The Innocents: A Four-Star Experience

     Henry James's 1898 The Turn of the Screw must have been a difficult story to put to film. The novella's deep and many meanings would be a challenge as well as the impressionistic settings the story thrives on. Yet, the 1961 movie The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, is a wonderful translation from literature to film.

     One of the first things I noticed was the excellent cinematography of this film by Freddie Francis. Even though this was an older film, the way the camera moved, the angles the director chose, and the ambience of the surroundings reminded me of modern-day films. I have noticed in watching the older black and white movies that the camera often stays mostly still, and not a large variety of shots are ever used. In The Innocents, however, the camera seemed fluid and moved with the pace of the story. At peaceful moments it would remain still, while at tense moments it would zoom around the actors and pan different angles of them and then pivot to show their viewpoint. The best example of this was evident when the governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), was searching the house for the children in the middle of the night while the ghosts whispered to each other. As the frantic woman searched in and out of rooms, the camera reflected her fear by switching angles often and never really stopping on one long shot. Many times it would jump back and forth from the governess' face to what she was looking at and back again, on this time at a new angle with a different light on her. I thought this stellar cinematography clinched the verisimilitude of the situation, and sustained a sense of tension and suspense throughout the entire movie. Many scary movies of today, even with the advent of modern film technology, fail to create such a believable and enveloping ambience.

     Speaking of ambience, I thought the movie did a wonderful job of creating the dark, mysterious and secret-filled manor in Bly. The director used shadows and lighting effects to the film's advantage. Often we would see a shadow fall across the governess' face or the shadow of trees outside spilling into a room backlit by moonlight. Wherever the movie was filmed was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I really wanted to be there. The soft rolling lawns, small copses of young trees, surrounding forests filled with bird songs and the lovely lake all created a sense of peace and reality for me.

     Of course, when the plot required it, these picturesque locales could be switched into dark and sinister doppelgängers of their former selves, like when the governess found Flora at the lakeside. The film suddenly got very dark and dreary. Rain started to fall, the wind blew, and all seemed gray. The house itself was, I thought, an ideal haunted house. It never seemed to be very bright in the house, even in the morning. Almost always the governess had a candle in her hand or nearby. The house seemed cold and distant, as if it had once been full of life but was now devoid of it. I suppose this is what the director had in mind.

     The actors were all very good. Deborah Kerr played the governess, who was given a name in the film to simplify things, Miss Giddens. She was extremely intense and played the part of the bewildered, frightened caretaker believably. When she saw the ghosts or the children in dangerous situations, she tended not to scream and balk, but instead her face became a mask of mixed terror and curiosity. I think that was much more effective than just a scream every fifteen minutes. Her eyes showed her fear and wonder almost the entire film. I truly believed this woman's story, and wanted the other characters to believe her too.

     The children, played by Pamela Franklin and Miles Stephens, were excellent also. Their acting was neither over-the-top nor deadpan, but right on. In another film it may not have worked as well had they been playing normal children, but Flora and Miles were anything but normal children. They almost seemed like little adults, trapped in children's bodies. I believe this is somewhat what James intended, and if so, then the child actors succeeded in it. Miles especially got inside my skull. He was just so menacing. It was hard to tell whether he was going to throttle Miss Giddens or give her a kiss.

     The soundtrack of the film was especially good. I say this because there was not much of a soundtrack. Mostly we had repeated motifs of the music box song, either played directly from the music box or hummed eerily by Flora. Seldom was there any other music. I think this was a good choice on the director's part. It intensified the quiet malice that lurked in the house and did not distract from the action of the film, like the music often did in Wuthering Heights. I especially liked the scene where the governess saw Quint (Peter Wyngarde) on the tower. She had been surrounded by a babbling fountain, bird songs, a breeze and other natural sounds until she saw the apparition, and then suddenly all the sound was gone. As she stared in horror at the being, the film went mute. Then when it vanished, and she came to her senses, the sound returned--back to normal life again--yeah right.

     The film deviated somewhat from the book but not enough to be noticeable or bothersome. Purists might have a few problems, but I did not. I thought the spirit of the book was captured quite well. Although I never was really scared per se, this movie did make me feel a bit eerie and spooky. Very few films can do that to me, so I think it is a mark of quality that a thirty-year-old movie could do that to a gen-xer who has seen so many car chases, murders, gun fights and gore that he is totally desensitized to it.

     In summary, The Innocents was a remarkable film that I thoroughly enjoyed from beginning to end. In it way it bridged a gap for me. I am used to old movies being sappy and unsurprising and melodramatic. Many are. Yet this one is one of the few I have seen in my limited experience that really changed that attitude in me. I guess not all black and white films are dull after all! I give this one four stars and props for great acting, film making, and executing--a wonderful movie experience.

Dan Bush

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