Friday, 28 October 2016

Film Friday: "The Innocents" (1961)

Since Halloween is a few days away, I thought it would only be appropriate if this week on "Film Friday" I brought you a horror picture. Although I am not a huge fan of the genre, I loved this particular film. As the poster claims, "You'll get the shock of your life!"

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jack Clayton, The Innocents (1961) begins when Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a minister's daughter, is engaged by the wealthy master of Bly House (Michael Redgrave) as governess for his niece Flora (Pamela Franklin) and his nephew Miles (Martin Stephens). Upon arriving at Bly, Miss Giddens is warmly greeted by Flora and Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), the housekeeper. Soon after, she received a letter from Miles' boarding school explaining that he is being expelled for attempting to corrupt his fellow students. Mrs. Grose assures her that Miles is not a bad child, but Miss Giddens is apprenhensive about meeting the boy. When Miles returns to Bly, he appears to be an angelic, well-mannered child and Miss Giddens' anxiety disappears.

Although the children are friendly and polite, Miss Giddens is perturbed by their occasional odd behaviors. Miles, in particular, is disturbingly flirtatious towards his governess. Miss Giddens is further upset by several visions of a woman and a man, whom Mrs. Grose identifies from their descriptions as Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), the former governess, and Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the uncle's valet until his death. Mrs. Grose also reveals that Quint and Miss Jessel had licentious relations with each other and, performing sexual acts in plain sight of the other servants and even, perhaps, the children. After Quint's death, Miss Jessel fell into a deep depression and committed suicide. With this information, Miss Giddens concludes that the deceased couple have returned to take possession of the children's souls and determines to rescue them. In trying to make the children admit that they also see the ghosts, Miss Giddens causes Flora to have an histerical outburst, after which she orders Mrs. Grose to take the girl away from Bly. Believing that she has saved Flora's soul, Miss Giddens embarks upon rescuing Miles. When she sees Quint's face in the garden, Miss Giddens demands that Miles say the name of the man she is confident they both can see. Miles finally shouts Quint's name and then falls lifeless to the ground. Horrified by the realization that Miles is dead, Miss Giddens takes him in her arms and kisses him on the lips.

Miss Giddens: All I want to do is save the children, not destroy them. More than anything, I love the children. More than anything.

After the international critical and commercial triumph of his directorial debut, Room at the Top (1959), Jack Clayton was offered several prestigious projects as follow-ups, including Sons and Lovers (1960) and The L-Shaped Room (1962). However, he rejected them all in favor of an adaptation of a famous late-Victorian ghost novella by American author Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, which Clayton had read and been enthralled by as a 10-year-old boy. Originally serialized in Collier's Weekly magazine in early 1898, the story appeared in book format later that year as part of a volume entitled The Two Magics. In the preface to the 1908 version of The Turn of the Screw, James wrote that the story was inspired by a half-remembered anecdote told to him by Edward White Benson, the archbishop of Canterbury, about small children haunted by the ghosts of a pair of servants who wished to do them harm. James described the novella as "a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught (the 'fun' of the capture of the merely witless being ever but small), the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious."

The screen rights to The Turn of the Screw were owned by 20th Century Fox, after a successful stage adaptation of it by William Archibald entitled The Innocents, which had premiered at the Playhouse Theatre in New York on February 1, 1950. Directed by Peter Glenville, the play featured Beatrice Straight as Miss Giddens, Iris Mann as Flora and David Cole (in his Broadway debut) as Miles. At the same time that Clayton was hired to direct The Innocents, Fox cast Deborah Kerr in the role of the governess. In one sense, the casting is curious as, in James's story, Miss Giddens is only 20 years old (Kerr at the time was nearly 40). Perhaps the casting of Kerr derived from the fact that a 44-year-old Ingrid Bergman had played the part on American television only a year before. Clayton later recalled how the casting of Kerr came about: "Deborah had one film to do for Twentieth Century [Fox], and so did I: that was the one we both wanted to do and which we had discussed when we met the previous year. I had admired her work in two films with that very underrated actor, Robert Mitchum Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison [1957], which showed her at her best without makeup, and The Sundowners [1960], in which her freckles were so attractively in evidence."

Deborah Kerr and Martin Stephens
Archibald wrote a first draft script for the film, but Clayton was dissatisfied with the result, feeling that it followed the play too closely when he wanted to remain faithful to the novella. After Archibald was disengaged from the script, Clayton turned to John Mortimer, having been impressed by ghostly feeling the writer had got into his script for Dock Brief. However, Mortimer was committed to something else at the time and was only able to work on the film for three weeks, eventually receiving a credit for additional scenes and dialogue. The first scene between Miss Giddens and the uncle, for instance, was written by Mortimer.

The screenplay for The Innocents was finally taken in hand by Clayton's friend Truman Capote, with whom he had worked on Beat the Devil (1954). Despite the credit decreed by the Screen Writers' Guild which suggests co-authorship with Archibald, Clayton always insisted that the script was 90 percent Capote. "The result on the screen is Truman's version, totally, with a few changes, which I always do on the set," Clayton explained. "The reason why Archibald is coupled with Truman Capote on the credits is because the Writers' Guild in America have a silly rule that the first writer automatically shares the credit if it is based on a book. Very unfair, I think." 

In his script notes for Flora, Clayton wrote of "simple, beautiful charm underplayed simplicity" and he found that in Pamela Franklin, who was making her screen debut. "Pamela stood right out," said Clayton about the tests for the part. As for Miles, "he must look beautiful and angelic and behave with dignity without being priggish." Clayton found his ideal Miles in the 11-year-old Martin Stephens, who by the time was an experienced child actor, having appeared in The Divided Heart (1954), Count Your Blessings (1959), The Hellfire Club (1960) and, perhaps more famously, in Village of the Damned (1960), in which he played a blonde alien child leader. Clayton originally asked Cary Grant to play the uncle and Grant was interested, except that he wanted the uncle to return for the end of the film and Clayton felt that to be impossible. The role was then assigned to Michael Redgrave, who appears only in a brief opening cameo.

Pamela Franklin and Jack Clayton on the set
Filmed on locations in East Sussex, England and Shepperton Studios in Surrey, The Innocents proved to be a physically challenging role for Kerr. Clayton said, "To achieve what we wanted in the monochrome photography the arcs had to be of considerable intensity, and the atmosphere on the set, with fifteen "brutes" burning away, often stifling. During a long schedule, imprisoned in those voluminous Victorian dresses, she never complained, never showed a trace of the discomfort she had been feeling." She also had to do a scene that required numerous retakes where she had to carry Stephens in her arms. Kerr later revealed to the director that she had felt quite ill and feverish during that day of filming but never acknowledged it at the time.

The Innocents premiered in London on November 24, 1961 and on Christmas Day of that same year in New York. Despite highly favorable critical reviews, the film failed at the box-office. It did not receive any Academy Award nominations, but it did garner international awards such as a Best British Film nod from the BAFTA and a Palme d'Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival. In his obituary notice in the Guardian (March 25, 1995), Clayton's fellow director and close friend Karel Reisz  wrote, "The Innocents is in black and white, beautiful and unexpectedly lyrical. And it chills you to the bone." He also recalled that wenty years after the film was made, a waiter in a restaurant brought a message to Clayton's table from an unknown guest. The note was addressed to him and read: "The Innocents is the best English film after Hitchcock goes to America." It was signed François Truffaut.

Classic Horror Films and the Literature that Inspired Them by Ron Backer () | Fifty Key British Films edited by Sarah Barrow and John White () | Jack Clayton by Neil Sinyard () |  

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