The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961) is one of the screen’s supreme ghost stories, and also one of the last great films shot in black-and-white CinemaScope by the gifted cinematographer Freddie Francis. It is, of course, based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and is arguably one of the most faithful translations of his work to the screen. But as the title of this essay indicates, it’s a film that requires both attention and imagination from audiences, for much of the horror in the film is implied rather than directly stated. It’s a film of shadows and sighs, of mysterious goings-on in an enormous Victorian mansion, a mixture of wonder and dread. To my mind, it’s one of the “perfect storm” movies, in which a group of enormously talented people gathers together to make a specific project but the end result turns out to be much more than the sum of their individual contributions.

In addition to director Jack Clayton, whose other films include Room At The Top (1959, also photographed by Francis), The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Our Mother’s House (1967) and his most high-profile film, the Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby (1974), The Innocents also had the benefit of a haunting musical score by Georges Auric (which was reworked by W. Lambert Williamson when Auric fell ill); a suitably Gothic screenplay masterminded for the most part by Truman Capote, who took some time off from writing his famous non-fiction novel In Cold Blood (finally published in 1966) to do a three-week polish on William Archibald’s original screenplay, and wound up spending several weeks on the set during contributing additional dialogue, along with John Mortimer; and Jim Clark’s seamless editing, weaving all the material shot by Francis and Clayton into a fever-dream of all-encompassing evil.

The cast, too, is excellent: Deborah Kerr is completely believable as the novice governess Miss Giddens; Megs Jenkins is suitably credulous as the long-suffering housekeeper Mrs. Grose; and Michael Redgrave lends just the right touch of pompous indifference to his brief turn at the beginning of the film as the libertine uncle who has unexpectedly been saddled with two children he admits he cares nothing for (a responsibility he wants no part of, now or in the future) while he pursues a life of unceasing pleasure. But the film ultimately belongs to the two children who are placed in Miss Giddens’ care at an enormous country estate, Bly House: the precocious Miles (played to perfection by the then 12-year-old Martin Stephens, fresh off his star-making turn in Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned [1960] as the cold, emotionless leader of a group of alien children); and Pamela Franklin, as Miles’ sister Flora, in her screen debut.

Then there are two additional characters to reckon with, both phantoms: the spectral Clytie Jessop, wordlessly portraying the ghost of Miss Jessel, the previous governess, who committed suicide but still haunts the grounds of the estate; and Peter Wyngarde, as her sadistic lover Peter Quint, clearly a malign influence on the children, also deceased, but whose ghostly presence is still felt throughout the house. Everyone in the film inhabits their respective roles, particularly Stephens, who admitted:

“I knew it was an unusual part. I quietly liked it … having these very adult qualities and having control over the adult. Imagine having that power – and I could taste a bit of that. You realise how powerless you are as a child. I don’t think I found it too much of a stretch.”1

The film’s plot is deceptively simple: in Victorian England, Miss Giddens, engaged by the children’s self-confessedly “selfish” uncle, is charged with taking care of Miles and Flora’s education and welfare at the uncle’s country estate, with the specific mandate that she must never contact him about anything; Miss Giddens is to have, in his words, “supreme authority” over the children, and to leave him entirely alone. Although it is her first post as a governess, Miss Giddens accepts, and is initially dazzled by the luxurious splendour of the country mansion, which appears at a distance to be warm and inviting. Upon her arrival, Miss Giddens has only the young Flora to contend with; but shortly afterwards, Miles is unexpectedly expelled from his boarding school for “corrupting” the other students, and sent home to Bly House.

What ensues is an escalating battle of wills between the children and Miss Giddens, while the ghostly presences of Quint and Miss Jessel exert ever-increasing influence over the children’s behaviour. Miss Giddens struggles to assert her authority over Miles, in particular, whose superficially pleasant manners hide a darker, more sinister intent with surprisingly sexual overtones. Mrs. Grose, while helpful, is clearly out of her depth – she can’t even read – and as the film reaches its climax, Miss Giddens sends Flora, the servants and Mrs. Grose away to London as she and Miles come to a final confrontation in the enormous, ill-lit house, with disastrous results.

While Clayton’s meticulous direction is certainly a key factor here, and the performances throughout – as well as Auric’s quietly insistent musical score – are uniformly excellent, the lynchpin of the entire enterprise is Francis’ stunning cinematography. During the daylight hours, when the sun is out, the scenes are slightly overexposed to give them an appropriately “hot” feeling; but when Miss Giddens prowls the corridors of Bly House at night, her path lit only by the candelabra she carries, the dark house threatens to swallow up all those who dare to inhabit it. Interestingly, to enhance the light of the candelabra, Francis created special candles with four or five wicks apiece, so that the candlelight itself illuminates much of the scene.

To enhance this feeling of perpetual unease, Francis actually painted on the edges of the lenses to create a vignetting effect, so that one feels that something is always lurking at the edges of the frame. Though The Innocents was originally to have been filmed in standard Academy ratio, Francis responded to 20th Century Fox’s insistence on CinemaScope by composing shots that are at once claustrophobic and yet sinuously inviting. The film’s running time is compact; but, by the end, one feels that one has become part of the world of the film, seduced by the luxurious mansion, Francis’ elegantly polished imagery and the dreamlike editing, which makes the entire film seem like an all-too-plausible nightmare. Once seen, never forgotten, The Innocents is that rare film that inspires fear through the power of imagination – a phrase the children’s uncle uses repeatedly in his initial interview with Miss Giddens – leaving the viewer intoxicated, unsettled and altogether entranced.

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The Innocents (1961 Great Britain 99 min)

Prod Co: Achilles Film Productions & 20th Century Fox Prod: Jack Clayton Dir: Jack Clayton Scr: William Archibald, Truman Capote & John Mortimer Phot: Freddie Francis Ed: Jim Clark Prod Des: Wilfred Shingleton Mus: Georges Auric

Cast: Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Pamela Franklin, Martin Stephens, Michael Redgrave, Megs Jenkins, Clytie Jessop

Endnotes:

  1. Mark Burman, “Return of the Cuckoos,” The Guardian, 4 December 2003, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2003/dec/05/2

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press. Dixon’s book A Short History of Film (Rutgers University Press, 2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third revised and expanded edition was published in 2018. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. Dixon’s book Black & White Cinema: A Brief History (2015) was featured on Turner Classic Movies as part of their series “Artists in Black and White.” Dixon’s recent books include A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (co-authored with Richard Graham (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), The Life and Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond (Auteur Press / Columbia University Press, 2017), and Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).