Criterion: The Innocents

THE INNOCENTS, JACK CLAYTON, 1961

My first exposure to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw was as a young teen. It scared the daylights out of me, and I never really forgot it. Jack Clayton also experienced the material as a youngster, and was likely scared just like me, but he could identify with the children in different ways – the sense of loneliness, abandonment, and that is part of the reason the material remained special for him, and eventually he would be responsible for the best visual representation of the novel.

The Innocents is, more than any film I’ve yet seen, the quintessential gothic movie. Of course a lot of that is due to the James source material and Truman Capote’s eerie script, but most of it has to do with the look and feel. It was not just Freddie Francis’ brilliant cinemascope camerawork, but also the clever editing, the mise en scene complete with a distinctly gothic floral motif, the dissolves between shots, and of course the location and the Victorian-style house.

The performance salso deserve some accolades. While Deborah Kerr is the focal point that carries both the plot and the ambiguity, and she is amazing, I was also impressed by the children. It was interesting to hear that much of the ghost-story plot was withheld from them so that it would not impact their performance, so perhaps Clayton deserves just as much credit. Pamela Franklin is brilliant as Flora, in an understated and fragile role, but Martin Stephen’s Miles really stole the show and sold the possibility of what was taking place in the house and/or in Miss Giddens’ head. The scenes where Stephens and Kerr interact directly were particularly exceptional. He played wise beyond his years, and was able to hold his own when discussing and debating the goings on with Miss Giddens. His intelligent, knowing looks made clear that at the very least, he had some behavioral problems, and was at worst possessed by a ghost.

There are two readings of the film, and they were intentionally ambiguous. I cannot continue without spoiling the film, so please stop reading from here if you have not seen it.

The question is whether the ghosts are present or whether they are a figment of Miss Giddens’ imagination. There are plenty of arguments scattered throughout the film, although upon repeated viewings, there does appear to be more evidence of the latter theory. She notices the apparitions before the children, or at least as much as they will admit, and reacts before they are shown on screen. The children continually seem oblivious to what she is observing, and she implants thoughts and feelings into their minds that do not always seem rational.

Another piece of evidence that suggests the ghosts are real is that Giddens sees Miss Jessel at the lake before learning that’s where she committed suicide. Also, as noted, Miles is a clever human being, and the best evidence for the real apparitions is at the very end when he lashes out at Giddens, with the ghostly Peter Quint appearing in the window engaged in laughter at the tirade. Then, as she sees Quint clearly just before the child’s last breath, there is a shot of him with a momentary look of acknowledgement. Had he finally seen the ghost? Was he indeed possessed and this act of exorcism was his undoing? A third theory could also be explored, that Giddens was possessed by Jessel, who wanted her revenge on Quint and achieved it during the final scene. It was brilliant of Clayton to leave this ambiguity intact.

I cannot say enough about the film’s quality, especially the lighting. The highlight for me was the dream sequence about an hour into the film, which consists of a multitude of dissolved sequences, ranging from flocks of pigeons, dancing with the music box, or praying hands like opening and closing of the film. Whether they were real or imaged by Miss Giddens does not take away from their brilliance.

Film Rating: 8.5/10

Supplements:

Audio Commentary: Christopher Frayling, a cultural historian, brings a lot of detail from the Henry James novel, the adapted play of [i]The Innocents[/i] and stories from the set. He also does a good job at pointing out the filmic elements that are used to support the different readings of the film.

Introduction: Frayling again introduces the film by visiting some of the locations of the shoot. The remainder is mostly repeated in the commentary, with a few scant unique details.

John Bailey Interview: Bailey is an accomplished Director of Photography, and he discusses Freddie Francis’ techniques in detail. The technical limitations of the Cinemascope cameras give more appreciation with the final product given what Francis had to work with. He made the absolute most of it, and the film would be completely different with another aspect ratio or a different DP.

Making Of: This is a newly edited series of interviews from 2006 with Freddie Francis, editor Jim Clark, and script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis. These are all interesting in their own right. Francis has the least screen time, but he is mentioned constantly by Clark and Francis. They also credit Capote’s contribution and Clayton’s vision. The interviews are mixed with HD clips from the 4k restoration and are a suitable accompaniment.

Criterion Rating: 9.5/10

Posted on October 4, 2014, in Criterions, Film and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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