50 years, 50 films Vol II: The Innocents (1961)
We move backward through the last hundred years to encounter a classic adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw
Writing about The Innocents some months ago for a welcome re-release, we began our assault by referencing the heavy influence Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has had on high and low culture. It inspired a superb opera by Benjamin Britten. Harold Pinter directed an adaptation on Broadway. Kate Bush derived a song from the piece. And so on. We concluded that Jack Clayton’s film version from 1961 was among the most distinguished emissions of the story. You will surely agree that this makes sense.
Let us, on this occasion, consider the film’s place in the canon of a very underrated — if not quite forgotten — British director. Rather unfairly, Jack Clayton’s name is most often associated with a high-profile failure: the drab 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford. That project did for him. He didn’t get another film made for a close to a decade — the very agreeable adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes — and he never really got back to Hollywood’s top table. Yet each of his seven other films is worth considering. Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch are troubling in his take on Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater from 1964. Our Mother’s House, a quietly macabre family drama featuring Dirk Bogarde, has been criminally ignored. Room at the Top from 1959 is correctly regarded as a key work in the development of the British new wave.
Yet his greatest feature is unquestionably The Innocents. The film emerged at a busy time for British horror. Hammer was on a roll and various smaller studios were preparing themselves for a period of competition. But Clayton and his collaborators had something rather different in mind. Shot in black and white by the great Freddie Francis, this take on The Turn of the Screw was both less explicit and much more sexually queasy than the broader (though still fabulous) Hammer pictures. The great Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a governess sent to care for a rich bore’s nephew and niece. We learn early on that the previous governess died in grim circumstances and that she had some sort of affair with Peter Quint, the valet. Strange things begin to happen. Are the lovers haunting Miss Giddens? Are the kids playing tricks? Is the governess going barmy?
The Innocents had some interesting godparents. Henry James was, of course, best known for psychologically dense dramas often involving geographical and spiritual isolation. His famous ghost story was adapted for the stage by William Archibald and that version proved the basis for this film. Also involved in the screenplay were John Mortimer (husband of the aforementioned Penelope), creator of Rumpole, and the hazelnut of perverse energy that was Truman Capote.
Steeped in Victorian literature, Mortimer could have been trusted with all the country house stuff. But it’s hard to escape the suspicion that Capote, an altogether weirder personality, must have had a hand in heightening the sense of sexual unease. The suspicion that the children saw the lovers have sex — no less shocking now than in 1961 — is buried deep in the original story. The kiss that Miss Giddens lays on the boys lips is very much a creation of the film. What the heck is going on? There is certainly a notion afoot that the heroine’s own sexual tension is fuelling paranoia and delusion. But the film-makers would surely resist any such literal diagnosis of the situation. The Innocents is finding a place for all kinds of repressed urges within the allegorically fecund frame of the ghost story.
As always, none of this would matter much if other creative work were not up to scratch. Enjoy Georges Auric’s terrific score. Savour Francis’s deep-focus cinematography. Be aware that Peter Wyngarde, who appears as the ghost of Quint, went on to play the absurdly flamboyant Jason King in Department S. You either get that reference or you don’t.
For 1961 we also considered The Hustler, West Side Story, Through a Glass Darkly, El Cid, Last Year at Marienbad and Lola.