The Innocents (1961) ***½
From time to time, one of my readers will express astonishment at the tortures I put myself through for the sake of this website— voluntarily subjecting myself to the works of Andreas Schnaas, accepting a challenge to review the Witchcraft series in its stultifying entirety, that sort of thing. By far the most masochistic endeavor I’ve yet undertaken on behalf of 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, however, was to choke down The Turn of the Screw a second time, so that it would be fresh in my memory while I took on its best-known film adaptation, The Innocents.
I’d long been curious about The Innocents, partly because seriously intended ghost movies predating The Haunting are so rare, and partly because it prominently features the gifted young actor who played the leader of the hybrid children in Village of the Damned. Mostly, though, what intrigued me about this movie was its reputation for excellence, which leads me back to the subject of the source novella. Despite its invariable inclusion among the “classics” of the form, The Turn of the Screw is a veritable master class in how not to write horror fiction. It is a book for those who believe that the best tales of terror are those which terrify least— and given the traditional antipathy of literature’s professional tastemakers for truly effective horror, I’m inclined to suspect that the book is regarded as classic precisely because of its feebleness. Horror, more than most genres, is a matter of mood, and if ever there were an author whose style was inherently destructive to an atmosphere of dread and inimical to any sort of shock effect, Henry James was the one. Reading James’s prose is like being asphyxiated in a wedding cake by a heavily perfumed assassin wearing mittens of the finest Russian mink. His sentences wind daintily around and through themselves, timidly brushing against their meanings every fifteenth comma or so before withdrawing in a flutter of apologies for having approached anything so upsettingly coarse as sense or clarity. His characters are forever cutting off each other’s lines for fear that an utterance brought to completion might commit the intolerable affront of direct communication, but their worries on that score are ill-founded. Even an honest innuendo is too readily intelligible for James and the people who populate his writing— with them, you get innuendos to an innuendo. Like slave courtiers tasked with telling a mad sultan something that they know he doesn’t want to hear, they hint darkly not at the truth, but at the other, darker hints they might give if only it were safe to do so; but rather than justifiable fear of an insane autocrat who could have them skinned on a whim, their tongues are restrained only by their own hypertrophied senses of propriety.
Elephantiasis of the decorum proves at last to be the sole source of the “evil” ghosts’ menace as well, for when James belatedly begins groping in the general direction of forthrightness toward the end of the book, the specters deflate from child molesters or soul-stealers or whatever the reader had built them up to be in his own mind to mere bad influences. The children must be kept shielded from those fiends from beyond the grave lest they teach the poor little darlings to associate as equals with the rustic proletariat or— my God, it’s too horrible!— to go out in public without a hat. (You’ll notice that I’m regarding the ghosts as unquestionably real in defiance of much scholarly interpretation. That’s because the currently fashionable reading which would make them figments of the central character’s overheated imagination is logically indefensible on the basis of the text itself. When the protagonist— who is admittedly as unreliable a narrator as they come in other respects— sees the male phantom for the first and second times, she unmistakably lacks the necessary knowledge to have invented him so specifically.) It’s possible, of course, that the lack of congruity between the ghosts’ actual behavior and the unnamed narrator’s opinion of them was exactly James’s point. Indeed, the destructive influence of Europe’s ossified upper-class folkways is such an important theme of James’s early writing that it would be kind of amazing if it found its way into The Turn of the Screw completely by accident. And a direct, honest (there are those words again) effort to work through the issues raised by the narrator’s unhinged overreaction to her brush with the supernatural might indeed have made The Turn of the Screw worthwhile in spite of its pervasive flaws of both style and substance. Once again, though, directness and honesty are too much to ask of James, and he concludes with a shameless cop-out, having the one character who could have forced such an examination die suddenly from an acute outbreak of nothing at all. A movie that could make a masterpiece out of The Turn of the Screw would be the Jaws of ghost stories, and that’s something I’d absolutely need to see. As it happens, The Innocents doesn’t quite meet that standard, mainly because screenwriter Truman Capote (yes, him!) preserves the novella’s travesty of an ending, but that concluding fuck-up is the only respect in which it fails to represent a vast improvement over the book. It may also be the only case on record of a movie benefiting from following a stage adaptation more closely than the original source material.
Miss Giddens (Eye of the Devil’s Deborah Kerr) is undergoing a job interview. Her prospective employer is a middle-aged libertine dandy (Michael Redgrave, from Dead of Night and 1984) who has found himself for the past several years in a position for which he is farcically unqualified, guardian to a niece and nephew for whom he has no affection, and whom he regards as nothing more than a looming impediment to his lifestyle. The kids are packed away at Bly, their uncle’s huge country estate, which both keeps them out of his hair and serves the ostensibly noble purpose of insulating them from the bad example he would otherwise set. Of course, somebody needs to take care of his wards, and that’s where Miss Giddens would theoretically come in. She would have to go far beyond the usual duties of a governess, though, because the man wants to have literally nothing to do with the rearing of the children. So long as she were in his employ, Miss Giddens would have to assume total responsibility for every aspect of their upbringing, and under no circumstances to bother their uncle for anything save perhaps money in excess of the usual household allowance to cover an extraordinary expense. She would be not merely a governess, but a de facto foster mother. You can see, then, why the interview feels weirdly inverted, with the would-be employer practically begging the applicant to accept. I can’t imagine how long it must have taken this guy to find Mary Jessel, his previous governess, and her untimely death (a subject to which we’ll return soon enough) must have been made even more wrenching by the certain knowledge that she would be extremely difficult to replace. On the other hand, one doesn’t acquire the title “libertine dandy” without first mastering the art of talking naïve young women into taking chances they’re not fully prepared for, and Miss Giddens is nothing if not a naïve young woman. She gladly accepts the rather mad assignment.
Bly is one of those English country houses that wind up creepier than they need to be, simply because they’re too goddamned big for any reasonable staff of servants to manage. Its owner needs most of his income for raising hell in London, and with no one but old Mrs. Grose the housekeeper (Megs Jenkins, from Asylum and the 1948 version of The Monkey’s Paw) and a little-seen maid to look after the place, it only stands to reason that most of it would remain shut up and effectively derelict. But despite— and perhaps in part because of— its capital-R Romantically shabby condition, Miss Giddens falls in love with Bly at first sight. She’s similarly taken with Mrs. Grose, and most of all with Flora (Pamela Franklyn, of The Nanny and The Legend of Hell House), the younger of the two children. Sunny-dispositioned and cuter than a piglet squid, Flora is furthermore precociously bright and creative. She also shares her uncle’s knack for getting away with anything, so it’s a good thing for Miss Giddens that Flora seems obedient and mannerly, as eight-year-olds go. Miles, Flora’s ten-ish brother (Martin Stephens, from Village of the Damned and The Witches), is still away at school, and isn’t due back at Bly for another week or two, but Mrs. Grose assures the new governess that he’s even more loveable than Flora.
What Miss Giddens doesn’t notice in her initial euphoria is that Flora is maybe a little strange in addition to her more readily apparent qualities. It’s hard sometimes, for example, to be certain whether a story Flora tells you is true— not because she’s a liar, but because her imagination is rather too big for her, leaving her with a much younger child’s precarious grasp on the distinction between fantasy and reality. But at the same time, it also seems that she is almost preternaturally sensitive, perceiving things that her more orderly-minded elders miss. In other words, she’s exactly the sort of person we’d want at or near the center of an ambiguous ghost story. For that matter, she’s also the sort of person one really ought to heed when she says something is about to happen, even if the event in question seems far-fetched. Case in point: Flora is convinced that Miles will be coming home any day now, regardless of when the term ends for the summer at his boarding school. And she’s exactly right about that, for no sooner has Miss Giddens settled in at Bly than a letter arrives from the academy announcing that Miles has been expelled. The headmaster doesn’t go into detail, but evidently Miles has been deemed a corrupting influence on his fellow students. We’ll have no trouble believing that when we meet him, either, however incredible Mrs. Grose and the governess may find it. I don’t know whether it’s strictly possible for a child to take after someone to whom he’s not lineally related, but whatever you want to call it, Miles already has his uncle’s good-boy/bad-boy act nailed. We’ll see later on that his present conception of misbehavior is as quaintly small-time as befits his years, but with enough time and the right tutor, an angel-faced imp like Miles could develop into somebody really dangerous.
That’s a distinctly relevant concern, too, because it happens that Miles once had exactly such a tutor. No, I’m not talking about his uncle, although he might very well have sufficed. During Mary Jessel’s tenure as governess, the uncle employed a steward at Bly by the name of Peter Quint. Quint was a violent, randy lout, and an emotional sadist as well. The affair he carried on with Miss Jessel was similar in tone to the one between Franco Nero and Lisa Gastoni in Submission, and what’s more, it was appallingly public. On more than one occasion, Mrs. Grose witnessed Peter beating Mary while she groveled on the floor like an animal, or walked in on the couple making hate to each other in some part of the house far less private than his bedroom or hers. Mrs. Grose can’t say for certain how much of The Quint and Jessel Show Miles and Flora might have seen, but given the pair’s utter shamelessness, the gutter really was the limit. There was surely opportunity enough, for both kids were very close to Miss Jessel (as the nature of her responsibilities tended to encourage), and Miles seemed to look up to Quint like something between a big brother and a sophisticated older cousin. More to the point, who knows what attitudes or ideas Miles in particular might have absorbed from the steward, or what impressions either child might have formed from Miss Jessel’s acquiescence to the treatment she received? Even in death, Peter and Mary modeled extravagantly bad behavior, for Quint fatally cracked his head in some drunken nocturnal misadventure, after which Miss Jessel committed suicide rather than face life without her beloved tormentor.
For now, though, it matters less what Miles and Flora know of their old governess’s scandalous liaison than what Miss Giddens does. What she knows when she takes up her position at Bly is nothing; she’s heard no rumors, seen no portraits or photographs, received no preparatory intelligence on the subject from her employer. Indeed, she’s never so much as heard the name Peter Quint. So when she begins seeing a prowler (Peter Wyngarde, from Flash Gordon and Burn, Witch, Burn) skulking the grounds of Bly, and the description she gives Mrs. Grose matches exactly that of the deceased steward, it can mean only one thing. That conclusion is corroborated a bit later, when Miss Giddens discovers a cameo of her mystery man in a locket that belonged to Mary Jessel. Nor is it long before Miss Jessel herself (Clytie Jessop, of Nightmare and Torture Garden) starts appearing to her increasingly frightened successor. The question is, why? What do these ghosts want? And have they shown themselves only to Miss Giddens, or have they made contact with others in the house, too? Naturally, Miss Giddens’s greatest fear is that they’ve been seen by Miles and Flora, and she quickly convinces herself that a reunion with the children is indeed the specters’ aim. It would explain so much, after all. Miles’s expulsion, Flora’s premonitions and “overactive imagination,” the air of conspiracy that Miss Giddens increasingly discerns in the kids’ dealings with each other, and especially the obvious pleasure that Miles takes in tiny floutings of both social custom and the rules of the house— all fall into place if Quint and Jessel have continued to spread their corruption from the netherworld. Well, Miss Giddens won’t stand for it, you hear? Ghost-busting might be more than she bargained for in coming to Bly, but no matter. If ghost-busting is what her young charges require, then just call her Egon Spengler!
The greater part of The Innocents’ superiority over The Turn of the Screw has to do with where the two versions of the story situate their ambiguity. In the novella, the pertinent question is, what were Peter Quint and Mary Jessel really like? Is the governess’s fear of their evil intentions justified, or have her class prejudices merely run amok, leading her to extrapolate indecencies that never occurred (or that were never meaningfully indecent)? So long as James postpones addressing that question, it is possible for a sufficiently inventive reader to interpret all those hints of hints as the outline of a potentially effective premise straining to break through the author’s timorousness. The fact remains, though, that the governess never sees the ghosts do anything— and nobody else ever sees them at all— so any possibility of true horror evaporates once the preponderance of evidence comes down on the side of her simply being a histrionic prig. There’s nothing at stake anymore (picture the tag line: “Two innocent little children— alone at the mercy of an annoying dingbat who’s about to get herself fired anyway!”), and James is finally forced to the fraudulent expedient of death from thematic convenience. The movie, however, spreads its uncertainties around much more strategically, even as it casually owns up to things that would have given poor Henry James the vapors if stated so bluntly.
To start with, this Peter Quint and Mary Jessel are bad news, no two ways about it. Probably they never laid a hand (or any other appendage) on the children under their care, but it wasn’t for nothing that I compared their relationship to the one at the center of Submission. Given a couple more years and one fewer drunken pratfall down the front staircase, who knows? In any case, it was manifestly all kinds of unhealthy for those two to be the children’s primary model of intimate relations, even without buying into Victorian socio-sexual norms. But at the same time, you have to ask what Miles in particular could learn from Quint that he couldn’t pick up equally well from his uncle. What little we see of the latter suggests a rather gentler approach to lady-killing, but again we don’t really know. And as in the print version, the ghosts are never shown to act in any way, which leads one to wonder if perhaps Peter and Mary weren’t more dangerous alive than they could ever be as supernatural beings. Also unknown is what, if any, knowledge the kids have of the haunting. I gather that was supposed to be a mystery in the book as well, but James makes the narrator far too strident in her conclusion-jumping for the ploy to succeed. The more certain she becomes of a conspiracy between her charges and the phantoms, the more certain the reader becomes that she’s full of shit. In The Innocents, on the other hand, there are clear intimations— including, crucially, a few that Miss Giddens herself doesn’t catch— that Miles and Flora are aware of their spectral cohabitants. Those clues are never enough to become even cumulatively decisive, but they do make the question unmistakably legitimate. And most importantly, the movie’s title is deeply ironic. No, we’re nowhere near Bad Seed territory here, but neither are the children anything like innocent as Miss Giddens would understand that term. Each in their own way is a budding genius of emotional manipulation; Flora trades on her innate sweetness to carve out a personal exception to every rule she encounters, while Miles is discovering the value of strategic acting out. That is, whereas the book’s unnamed governess succumbs so completely to paranoia that she begins interpreting her wards’ unchanged angelic behavior as evidence that they’re keeping secrets from her, Miss Giddens has a halfway defensible excuse for seeing malevolent influences at work upon the children. If we assume as she does that a child is born a blank slate of perfect goodness, then Miles and Flora must have learned their exceptionally canny naughtiness from somebody, right?
The filmmakers’ decision to treat the children as characters, rather than as mere objects for the governess to project her neuroses onto, was an exceedingly smart bit of rewriting, but it also put an immense responsibility on the juvenile performers playing the parts. Fortunately, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklyn are more than able to carry that burden. Indeed, Stephens steals the show here even more thoroughly than he had in Village of the Damned. There’s one scene in particular between him and Deborah Kerr, where Miles attempts to work his uncle’s (or perhaps Peter Quint’s?) style of charm on Miss Giddens, that’s squirm-inducing in every single one of the right ways, not least because Stephens gives it such an earnest and unsophisticated interpretation. Indicative it may be that someone’s been setting Miles a bad example, but at the same time it’s perfectly the action of a little boy doing his damnedest to act like a man on the basis of incomplete and unreliable information about what that might mean. Franklyn’s performance is not so striking, but that’s probably to be expected. Stephens was already a veteran actor at the age of eleven, but The Innocents was her first film role. Even so, she gives a performance that seems to promise a long and interesting career— which indeed she had, although most of her grown-up acting was done for television rather than the big screen.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to say something about The Innocents as a visual mood piece, especially since lack of the proper atmosphere is such a conspicuous failing of its literary basis. Director Jack Clayton apparently dreaded nothing more than that The Innocents should be lumped together with the contemporary output of Hammer Film Productions, which is ironic on at least two levels. First off, Shepperton Studios, where this movie was filmed, would later become the preferred shooting location for Hammer’s biggest competitor and copycat, Amicus Productions. But more importantly, The Innocents’ cinematographer was none other than Freddie Francis, who would soon become Hammer’s foremost director of psychological horror movies. In 1961, this picture’s brooding, somber monochrome was indeed a far cry from the standard look of British horror cinema, and the layout of “Bly” did not yet have the same subliminally nagging familiarity to fans as a 10,000th re-dress of Bray Studio’s interiors, but today’s viewer will see at once the very family resemblance that Clayton hoped to avoid. Mind you, today’s viewer is also likely to regard that as a good thing. The Innocents benefits from the same associations of black and white photography as the psycho-horror films of the era— that is, monochrome implied intimacy in the early 1960’s, and intimacy is exactly the thing one doesn’t want to have with an axe murderer or a malevolent ghost. But Francis was in a class apart from the people who lensed the likes of Strait-Jacket and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. His unorthodox methods (including over-lighting the set to a nearly painful degree so that the film could be underexposed without loss of image clarity) give this movie a subtly otherworldly look, as arresting and unsettling as Mario Bava’s garish puddles of intensely colored light without being half as easy to account for. And just as remarkably, his weird, fragmented frame compositions make The Innocents feel stifling and claustrophobic even in full 2.35:1 Cinemascope. It’s a strong testament to the visual abilities of the people who made this movie that it manages to be so consistently creepy, even when the threat is deliberately kept as vague and ill-defined as possible.