The Innocents (UK 1961)


Pamela Franklin (Flora) and Deborah Kerr (Miss Giddens) in the folly by the lake in The Innocents – an example of foreground and background both in focus.

Pamela Franklin (Flora) and Deborah Kerr (Miss Giddens) in the folly by the lake in The Innocents – an example of foreground and background both in focus.

Over the last few years I’ve spent quite a bit of time teaching and writing about a cycle of films that have reworked the classic ghost story. I began with Ringu and The Others, dallied with Dark Water and I’m currently working with El orfanato. But, all of this time I’ve worked without seeing the original model for all of these films – or rather, the one film that they all owe something to. Now it’s available on a Region 2 DVD from the BFI, I’ve finally managed to catch The Innocents. What a treat!

Based on Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, the film adaptation boasts a script by William Archibald (who also adapted the story for a Broadway play) and Truman Capote, with contributions and advice offered by Harold Pinter and John Mortimer. Pinter’s brief initial involvement is discussed by Christopher Frayling on the DVD in his introduction. In his excellent commentary running throughout the film, Frayling suggests that up to 90% of the script ideas came from Capote (including touches of ‘Southern Gothic’ such as the decaying flowers).

It is clearly an ‘A’ production (at Shepperton and on location in Sheffield Park, East Sussex), directed by Jack Clayton, designed by Wilfred Shingleton and photographed by Freddie Francis (himself later a director of horror films for Hammer) for 20th Century Fox. Veteran French composer George Auric provided the score and the film stars Deborah Kerr in one of her best roles.

The story is set in the mid-Victorian period. Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) applies for a post as a governess to two orphans housed on the large country estate of their uncle (a cameo by Michael Redgrave). Miss Giddens is an unfeasibly beautiful spinster – a vicar’s daughter with no experience. (The novella suggests a young woman of 20 – Deborah Kerr was approaching 40.) When she arrives at Bly House, she is met by the girl, Flora, and the housekeeper (the ever-dependable Megs Jenkins). A few days later the boy, Miles, returns home from school – he has been expelled. The uncle’s clear instructions to Miss Giddens are that she must not contact him and that she must deal with any problems. Soon, however, she begins to be disturbed both by the children’s behaviour and by apparitions, which she discovers are likely to be of the previous governess, Miss Jessel and the manservant Quint. 

As the plot develops, the audience is invited to consider whether the ghosts are really present or just in the imagination of Miss Giddens. The brilliance of the film is that the ghosts often appear in broad daylight and that they do so without any form of contrivance save the use of music and sound effects and the use of cinematography and editing. Freddie Francis shot the film in B+W CinemaScope – for me, the ultimate film format. Christopher Frayling suggests that the reasons for this are institutional – Fox shot everything in the format that they had patented and promoted. This included the films that they thought inappropriate or not commercial enough for Technicolor (which at this time was more expensive than B+W). Frayling also suggests that it was unusual to use ‘Scope on horror films, but this seems wrong (I must listen to his comment again). He does point out that Freddie Francis had received an Oscar for Sons and Lovers, also shot in B + W ‘Scope for Fox in 1960. I think I must blog separately on B+W ‘Scope, but here I’ll just note that the late 1950s through to the early 1960s is the peak production period in Hollywood and the UK, but also in France (Truffaut and Dyaliscope), India (Guru Dutt) and Japan (Kurosawa and Tohoscope).

The issues about visual style in The Innocents are to do with Francis’ approach in pushing light levels up on set so that he can close the aperture and get great depth of field in order to explore Shingleton’s wonderful studio set of the house’s interiors. The depth of field allows both the long shots of Kerr moving through the house and the occasional and disturbing close-ups of the children in the foreground (also enhanced by lighting the faces from below). Frayling picks up the use of dissolves in the film and this was something that struck me quite forcibly. Virtually every scene begins and ends with a dissolve, helping to create a dreamlike quality and a slow pace.

All of these points about the style, as well as the setting and characters conjures up The Others. Alejandro Amenábar seemingly took characters, setting and central plot idea and then wrote a rather different story. There is no sense of a ‘copy’, but there are remarkable visual similarities between the two films. At one point Deborah Kerr even refers to the ghosts as “the others”. I had thought that my calling the Nicole Kidman character in The Others Grace, Amenábar was referring to Grace Kelly as a Hitchcock heroine, but there are certainly similarities to Kerr and I wonder about some of the casting decisions in The Others – an Irish housekeeper for a Welsh housekeeper etc.?

The children in The Others are less malevolent or ‘possessed’ and in this sense the comparisons work better with both Dark Water and El orfanato. In the former, the ghost demands attention and a mother’s love. In the latter, the children are not so much malevolent as mischievous. In both cases, the mother is seen by others as possibly losing control over her sanity and imagining the ghosts.

I think I should now go back and look at The Haunting by Robert Wise. I’ve never watched it all the way through. Although the storyline may be different it’s another B+W ‘Scope feature from 1963 and it will be interesting to look at the film in stylistic terms. I wonder too whether it will reveal the erotic undertones of horror, which are clearly evident in The Innocents, but not so much in the other three films referenced here. In that respect, it’s worth mentioning that a couple of shots in The Innocents reminded me of Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus, especially when she is shown awake at night with an open window and the sense of disturbance in the air. I’ve also watched Picnic at Hanging Rock Again recently and I wonder if Peter Weir was conscious of the style of Freddie Francis in his treatment of girls ‘lost’ on an outing?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.