The Innocents (1961)

Back in the Eighties, there was a great film festival in Los Angeles called Filmex. As part of the festival, they would hold a 50-hour movie marathon, starting on Friday evening and ending on Sunday. It was organized by genre, such as Westerns or Science Fiction. You could sit in a theater, day and night, and let the movies wash over you.

In 1981, the category for the marathon was horror movies. During an overnight stretch, I kept dozing off, taking little cat naps. At one point, I was out cold, probably for a couple hours, and I suddenly woke up in time for the last ten minutes of The Innocents. It freaked me out.

The Innocents (1961) is an adaptation of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, a Victorian era ghost story. It was originally serialized in Collier’s Weekly in 12 installments, between January 27 — April 16, 1898.

The tale is simple. A woman is hired by a wealthy man to be a governess to his young niece and nephew, who have come into his care after the death of their parents. The woman is given total control to run things, as the gentleman doesn’t want to be bothered with any details. In time, the governess becomes convinced that the children have fallen under the spell of two dead people: Miss Jessel, the former governess, and Peter Quint, the master’s valet.

That would be a standard-issue ghost story if that’s all there was to it. And here I must warn you that I’m going to discuss the details of the movie, if you want to avoid spoilers.

Let’s begin by identifying the talent involved.

The film was directed by Jack Clayton. The screenplay is credited to William Archibald (who wrote the stage adaptation first performed in 1950) and Truman Capote. The film was shot by the great British cinematographer Freddie Francis.

The cast is small, but excellent. There are really only four main characters: Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, the new governess; Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as Miles and Flora, the young children; Megs Jenkins as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Michael Redgrave appears in one scene as the children’s uncle and then is never seen again. We see the ghosts and a few other house staff.

The difficulty in discussing the film is that there are two ways of viewing what happens. When I finally saw the entire movie a few years later, it seemed perfectly clear that the governess was crazy and that the ghosts didn’t exist. I then read James’ original novella and got confused. James seemed to intend the ghosts to be real, but it also seemed (to me) that even in his original version the governess was an overbearing hysteric. I even asked a professor of mine which was the correct interpretation.

He essentially answered, “The author is not always the best judge of what he has written.”

It seems clear that sex — sexual repression and sexual libertinism — runs throughout the work. James is generally thought of as having been a closeted homosexual and one can see elements of this reflected in hints of a relationship between Quint and Miles. It’s often noted that the work may have been a response to Oscar Wilde, who had been tried and convicted of gross indecency in 1895.

In addition, it also appears that the governess has created an attachment in her mind to her employer, who seems completely detached from the activities of his household. He doesn’t seem to have given a second thought to the woman raising his charges, while she treats the housekeeper (an admittedly simple woman) as her total inferior.

Whether they are real or not, the ghosts are genuinely scary. Early in the movie, the two ghosts sometimes make appearances that are so matter-of-fact, that we don’t even realize that it’s supernatural. For example, as the governess first arrives at the estate, she hears a voice calling out. It’s only later that we can realize that there was no human to emit the cries. She sees a man standing on top of a building, but when she gets up there, she finds the boy Miles alone. She sees a woman pass by, down a hallway, and thinks little of it.

On several occasions, the dead Miss Jessel appears in broad daylight, just standing there. No ghostly mist, no shining light, no clanking chains — just a woman standing there. She happens to be dead.

Freddie Francis did an amazing job of shooting the film, taking advantage of the CinemaScope format and shooting in deep focus. He often places something to one side of the frame, while something further in the background is also in focus.

Here are two examples, with Deborah Kerr in the foreground and a ghost in the background.

The last 15 minutes of the film are a tense confrontation between the governess and Miles. She has sent everyone else out of the house, determined to have it out once and for all and get Miles to admit that he has been corrupted by Peter Quint and is under his thrall.

The whole ambiguity of the movie is contained in this one scene. Are Miles and his sister hiding some secret? Did Miles do something terrible to be expelled from school? Did Miss Jessel and Peter Quint corrupt the children? Is the governess saving the children or destroying them?

In an earlier marvelous scene, the governess confronts Flora, insisting that Miss Jessel is standing a short distance away. Her attack leads to the child’s total collapse. Even hours later, Flora is still screaming in terror. Is that the work of the devil? Is it her salvation or her damnation? The power of the film is that it’s quite unclear how to respond.

I’ll quote here from James’ story, with the governess pressuring Miles:

I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him. “Whom do you mean by ‘he’?”
“Peter Quint — you devil!” His face gave again, round the room, its convulsed supplication.” “Where?”

One can take significance in the fact that no one sees the ghosts besides the governess. And as elusive as the children can be with their answers, the woman seems quite righteous in her beliefs — not just that the children are under the spell of the spirits, but that they’re lying about it.

That’s the beauty of it. It’s a true horror movie either way. If the ghosts exist or if they don’t, the children suffer regardless.

The Turn of the Screw has been adapted many times over the years, including as an opera. A fan has helpfully pulled together eight different versions of the climactic scene of the story (Part 1, Part 2, Part 4). The governess is played by such actresses as Patsy Kensit, Valerie Bertinelli, Lynn Redgrave, and Ingrid Bergman. Here is a comparison of four versions of the scene where Quint appears at the window.

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