I hesitate to call Jack Clayton's 1961 production "The Innocents" a haunted-house story, even though that's what people have been labeling it for the past forty-odd years. Based on Henry James's classic 1897 novella, "The Turn of the Screw," the movie comes fairly close to capturing the chilling tone and ambiguous drama that James intended, and both the movie and the story have set the standard for mature, psychological ghost stories ever since.
A movie is only as good as the people who make it, and "The Innocents" arrived with a proud lineage. Jack Clayton, the film's producer and director, had already made such notable movies as "Moulin Rouge," "Beat the Devil," "Moby Dick," and "Room at the Top," and he would go on to do "The Great Gatsby." Henry James, whose story inspired the film, was an author read in most schools and colleges around the world, his work including "The Wings of the Dove," "The Portrait of a Lady," "Washington Square," "Daisy Miller," and "The Ambassadors." No less an artist than Truman Capote ("Breakfast at Tiffany's," "In Cold Blood") cowrote the screenplay with William Archibald ("I Confess") and got additional scenes from John Mortimer ("The Running Man," "Tea With Mussolini"). Georges Auric ("La Belle et la bete," "Orphee," "Roman Holiday," "Bonjour tristesse") contributed the atmospheric musical score. Deborah Kerr ("From Here to Eternity," "The King and I," "An Affair to Remember") headed up the small but stellar cast. And the location shooting at Sheffield Park, integrated with filming at Shepperton Studios, England, rounded out the film's pedigree.
"The Innocents" is not, as you are probably aware, an ordinary fright fest. In fact, when it premiered, Twentieth-Century Fox advertised that "there has never been a ghost story for the adult moviegoer until 'The Innocents'...a new and adult motion-picture experience." Understand, this was at a time when "adult" meant something serious and intellectual, not violent, salacious, or profane. You'll find no big shocks in "The Innocents," only plenty of evocative suspense. Like several of its better offspring--"The Haunting" (1963) and "The Others" (2001), for example--"The Innocents" develops its tension more from what is unseen and unknown than from gory special effects or rubber masks.
The story concerns a woman, Miss Giddens (Kerr), who accepts a position as governess to a pair of young orphan children, Flora and Miles, whose closest relative, an uncle, cannot be bothered with them. The uncle is quite wealthy and maintains a home in the city, preferring it to his country estate, called Bly, where the children live.
The story is told in flashback from Miss Giddens' point of view, and as the movie begins we see her praying for help regarding the children in her care. It's clear she thinks the children are disturbed in some way, but we do not know how or why.
The home, Bly, is a huge, rambling old Gothic manor, set amidst lavish gardens and a nearby lake. The countryside is tranquil. The governess loves children, and the children are angelic. Consequently, the governess figures her new position is as perfect as it could possibly be. Until a mess of weird things start happening.
The gimmick of James's story is that it never lets the audience know if the goings on are real or imaginary. Miss Giddens notices the animals in the vicinity seem skittish. She starts hearing odd noises at night, and she has bad dreams. The little boy, Miles, is expelled from school, accused of being a threat to the other children. The little girl stares out her bedroom window late into the night.
Soon, the really creepy stuff begins. The governess sees mysterious figures lurking about in the dark, people who shouldn't be there, and she is soon able to identify them by photographs she finds. They are the uncle's former valet, Peter Quint, and the children's former governess, Miss Jessel. Both of them dead!
In the event you should think I'm giving too much away, we learn all of this early on, and, anyway, most of it is written on the back of the keep case. The housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, explains to the new governess that Quint and Miss Jessel were lovers, that Quint died by accident while drunk one night in a storm a year or more past, and that Miss Jessel committed suicide soon after. Now, do their ghosts haunt the old house, or is Miss Giddens imagining things?
More to the point, the children's behavior seems to mirror everything Miss Giddens learns about Quint and Jessel. Is it possible that Quint and his lover somehow took possession of the children's souls? Are the spirits of the dead living again through the youngsters? Clearly, young Miles had adored Quint before he died. Is Quint returning to take advantage by directing the boy's actions, which at times border on the bizarre, particularly the sexual tensions the twelve-year-old creates between himself and the new governess? Are the children really so innocent after all? Is the governess?
Neither Henry James nor director Clayton reveal their hand, choosing to allow the audience to make up their own minds, instead, whether the house is haunted or whether Miss Giddens, whom we learn is a spinster, quite sheltered and sexually repressed, is losing her mind.
At forty, Deborah Kerr was a little old for the part of James's twenty-year-old governess, but Ms. Kerr is a beautiful woman, and her portrayal brings an added sense of isolation and frustration to the role, the development of yet another character dimension. Kerr commands our attention from beginning to end.
Megs Jenkins plays the patient and understanding housekeeper, and she becomes Miss Giddens' closest confidant. Yet even Mrs. Grose has difficulty accepting the governess's obsession with ghosts and demonic possession. Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin play the children, and they, too, are ideal for their roles, part angels, part devils. This would not be the only time Ms. Franklin would enter the film world of the supernatural, by the way; she later appeared in "Necromancy," "Satan's School for Girls," and, most importantly, "The Legend of Hell House."
The others folks in the cast are of little consequence. Michael Redgrave plays the uncle in a purely perfunctory appearance, one far less important than it was in the James story, where the governess appears to fall in love with him. Peter Wyngarde and Clytie Jessop play Quint and Miss Jessel, but, understandably, their roles are brief and wordless.
The movie's success derives from its intelligent script; its fine acting; Jack Clayton's nuanced direction; Freddie Francis's superb black-and-white cinematography, with its imaginative camera angles and framing; and Georges Auric's eerie background music. In all, "The Innocents" provides an excellent evocation of time and place and creates an appropriately spooky tone that builds slowly, incrementally, until it reaches a shattering conclusion. The movie is not a shocker or even much of a thriller, but it will keep you on edge all the same.
Fox studios present the film in two screen formats, standard fullscreen and thearical-release CinemaScope. The fullscreen is a typical pan-and-scan affair that cuts out about 40% of the original image right and left. But it does fill up your standard-screen television, if that's your idea of a good time. I watched in anamorphic widescreen and found the results excellent. The black-and-white contrasts look quite pronounced, the deep blacks setting off the lighter shades nicely. The high bit-rate transfer assures sharp definition, and there are few, almost no, age marks, scratches, or smudges of any kind.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound is not so good as the video. The first thing one notices is a small degree of background noise if the volume is too high; it's not bothersome, but turning it down is in order. Then, there's the stereo spread, which is notably narrow. However, the worst offender is the tonal balance, which favors the upper midrange to such an extent that the sonics often appear bright, hard, and edgy. Again, the easiest remedy is either to turn down the gain or adjust the treble control.
There is not much among the extras, I'm afraid, that isn't purely promotional. There's a widescreen theatrical trailer; "Fox Flix" trailers for three other Fox horror titles; and text recommendations for other similar Fox movies. Lastly, there are twenty-eight scene selections, but no chapter insert; English and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.
So, when is a ghost story not a ghost story? When it's "The Turn of the Screw"; and "The Innocents" is by far the best movie adaptation of the celebrated story yet filmed. Just be prepared for something a lot more subtle than an old William Castle production; "The Innocents" would never be confused with "House on Haunted Hill."