The Innocents is a work of chilly and well-modulated hysteria; its mood of ironic and stiflingly prim and decaying “correctness” occasionally recalls Psycho, only without the set pieces to keep you charged and jangly. As in that masterpiece, the narrative provides a tour of an increasingly addled mind as it retreats from duress to rely on its own troubling subterranean resources. That much is fact, regardless of how one otherwise interrupts the happenings that befall Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), the governess of two wealthy and essentially abandoned children, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). The superstitious, or horror film-minded, might readily accept the woman’s insistence that the ghosts of Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), both former servants of Flora and Miles’s smug, self-justifying uncle (Michael Redgrave), are preparing to possess the children. The more skeptical members of the audience, however, might wonder if Miss Giddens has disastrously internalized something deeply damaging.
A variation of that debate continues to transpire over the source material, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, too, particularly after Edmund Wilson’s famous prodding, and director Jack Clayton takes an engagingly sick pleasure in fiddling with potential audience reactions. In the novella, the governess struck this reader as certifiable in her eagerness to jump to a supernatural conspiracy theory in lieu of managing provocations that are inherently typical of life with intelligent children. In the film, there’s a big difference: We actually see what Giddens sees, and, though we can’t tell whether the ghosts are real or not, the spectral visions are so unmooring as to legitimize her claims in a fashion that wasn’t possible on the page. But Clayton and screenwriter Truman Capote also disrupt that empathy by upping the ante on the heroine’s psychosexual frustration to such a pronounced degree as to push the gothic genre up close to its breaking point, teetering on the border of self-parody (of the sexist, psychologically pat view that insists a repressed woman merely needs a man).
The Innocents opens on a black screen in which we hear a haunting children’s rhyme that will come to embody the protagonist’s fanatical sentimentalizing of her charges as alternately angels, deceivers, and victims. The rhyme is followed by a fevered and barely audible plea on behalf of the children’s souls, which fades, after a disquieting title card, into Giddens’s job interview with the uncle. This sequence is informed by a pronounced Victorian-era sense of sexual tension: The uncle’s a strapping, virile, seductive man (those who only know Redgrave by his performance as a nervous ventriloquist in Dead of Night are in for a shock here) and Giddens is a shy woman who obviously buys into her era’s gender-biased sense of decorum hook, line, and sinker. The uncle casually hints about his promiscuity, boasting of his self-absorption with an ostentatiousness that’s unthinkable for a woman, while Giddens dutifully apologizes for him at all the proper intervals.
The entire film springs from this scene, particularly the governess’s inappropriate relationship with Miles. A peculiar transference (once again reminiscent of Psycho) occurs: Giddens’s sexual feelings for the uncle are directed toward Miles, who’s even explicitly said to resemble the older man when he was young and precocious. It’s this thread that reveals the specifics of the mystery to matter mostly for their suggestion of mental instability and buried atrocity, though a proper “solution” is meaningless. The Innocents is a study of the exertion of a puritanical will that’s haunted by demons regardless of their literal or figurative existence. Clayton and Kerr are acutely aware of the novella’s richest irony: that Giddens is the real monster, the real protective power figure run amok and hectoring the children so persistently that it comes to resemble psychological torture.
The large estate setting, cast in luscious black-and-white Scope cinematography, is rife with symbolic projections (flowers, corridors, insects, statues, towers) of the governess’s dark, unreachable consciousness. Cinematographer Freddie Frances often keeps the background in deep focus, which underscores the characters’ frightening vulnerability to interlopers, internal and external alike. Contrasting with this wideness and depth, which is more often associated with historical epics, is the ingenious fashion with which the filmmakers manage to render the interior night scenes so that they appear enclosed within a boxier frame that underscores the governess’s escalating panic and confusion. The images only noticeably go soft and fuzzy, maybe tellingly, when Giddens sees the apparitions, which are often shot to resemble the dark blotches someone might see during a sun stroke. This impression is affirmed by the occasional brief passages of woozy slow motion that appear to have sprung from a dream, memorably capturing birds in mid-flight that might as well be soaring straight out of someone’s id.
But the most revealing visual effect is reserved for Kerr. At times, particularly in a close-up in the beginning that’s visible among the blackness, the actress is as ravishingly beautiful as she’s ever been in any film, and you can practically feel the sexual hunger emanating from her character’s pores. At other times, she’s lit with pointed harshness that suggests accelerated aging as a physical embodiment of the stifled desires that have grown malignant within Giddens. Simply, we’re seeing this woman both as she might want to be, and how she assumes she is. Less simply, Clayton, Frances, and Kerr present fractured shards of a female personality that rival Bergman for their sensual evocation of torment. The tactility of the photography serves as a counterpoint to the central ambiguity of the story, achieving an ineffably “off” effect that’s amazingly true to the clammy, closeted panic that James so vividly captured. One of cinema’s most disturbing and elegant ghost stories, The Innocents is a terrifying portrait of sickness rechanneled as oppression.
Top-shelf even for Criterion, particularly in regards to the image, which boasts a revelatory level of clarity. The film’s deep-focus photography is pristine, and quietly fosters the notion that the characters are being constantly regarded by the cluttered rooms and all the micro inhabitants of the sprawling and acutely detailed vistas. There’s purposefully a sense in this film of having almost too much aural/visual information to parse through, which subtly places the viewer on an empathetic plane with Kerr’s overwhelmed governess. The blacks are luscious, the montages are marked by fade-ins that are now positively creamy, and the skin texture is faultless. The mono track allows this film to sound cleaner than ever before, but it’s most impressive for the specificity of the minute, barely discernable sound effects, such as all the curtain brushing, floor tapping, and bird fluttering that collectively suggest either a haunted house or mind.
There’s some informational overlap among the new inessential interview supplements, but the audio commentary with cultural historian Christopher Frayling, recorded in 2006, remains an engagingly precise discussion of the film’s inception, production, symbolism, thematic resonances, performances, and so forth. Frayling has a particular talent for discussing aesthetics in a manner that’s engaging for both the layman and the hardcore cinephile or blossoming filmmaker. The introduction with the historian, which broadly covers the same ground in 25 minutes, is ideal for those with less time on their hands who require just a sampling of behind-the-curtain context. Still, the lack of new extras is a mild disappointment, considering the film’s steadily growing reputation, though the essay by critic Maitland McDonagh is lovely.
The Innocents receives a dense and gorgeous Criterion transfer that allows its amazing aesthetic complexity to reach full ghostly bloom.