supernatural cinema the Studio Classics treatment. The stature of this film, as well as the ongoing debate over its source work, would seem to demand at the very least an audio commentary. The only relevant extra feature is the trailer, which is good for a laugh (it smacks more of William Castle than literary classic) but certainly gives no sense of this film's important place in its genre. I would even have settled for a double feature with another film adaptation of the story; goodness knows, with so many to choose from, surely one must be owned by Fox. I honestly don't understand why Fox gives a negligible B-movie like Orchestra Wives the Studio Classics treatment but not The Innocents.
Where the film itself is concerned, those who relish the ambiguity of James's story may find The Innocents not to be inconclusive enough. For my part, I like the film better for having picked a side; "ghost" stories that end unresolved have always frustrated me. At the same time, the clues to the solution are subtle enough to keep us in suspense until late in the action, and there's a brutal irony in the conclusion no matter how one interprets it.
For the sake of comparison, you may want to check out other films based on The Turn of the Screw, and there are lots of them. I find particularly interesting the 1999 version in which Jodhi May is a perilously zealous governess and the 1995 TV adaptation The Haunting of Helen Walker, which emphasizes the erotic elements of the story. For the brave, there is even the 1972 prequel The Nightcomers, in which Marlon Brando plays a kinky Peter Quint. But for visual impact, unsettling atmosphere, and compelling storytelling, I doubt you'll find anything that equals—much less surpasses—The Innocents.
Innocence can be difficult to judge, as we have seen, but the court is confident in declaring the defendant not guilty. Miss Giddens will be detained for a psychological assessment, however.
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