What evil lurks in the souls of children? More than one might think . . . or perhaps less, which goes to the chilly heart of both Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw—a psychosexually fraught ghost story told at Christmas, in keeping with the venerable English tradition—and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, the spookily beautiful 1961 film adaptation (by way of William Archibald’s 1950 play) largely written by Truman Capote, whose eerily childlike voice finds an echo in those of the film’s precocious children.
It was a question that particularly vexed Victorian sensibilities, caught between the idealized notion of children as the embodiment of spiritual innocence, unsullied by the unruly taint of sexual desire, and the hard-to-deny reality that the tiniest infant is ruled by bodily wants and needs. Where you stand on it as it pertains to The Turn of the Screw and The Innocents’ orphaned siblings, Miles and Flora, eight and ten, depends largely on how you rate the veracity and judgment of their governess (unnamed in the novel, christened Miss Giddens and played by Deborah Kerr in the film), whose point of view dominates the story. Miss Giddens—intelligent and well-read but deficient in the practical experience needed to recognize a perilously stacked deck—is hired to care for the children by their uncle (Michael Redgrave), a wealthy bachelor whose moral compass is sufficiently developed that he accepts responsibility for the orphans but who has zero interest in actually engaging with the task. So he exiles them to Bly, a lovely country estate whose principal virtue is clearly its distance from London. Miss Giddens professes to love children, though her enthusiasm may be mainly theoretical. She has no biological connection to the youngsters, but anatomy and class are destiny—as a woman, she is constructed as nurturing, protective, and ferociously responsible, and as the unmarried daughter of a country parson, she needs a respectable job. So she agrees to the somewhat unusual demand that she take total charge of Miles and Flora’s care and never trouble her employer with any problem that may arise. Far from family and friends, thrust into the exclusive company of servants, children, and malevolent shadows, too imaginative by half, and quietly dazzled by her worldly absentee employer, Miss Giddens is a sacrificial lamb who walks willingly to the altar of her own destruction, convinced every step of the way that she’s doing it for the ultimate in altruistic and gender-appropriate motives: the sake of the children.
To be sure, Miss Giddens is so naive she should be infuriating, but though the passivity of James’s women is often galling to twenty-first-century sensibilities, his work is in general startlingly sympathetic to the constraints that shape their outlooks and choices. That they often pay dearly isn’t James’s judgment on the sin of overreaching, and it’s clear from the outset that his sympathies lie thoroughly with Miss Giddens. Her travails are merely a frank acknowledgment that intelligent women with few social or financial advantages, possessed of ambitions beyond making a good marriage and gracefully operating behind the scenes to maintain the status quo, are rarely rewarded.
James does a remarkably concise and compelling job of establishing a plausible justification for the physical and emotional isolation that define Miss Giddens’s claustrophobic tenure at Bly, and Clayton and his collaborators are faithful to that and to the author’s oblique storytelling style, which pivots on a delicate balance of dialogue that both reveals and conceals—something the waspish but intensely sensitive Capote was especially well equipped to render. James didn’t write little Flora’s discomfiting declaration “Oh, look, a lovely spider! And it’s eating a butterfly,” but he would surely have approved of the volumes it speaks about Flora, and that Miss Giddens’s reaction to it speaks about her.
Even more than The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents relies on the ephemeral to evoke the physical; while literary works of horror often suffer when translated from page to screen (the difficulty of rendering phantoms on the page without lapsing into tiresome cliche?s is dwarfed by the challenge of actually showing them without robbing them of their thrilling mystery), this story actively benefits. Clayton opted to downplay the ghosts, thus committing to emphasizing the uncanniness of the real, like the gothic contrast between shadow-shrouded interiors illuminated by flickering candles (real ones, given extra wicks to provide enough light to shoot by) and exteriors in which the white-hot sunlight is blinding. Poor Miss Giddens is quite literally unable to trust the evidence of her own eyes.
Clayton—whose career as an assistant director, then director and producer, spanned half a century and dozens of films—exemplified his generation of filmmakers: his body of work defies auteur-oriented synthesis but attests to the sheer resourcefulness of men (and a handful of women) who treated the art of movies as a distant second to the craft. He was less interested in technical innovation than in storytelling, and on The Innocents, this put him at odds with Twentieth Century Fox. While studio executives agreed with Clayton’s feeling that black and white suited the story better than color, they wanted it shot in the new, widescreen CinemaScope format rather than the old-school 1.37:1 Academy ratio that Clayton preferred. Neither party wanted to budge.
It was cinematographer Freddie Francis who figured out an elegant solution to the problem, one that defines the film’s extravagantly somber visual style: framing the action, as Francis described it, “in a cocoon of darkness.” Francis had shot Clayton’s acclaimed kitchen-sink drama Room at the Top (1959), and he won an Oscar for Sons and Lovers (1960) while in production on The Innocents. As he recounts in his memoirs:
Eventually, I persuaded Jack that there was nothing he could do to avoid the inevitable, because if we didn’t think Scope, then Fox was likely to withdraw from the project . . . I devised a set of color glass filters, which had the effect of fading the picture out toward the edges and concentrating the audience’s attention on different sections of the large screen, normally toward the center . . . Each [filter] was approximately ten by four inches and was clear at the center, and then hand colored gradually toward the edges, where they were very dark . . . Apart from changing the exposure, they made the picture’s imagery more uneven . . . Of course, Fox was totally unaware of this sleight of hand, because it had the illusion of being a huge widescreen picture . . . We didn’t use them all the time, because, as the production progressed, Jack became more confident with the process of CinemaScope, and we came up with other ways of filling the entire screen.
Francis began a second, parallel career as a director in 1962, and it is in that capacity that he is most closely associated with the horror genre, having directed many beloved films for the prolific British gothic producers Hammer and Amicus in the 1960s and ’70s. But those films’ lurid (albeit lushly handsome) color photography of severed limbs speckled with bright gore and generous bosoms barely contained by low-cut gowns is a world away from the visual restraint that characterizes The Innocents, which unfolds in a cool world of whispers and fraught glances.
Like Francis, Kerr came to The Innocents with a wealth of experience behind her, having begun acting professionally in 1937 as a teenager. She was nearly forty, twice the age of James’s governess, when she took on the role, but she retains a marvelous quality of tremulous nai?vete?. Her cool exterior had been undermined and exploited by directors as various as Michael Powell, Fred Zinnemann, and Vincente Minnelli, in films often pivoting on the disconnect between heart and head, but The Innocents is rooted in the ruthlessness of fanaticism. In a movie filled with ominous shadows and claustrophobic spaces, Kerr’s Miss Giddens is a ray of light, all glowing skin, pale hair, and white blouses as bright as a candle flame, but her luminescence is increasingly fueled by fear, dark imaginings, and, one can’t help but suspect, her father’s biblical teachings. It’s hard to imagine another actor matching Kerr’s quietly relentless manifestation of the roiling hysteria that lies just beneath Miss Giddens’s sweetly sensible surface, let alone with such apparent ease.
The governess arrives at Bly primed to be delighted by Flora (Pamela Franklin), all pretty flounces and girlish prattle. And when Miles (Martin Stephens) is expelled from boarding school, she chooses to credit the bright openness of his demeanor rather than the maddeningly vague suggestion from the school’s officials that he said things so shocking that even men professionally familiar with the snakes-snails-and-puppy-dog-tails naughtiness of boys were too appalled to tolerate his continued presence. But she gradually becomes convinced, through conversations with the stolidly responsible and resolutely unimaginative housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, that the two children are in thrall to a pair of disembodied but emotionally formidable bad “parents”—the low-born Peter Quint, formerly Bly’s groundskeeper, and Miss Giddens’s predecessor, the well- bred Miss Jessel, who had in life conducted an ill-fated but passionate affair.
It is Quint’s ghost that shakes Miss Giddens’s optimism to the core, and casting Peter Wyngarde, a TV actor with a handful of minor movie credits, as the serpent in Bly’s tranquil garden was an underappreciated stroke of brilliance. Little-known in the U.S. but a familiar face on UK television until the midseventies, when a sex-related scandal derailed his career, he was born to the part. Quint is never seen to do anything overtly indecent—in fact, he’s never seen to do anything more than peer in windows, walk along a rooftop, and allow himself to be glimpsed in a mirror. The spirit of his disgraced lover is merely sad, but his rudely sensual physicality—especially disturbing in a ghost—is palpably malignant, and it’s clear that Quint’s greatest offense was not just possessing but embracing the kind of coarsely potent maleness that drives the natural world but is abhorred by a particularly refined notion of civilization, one that defines and is defined by the story’s women.
Miss Giddens’s growing sense of horror is rooted directly in her unarticulated suspicion (not because she can’t articulate it but because she can’t bring herself to) that the sin Quint introduced to Bly was nothing less than the original one; he brought the knowledge of good and evil to the estate’s prelapsarian prepubescent Adam and Eve, though to all appearances it was Miles who first embraced it and then shared his tainted learning with Flora. After seeing Quint herself, Miss Giddens can no longer ignore the boy’s inappropriate knowingness. Though it’s common to suggest that the average child actor’s performance is as much a product of direction as skill and experience, and Stephens later said as much of himself, his lilting diction and facility with eerily unchildlike turns of phrase in The Innocents are chilling—few children could address an adult as “My dear” and infuse the phrase with such an unsettling mix of perfect politeness and insinuating insolence. Once Miss Giddens accepts that the children are not the innocents she imagined, the die is cast.
The Innocents is perhaps the most haunting ghost story ever committed to film (other fine works in the field include 1944’s The Uninvited, 1963’s The Haunting, 1965’s Kwaidan, 1968’s Kuroneko, 1973’s Don’t Look Now, 1977’s The Haunting of Julia, 1980’s The Changeling, 1998’s Ringu, 1999’s Stir of Echoes, 2000’s Ju-on: The Curse 1 and 2, and 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone). Ultimately, the measure of the film is simply this: the product of a time when visual discretion was the norm for both practical and aesthetic reasons, it retains its power to chill in an age of full disclosure. The Innocents shows little but suggests much, and its refinement in no way detracts from its ability to disturb and, yes, haunt moviegoers more accustomed to the sucker punch than to the inexorable turn of the screw, the gradual accretion of incidents that mean little in and of themselves but add up to something truly shocking and impossible to shake.
Maitland McDonagh has written about film for such publications as Time Out New York and Film Comment, is the author of four books, including Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento and Movie Lust: Recommended Viewing for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason, and is reissuing vintage gay erotic novels through her 120 Days Books imprint.