At the very end of his very wonderful commentary for the BFI’s new Blu-ray release of Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents”, with its final image of Deborah Kerr’s wrung hands clasped in sobbing despair as the screen fades slowly to black, Professor Christopher Frayling comments that the film stands today as ‘the greatest ghost story ever filmed, based on the greatest ghost story ever written’. Released in 1961 to patchy critical notices, this masterful adaptation of Henry James’s classic tale of the confrontation between innocence and all-possessive evil has since then not only come to be seen as a definitive lesson in the evocation of on-screen mood and atmosphere, with sets and lighting together visually articulating a spiralling sense of dread at unvoiced terrors that seem always somehow located just beyond full apprehension or proper understanding ( the essentials in, fact , of any properly conceived supernatural tale), but also a kind of cinematic summation of the long and varied history behind the critical appraisal and constant revaluation of James’s strange and ambiguously motivated tale, in the decades subsequent to its publication in 1898.
Poised on a knife edge of ambivalence, the story seems to demand that we take sides, without ever giving us the full means of deciding between the multitude of possible interpretations that might lie behind its disturbing events and the ideas which apparently underpin them; thus, a gap is opened up, where-in seem to lurk all manner of potent psychological conflicts and dreads, that come to centre on adult notions about the nature of evil as well as our understanding of (and changing attitude towards) the seemingly separate and unattainable world that goes to make up a large part of the childhood experience. The film, then, becomes not just a traditional, sumptuous black and white ghost story which attempts to negotiate between several competing interpretations of its intractable terrors; but also a social record of the development of our relationship with the 19th century origins of many of our most cherished ideas about the sanctity of childhood; and a receptacle for the increasing suspicion and ambivalence with which both these ideas, and the middle class Victorian milieu in which they were born, were increasingly coming to be viewed by the fifties and early sixties when“The Innocents” was first released. It is perhaps this, as much as its undoubted technical accomplishments in both conception and realisation, which explains the films burgeoning reputation in the last decade or so – for many of the troubling themes it raises seem now more powerful and prescient than ever.
For an author whose work is seen as being so fundamentally rooted in nuance, psychological insight and the problems of interpretation, reaction to the Henry James novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’ upon its initial publication was relatively straightforward: it was taken as an uncomplicated ghost story by most critics, in the classic Gothic tradition (with knowing reference to the genre’s – even by the 1890s –now firmly established clichés). In a nutshell the story is about an inexperienced Governess who comes to believe that the angelic orphans she has been employed to teach in the vast and rambling sunlit environs of a country estate called Bly House, are secretly in communion with the spirits of a sexually cruel ex valet called Peter Quint and his submissive lover, the estate’s former governess, Miss Jessel -- this tragic, corrupted woman having then committed suicide soon after his death. Worse, the new Governess believes that both now aim to continue their ‘contaminated’ affairs from beyond the grave, and seek to use the two children as their corporal vessels.
The Governess becomes convinced that only by getting the two children to confront this truth and admit their conspiracy, can the demons be vanquished and innocence restored. Nevertheless her interventions appear to result in tragedy.
The narrative relays events only from the Governess’s point of view and seems on the surface to take the form of a classic Christian parable about the forces of good, represented by the heroic Governess (a vicar’s daughter, raised in a cramped country parsonage before taking this, her first job away from home), and the forces of darkness, represented by the corrupting influence of the spirits of Jessel and Quint --which continue to lurk at Bly and have targeted the two children. Even by the 1920s, though, critics were beginning to see that there was potentially more to be said. For what exactly can be said to have happened in this story by its end? Were the children involved in, or did they witness, the unnamed acts which occurred between Quint and Miss Jessel? If so, are the children possessed, or simply traumatised by their former experience, perhaps even abused? Even more to the point, do the ghosts actually necessarily exist at all? No-one but the governess ever actually sees anything, and her obsessive quest to get the children to admit that they are indeed aware of the phantoms never produces any unambiguously tangible results, although her account is unquestionably filled with total conviction -- replete with passages in which she deigns to interpret such ambivalent signs as conspiratorial smiles or knowing looks, things which most other observers would have little reason to read anything much into. The fact is that James’s text is reticent about coming clean on the precise nature of any of the above -- unless, that is, you believe everything the Governess says without question.
But there is a problem with that, too, because, like all persuasive-sounding ghost stories, her account comes from a ten-year-old manuscript, relating an event that happened some years before that; and the whole tale is framed as a Christmas ghost story being related by friends around a log fire, one of whom remembers the story being told to him by his Governess before she died. Thus we are several places removed from the events themselves, which would have occurred some thirty or so years previously in the mid-1800s.
With the advent of Freudianism in literature studies, the psychological interpretation took on new piquancy, especially in Edmund Wilson’s influential essay from the 1930s, ‘The Ambiguity of Henry James’ , in which a sometimes crude Freudian reading of the tale identified the Governess’s infatuation with the guardian who employs her to look after the two children Miles and Flora, as the source of all the repressed sexual desire which leads to her projecting her own abominable fantasies onto the children’s innocent whispering games, and in her thus being subject to the deranged hallucinations of the confirmed hysteric. The fact that she first sees the ghost of Quint standing above her on one of Bly House’s many crenelated Neo Gothic towers is accorded all the phallic prominence and significance you’d expect in any respectable Freudian reading!
By the early sixties when “The Innocents” was made, this kind of Freudian interpretation had become a sort of cudgel with which it was almost respectable for one to be seen beating up the stodgy values of middle-class Victorian society. Many myths began to circulate before this about the alleged prudery and hypocrisy underlying Victorian attitudes to sex (the art critic Ruskin’s supposedly horrified reaction to his discovery upon his wedding night of the fact that, unlike his beloved classical statuary, his wife Effie had pubic hair! And the common belief that respectable Victorian homes covered up their piano legs out of a sense of decency, to name but two); but yet, there did seem something very strange and ambivalent about Victorian attitudes to childhood. Simultaneously, familiar echoes appear in our own times, yet they continue to seem quite ‘other’ and alien to us, too. On the one hand, the Victorians had been the great reformers when it came to privileging the concept of ‘childhood’ itself as a state of being defined by its prelapsarian innocence: rather than simply just little adults to be put to work up a chimney as quickly as humanly possible, they became tender, delicate flowers to be nurtured and ‘raised right’, lest they should fall off the righteous path if exposed too early in life to the complexities of adult experience.
At the same time, the cloying, kitsch and sentimentalised vision of childhood which the Victorians were instrumental in patenting (and which we have to a certain extent since inherited) with, for instance, dodgy paintings-cum-advertisements by Millais displaying cute cherub-cheeked urchins and the like, seems to modern eyes to shade perilously close to a creepy, flirty eroticisation of the child form. The number one culprit of course was Lewis Carroll and his dubious photography, but In Oxford, there was a Dodgsonian ‘cult of little girls’ in the 1880s, where the infant daughters of Oxford dons and residents would be treated to romantic summer trips on the lake, and made the recipients of flowery verse, penned in their honour. Millais’ painting ‘ Bubbles’ may have been considered laughably kitsch (described in Matthew Sweet’s Inventing The Victorians as ‘half boy, half Bambi’), but the modern mind feels distinctly uneasy at even the title of his work ‘Cherry Ripe’, which depicts an ambiguously coquettish pre-teen gazing seductively out of the canvass, dressed in strangely adult-looking lacy fingerless gloves.
It is this strange other world, from a time when the newly minted concept of childhood was still being developed and not yet fully formed, which seemed by the sixties to be the source of all the hypocrisy and corruption that was then starting to be challenged and satirised by a newly invigorated and affluent post-war generation. And this is the context and background against which the screenplay adaptation of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and Clayton’s subsequent film, eventually emerged.
Clayton took the title from a three act theatrical adaptation by William Archibald. This stage play had only one setting (the interior drawing room of Bly) and, what’s more, made it abundantly clear that the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel really did exist. But Clayton adored the title, with its suggestion that all the protagonists (at least the clearly living ones), whether they be child or adult, were in some sense innocent. The limiting drawing room setting and the removal of a great deal of the ambiguity from the story were problems though, and so the task of bringing all the trendy Freudian psychological baggage to the tale, while still enabling it to function independently as an authentic record of spiritual haunting, fell to Truman Capote (with John Mortimer providing a Victorianised, Jamesian gloss to the dialogue) who, as Frayling describes in exemplary detail on the commentary track, developed a visual language for the film that was steeped in rich, evocative Southern Gothic iconography, but which was also clearly symbolic of the ideas of the commentators who saw Miss Giddens (as the Governess was now called; in the book she had been nameless) as a sexually repressed hysteric with paedophilic designs on Master Miles and a twisted sexual jealousy of angelic little Flora.
Because of Capote’s work, the story gets opened up to include the grounds of the estate as well as just the interior of the house. The summer house setting by the lake from James’s novella is restored – the site for one of the single most haunting sequences in Horror cinema – but a fairy-tail-like rose- garden and a circle of statuary have been added, and become the locations for several of the most important scenes in the film. All this is brought to vivid life by sets which reproduce the kind of environment one might expect to see at Sheffield Park -- the estate at which all the exteriors at Bly House were shot -- with its classic 18th Century English landscape garden design by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphrey Repton. These sets take all the romantic, Arcadian splendour of the site and give it a symbolic Gothic twist: the rose-garden from which Miss Giddens first catches sight of Quint on the tower, is on the one hand, impossibly lush and romantic, yet it also conceals an ugly, decaying statue of a cherub, being pulled towards the earth by hands emerging from the ground, while out of the statue’s mouth emerges a black beetle – a fairly obvious but effective foreshadowing of Miss Giddens coming fears about the curiously adult nature of little Miles.
Roses are the key symbol throughout the film; a symbol of romantic attraction and a representation of beauty decayed. The screenplay adds a sequence in the house’s attic – that traditional Gothic metaphor for the troubled subconscious – stuffing its shadowy interior full of broken old Victorian bric-a-brac and making it the site in which Miss Giddens first stumbles upon a broken framed photograph of Peter Quint and a music box that plays the haunting musical motif ‘Willow Waylee’, connecting the perfect doll-like Flora to Miss Jessel. The Neo Classical design of the summer house beside the lake where the apparition of Miss Jessel appears to Miss Giddens (and Flora?) later in the story, leads to the visual suggestion of Flora as a manipulated puppet of supernatural forces, when she secretly escapes to the remote spot by row boat to dance to the music box’s repetitive mournful melody, while Miss Jessel appears in the reed bed across the lake -- A perfect, yet supremely chilling moment in which, from afar, flora looks like the spinning toy in the music box.
Any account of “The Innocents” must soon pay its reverent respects to Freddie Francis’s outstanding cinematography, made all the more remarkable for its effects being so perfectly realised, despite the film being shot in CinemaScope, with Shepperton Studio’s entire stock of Brute Lights being used to create the required depth of field, and the photographer using all sorts of tricks to focus the viewer’s attention, even sometimes painting out certain corners of the screen. The elongated frame is perfect for creating some of the film’s most eerie effects though: when Peter Wyngarde’s evil Quint first really begins to terrorises Miss Giddens by gliding into shot from out of the darkness of the left-hand side of the screen, we only notice the apparition at about the same time as the Governess does, thus giving us the same jolt and placing us inside the experience of Miss Giddens while still being unsure if any of it actually exists outside of her mind (If you slow the film down frame by frame, you will notice that Quint does appear a few seconds before she sees him!). Necessarily deprived of the subtle literary effects Henry James was able to call upon in order to create an atmosphere of ambiguity alongside the fear and the dread, the film instead plays a cat and mouse game with our perceptions, making the apparitions and phantoms vivid but fleeting, and often seen by Miss Giddens before we glimpse them ourselves.
But, crucially, not always: Despite the very real feeling which gradually emerges, that Miss Giddens is a neurotic, Clayton toys with us by occasionally suggesting that the ghosts are real after all: when she catches sight of Miss Jessel sobbing at the desk in the school room, for instance, the Governess discovers a physically real tear upon its surface. At the end, when she attempts to get Miles to admit to his relationship beyond the grave with the wicked valet Quint, the apparition she she’s looming above them from one of the pedestals of the statue circle could well be in her mind … until we suddenly swap visual perspective for a brief second, and appear to be taking the ghost’s view of events, looking down from his vantage point up above; a sequence that doesn’t make sense unless the vision has a reality of its own.
Nevertheless, the film is loaded with disturbing suggestions of Miss Giddens ‘unbalanced state of mind, to deliberately confuse the issue, Deborah Kerr here giving a performance widely acknowledged to have been the best of her career. She was technically too old for the part, being over forty when she took the role of a character who is meant to be an impressionable twenty-year-old. But this of course, just adds to the contemporary vibe of starchy Victorian repression, and makes the theme all the more acute. The boy Miles, brilliantly acted by the habitually creepy Martin Stephens (he was also in “Village of the Damned”) is like a diminutive version of Michael Redgrave’s gentleman guardian, who only appears in the first scene but clearly makes a big impression on the Governess; she might then be projecting repressed sexual urges meant for the uncle onto the child. He wears adult clothes and has a precocious air about him, speaking with adult mannerisms and always seeming to know more than he lets on. This is all fairly disturbing stuff even to modern audiences, perhaps it’s even more so today than when the film first came out, but the eerie subtlety with which the film addresses, or suggests, profoundly disturbing ideas in the mind of the viewer is all part of its clever brilliance. It really is one of the greatest films of its type and of its era. I could probably witter on for another two thousand words about the fantastic interior design of Bly House – a medieval fairy tale idea of Neo Gothic, with hung tapestries and billowing drapes; or the terrifying sound design and Georges Auric’s lovely score, not to mention the transitional dreamlike slow fades and almost subliminal images that appear between scenes, but all that really needs to be said is that this restored High Definition transfer on the BFI’s Blu-ray re-release looks fabulous and the film is absolutely essential viewing for anyone even remotely interested in sixties Horror cinema. This is the best medium to see it in, with a print that offers a rich, detailed reproduction of the film’s deep focus photography and its palette of deep, velvety blacks and flaring, sunlight whites. The audio is a no-thrills mono track, thin by today’s standards but as good as can be expected of a film of this vintage.
The extras begin with what is credited simply as ‘a video introduction’, but which is in fact nothing less than a full twenty-five minute, to-camera oration by Professor Christopher Frayling, in which he gives the viewer an engrossing rundown on the making of the film and the development of the screenplay, with recourse to frequent clips to illustrate his points and the inclusion of filmed interviews with Deborah Kerr and Pamela Franklin, who played Flora. It’s an excellent and perceptive and extremely engaging film, shot on the grounds of Sheffield Park with the locations of the film prominent in the background. To back this up with even more detail, you get a full film commentary by Frayling which really is a master-class in the art. Frayling’s easy manner and well-constructed thoughts and ideas make this a pleasure to listen to; it’s often scene specific and packed with information without becoming too dry and academic; his min-biographies of the film’s small cast are never perfunctory or simply shoe-horned uneasily into his account, but flow naturally out of the subjects he addresses. One comes away from it feeling that one’s appreciation of the film has been considerably enhanced by having heard it.
Designed by Motley is a fourteen minute featurette consisting of a potted history of the collaborative female trio of costume designers whose exemplary theatrical and film work between the years 1932 and 1976 is so wonderfully showcased in “The Innocents”. It then moves on to provide a gallery of sketches of all the costumes worn by all the cast throughout the film, with an excellent commentary description to augment ones appreciation of the artistry and knowledge that was brought to bear on the work and just how much it contributed to the tone of the finished film.
Two short films by Jack Clayton, also in High Definition, are included on the disc. “The Bespoke Overcoat” fits in well with the supernatural theme of the main feature, being an adaptation of a short story by Nikolai Gogol in which an impoverished tailor encounters the ghost of an old, equally poor friend for whom he had intended to make a new coat. Starring Alfie Bass and David Kossoff, this is a charming black and white directorial debut by Clayton, reminiscent in its earthy mix of flinty black and white aesthetics with a light, comedic tone, of the early films of Roman Polanski. The second film is a 1943 documentary which Clayton directed (un-credited) for the Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, called “Naples is a Battlefield”. It’s an on the spot account of the aftermath of the liberation of the city by the allies, notable for its skilled capture of evocative images which helped bring home the plight of the people of this city to American audiences.
The original US theatrical trailer for “The Innocents” demonstrates 20th Century Fox’s complete befuddlement over how to market the film: on the one hand the voice-over emphasises the adult nature of this supernatural tale, while at the same time it resorts to a ridiculously over-wrought tag line, enounced in the tones usually reserved for drive-in monster movies.
Finally, the BFI provide one of their customary booklets packed with excellent interviews and features:
The League of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson contributes a fine essay describing his love for this and other films which express ‘reverence for that which we cannot understand’.
Penelope Huston’s on-set report from Shepperton Studios, originally published in the 1961 summer issue of Sight and Sound, is reproduced, giving a detailed account of the filming of several small scenes involving character actress Megs Jenkins (who plays Mrs Grose, the chirpy maid of Bly House) and Deborah Kerr.
Beautifully written biographies of Jack Clayton and Freddie Francis and the ‘Motley’ group; plus an overview of each of the short films also included on the dis; and, finally, a credit list for cast and crew -- are augmented with some gorgeous stills from the movie, a series of sketches by John Piper, and a page of the camera script which includes Jack Clayton’s notes, round of an essential presentation of a supernatural/psychological classic, fit for anyone’s home collection.