Saturday, September 1, 2012

#139: The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)

I've been reviewing a lot of 1940s, '50s, and '60s black-and-white classics and cult oddities with incredible cinematography on this blog in the past three months, and that trend continues with The Innocents. This 1961 adaptation of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" has a dream team of creative professionals behind and in front of the camera and some of the best black-and-white cinematography you'll ever see. It's atmospheric, creepy, funny, genuinely frightening, and beautiful to look at. If you haven't seen it yet, go get it now. If you do go now, I hope your travels are less arduous than mine. I drove to three different video stores. It was checked out at all three. I put it in my Netflix queue. When it finally showed up, the DVD didn't work in my player. I put it in the computer. My computer made the most horrible sound I've ever heard in my life. I inspected the DVD and some goofball at Netflix put the round donut sticker with the film's title and bar code number off-center so part of it was hanging into the middle of the disc. I spent twenty minutes peeling the gluey sticker back. Finally, the damn thing worked in my DVD player. No one has had a tougher experience in this life than me. I don't care how tough you've had it. I was momentarily inconvenienced. Take a few minutes and shed some tears. Now we can continue.
About that dream team. In the director's chair, we have Jack Clayton, the filmmaker behind Room at the Top, The Great Gatsby, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. In front of the camera, veteran pro Deborah Kerr, surprisingly awesome child actor (and present-day big-shot architect) Martin Stephens, and a small but excellent role for Michael Redgrave as The Uncle. (Cary Grant requested the part but Clayton had the balls to turn him down. Grant is one of my favorite actors ever, but his movie star persona might have been a little distracting in the role.) The screenwriting team is comprised of William Archibald, the man who adapted the James' story for the Broadway play, and Truman Capote. Harold Pinter also did some uncredited work on the script. For me, the biggest contributor to the film's success is cinematographer Freddie Francis. The guy was a genius with light. Francis enjoyed dual careers as a cinematographer and a director of schlocky but fun horror movies (including Trog, the tale of the complex relationship between Joan Crawford and a monster who lives in a cave. A childhood favorite of mine, by the way.) He did both in the 1960s, focused on directing in the 1970s, and went back to cinematography in the 1980s. Besides his work on The Innocents, he photographed Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The French Lieutenant's Woman, The Executioner's Song, the massively underrated Return to Oz, Glory, The Man in the Moon, and Scorsese's Cape Fear remake. Last but not least, he worked with David Lynch on The Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story.
There are quite a few differences between the film adaptation and the Henry James short story, but it's been too many years since I read the story to lay them on you. James is one of my favorite authors, but the film's pleasures are more visual than literary, notwithstanding the source material and the contributions of Capote and Pinter. What we have instead of the genre-defying complexities of James' writing is a graceful, elegant, disturbing ghost/possession story told with enormous care, skill, and sense of visual space and not a little complexity of its own. The studio mandated that Clayton film his story in CinemaScope, strongly against his wishes, but Francis found ways to use that format more suited for spectacle, adventure, and western landscapes than intimacy by emphasizing vertical lines, using intense bright lighting and darkness, and placing characters on opposite sides of the frame. I keep banging on about this, but this movie looks so great.
The story is about a single, childless middle-aged woman, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), who gains employment as the governess for two young children at their family's country estate. The orphaned children are in the custody of their uncle (Michael Redgrave) who very candidly tells Miss Giddens he has no interest in raising the children or even getting to know them and is only interested in selfish pleasures in the city, pleasures that children shouldn't be exposed to. The children need someone who cares, and Miss Giddens cares. Oh boy, does she care.
Miss Giddens arrives at the estate and meets the housekeeper and the young girl Flora (Pamela Franklin, who grew up to star in another great haunted house movie, The Legend of Hell House).The little boy, Miles (Martin Stephens), is away at boarding school, but he soon arrives after being expelled. Miles is a great character and Stephens plays the fuck out of the part. He's a little creep, a master manipulator, with great magnetic charm. He's an adult man in a ten-year-old's body with an inappropriate sexual precocity and a way of talking to Giddens as if she were a woman he's trying to seduce. He's a little devil and he's hilarious to watch.
Miss Giddens is "enchanted" by both children, she often says, but this repetition of the word begins honestly before becoming a desperate rationalization and feeble attempt at reassurance. Something is not right about the large, beautiful estate or the children who live in it. A mysterious man and woman keep appearing at particularly frightening moments, and this ghostly pair seem to have mysterious ties to the children, influencing their behavior in increasingly disturbing ways. As supernatural events escalate, Giddens becomes obsessed with ridding the home of their presence. Is the sexually repressed Miss Giddens unraveling from her isolated existence with emotionally disturbed children or is something more sinister going on?
Goddamn, this movie is good. Truffaut called it the best British film since Hitchcock moved to the United States, and he may have been right. Kerr considered it her best performance, and she worked for Powell & Pressburger, Otto Preminger, Leo McCarey, and John Huston. Highfalutin' praise, but it also works well as a straight-up horror movie. See you next time.

1 comment:

Susan said...

I love this movie. It was even on my picks shelf for a while when I worked at Vulcan.

I have a friend who's obsessed with Trog and has told me about it for years, but I still need to get around to seeing it. He always does an impression of Joan Crawford saying, "Blue, Trog! Blue!"