Back in the early days of this blog, I finally covered one of my embarrassing blind spots and read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (see my thoughts here). I loved it — loved it — and started looking up the adaptations people recommended, particularly Benjamin Britten’s opera of the same name and Jack Clayton’s film The Innocents (1961). I still remember getting my wife to watch The Innocents with me. She doesn’t like scary movies at all, and I am pretty sure I got her to watch it mainly because, hey, it’s from 1961, how scary can it be? Since more than a few of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen are from before 1961, I may not have been as honest as I could have been. The Innocents is a truly terrifying film (I was ecstatic, my wife still has not forgiven me), and it’s as lush and textured and disturbing as one might dare to hope coming from what is often called the most sophisticated ghost story of all time. Since that first viewing, I’ve been hoping that The Criterion Collection would get the rights and give us a great Blu-ray release. That wish has now been fulfilled.
To very briefly introduce the plot before highlighting more of the specifics below, The Innocents is about Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), the daughter of a country parsonage on her first assignment as a governess. A very rich bachelor (Michael Redgrave) in London has no wish to be saddled with his niece and nephew who were left in his care when they were orphaned. He needs someone — anyone — who is willing to go to Bly, his country estate, and care for the children without bothering him. He’s adamant about that last part. The prior governess recently died, so he’s thrilled Miss Giddens can go, her lack of credentials notwithstanding. At first, Miss Giddens adores Miles (Martin Stevens, who was a young-looking twelve years old, and fresh from his role in 1960’s The Village of the Damned) and Flora (ten-year-old Pamela Franklin, in her screen debut). Soon, though, she is haunted by the ghosts of the prior governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), and the valet (and Miss Jessel’s lover) Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde). Suspecting that the children are in league with the ghosts or, at the very least, that the ghosts are using the children to accomplish their dark ends, Miss Giddens becomes more and more desperate.
Now, that’s a surface scan. The great stuff is what’s going on under the surface. One doesn’t know if Miss Giddens is all there. She may be imagining everything, becoming an unholy terror of Bly in her own right, unbridling her own restrained sexuality as she imagines the wicked passions of Miss Jessel and Quint.
Before watching the film, I was wary. After all, one of my favorite things about the novella is the ambiguity, which makes it a sophisticated story that, while filled with genuine scares, manages to use the ghost story to examine characters and language. How could a film do something similar when it shows us, the viewer, the ghosts through what we might think is an objective lens? Like this:
Yet it manages perfectly. And it does it from the beginning.
The film begins with a black screen. Birds sing, and a child sings a song that is not at all childish, “O Willow Waly,” written by Georges Auric and Paul Dehn for the film but sounding very much like a Victorian lament:
We lay, my love and I, beneath the weeping willow,
But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree.
Singing “O Willow Waly,” by the tree that weeps with me
Singing “O Willow Waly,” till my lover returns to me.
We lay, my love and I, beneath the weeping willow,
But now alone I lie —
O willow I die
O willow I die.
We first meet Miss Giddens in stark contrast, largely shadowed against the already black screen. Her hands are clasped, as if in prayer, and she says this:
I wanted to save the children, not destroy them. More than anything I love children. More than anything. They need affection, love, someone who will belong to them and to whom they will belong.
That’s a strange prayer, which makes me wonder if she’s praying at all. Her hands could be clasped in anxiety, or, even if she is supplicating, it may not be to God but to someone whom she looks to as a kind of God. We fade into the past, to Miss Giddens’ job interview with the Master of Bly.
One of the great themes of The Turn of the Screw is the ambiguity of language that comes from the range of individual words and phrases, the meaning we derive forming from context, both external and internal. In the job interview, the great Michael Redgrave plays with this range and his character almost teases Miss Giddens. He’s a bachelor he says, “but not, I might add, a lonely one.” This could be a relatively innocent coda, meaning he’s busy, that he has friends, etc. It could be a loaded, rather inappropriate coda, meant to suggest his sexual exploits. This might even be supported by something he later says, that his amusements have no place for children. There’s a range of interpretation there, from the rather innocent “busy” to the rather sinister “debauched.” And while Miss Giddens may take his comments at face value, it’s not stretching to say that on some level of her consciousness she not only understands but is also attracted to the forbidden debauchery.
This range of interpretation continues throughout the film. When Miss Giddens first arrives at Bly, she’s meant to take care of Flora only because Miles is away at school. Unfortunately, just after her arrival, Miss Giddens receives word that Miles has been expelled and will be returning presently. The letter from the administration is vague; it doesn’t go into any further detail than this: “He is an injury to the others.” Now, just what does that mean? Again, it could be relatively innocent. Perhaps Miles is a bit of a prankster. Perhaps he misses Bly (he says as much) and acts out, though not in any particularly dangerous manner. Perhaps he is homosexual, and this made the others uncomfortable. But, especially after she learns of Miss Jessel and Quint and fearing their influence on the children, Miss Giddens suspects Miles was contaminated and was somehow contaminating the other school boys, meaning, homosexual or not, Miles has been sexually perverse. The film plays with that range, and we interpret it how we will at any given time, apt to change our minds later.
The film doesn’t only play with the range of language; it also plays with the range of interpretation of what we see and what we hear. The children smile and laugh often through the film. At the beginning of the film, in the daylight, they are charming. As night falls, as fear is unleashed, they do the same thing and Miss Giddens — and we too — see the devil:
Are they giggling simply because they’re children, finding — or at least, trying to find — delight in the day-to-day as they interact with Miss Giddens? Or are they giggling because they share a secret? If you start to even suspect the latter, then it becomes that much harder to accept the former, and even in daylight those smiles can look all the more demonic for their seeming innocence.
It’s remarkable how Clayton takes us through these responses. It’s also uncomfortable. We see Miss Giddens growing more and more frantic, but, if we step back and simply look at these children as children — children who have lost their biological parents and have also recently lost their most recent parental figures (albeit potentially wickedly indecent parental figures; “The children are watching,” Miss Giddens hears at one point) — then we also see them interpreting what they see and hear and responding to that. To take it a step further, though, we wonder about just what they saw and heard when Miss Jessel and Quint were still alive, and we can also imagine that if Miss Giddens’ fears are correct about that — even if the ghosts are not real — then these children really have been traumatized by life and death. Perhaps they are playing devilish games. Perhaps not.
So much is said by way of implication, the listener nodding as if she understands perfectly what the speaker is saying, but certainty quickly breaks down. That’s a bad time to have someone so certain in charge.
The Criterion edition has come with many helpful and delightful supplements.
First, there is a 26-minute introduction by the eclectic Christopher Frayling. Frayling also provides the audio commentary. In each, Fraying’s excitement is contagious, as he entertainingly takes us through the film’s history and the film-making techniques. It’s definitely one of my favorite audio commentaries.
There are also a couple of features that compile various interviews with and about the cast and crew. Of particular interest to me were the deeper looks at the work of Freddie Francis, the director of photography.
Interviews with cinematographer John Bailey about director of photographer Freddie Francis. At the time, Fox was mandating that their films be shot in Cinemascope with an aspect ratio of, in this case, 2.35:1, though Clayton had originally wanted to shoot in the Academy ratio of 1.37:1. Bailey’s solution to giving both Fox and Clayton what they wanted was to paint a filters for the edge of the screen, thus blackening out the edges of the film (you can see this in the second screen cap above). The resulting image is all the more haunting and claustrophobic. Another point of interest is just how much Truman Capote contributed to the script — apparently a lot — and it was enjoyable to listen for his voice a bit more on this viewing.
We also get the strange original trailer with its bombastic refrain, “Do they ever return to possess the living!?” It’s not the most effective trailer, but it is an interesting look at the marketing trends of the time, especially post-Psycho.
Finally, there is a a fold-out insert with an essay by critic Maitland McDonagh that discusses some of the themes of the film (and also has a great list of ghost story films, some of which I have not seen but am now eager to check out).