The Innocents (1961)

20 Oct


One of the creepiest scenes in this film has relatively little to do with the plot. It's just another in a long string of relentlessly odd shots that serve to completely unnerve the viewer.

Both visually stunning and relentlessly creepy, “The Innocents” proves a film needn’t be gory to be scary. This is a movie of which one can honestly say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” and know it’s too bad they don’t. Modern horror movies could not help but benefit from the type of intensely focused plot and filmmaking artistry that set this movie apart as a true classic.

Young governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), eager to win her first post, accepts employment terms which are a bit out of the ordinary. Namely, she is to live in the country estate of a wealthy bachelor playboy (deemed “The Uncle” and portrayed by Michael Redgrave) where she is to have supreme authority over her wards, young Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), as well as the estate staff. Upon her arrival, she finds Flora to be a charming doll, and she pooh-poohs the warnings of head housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) that Flora can use her charms to manipulate. When Flora suddenly announces that her brother will soon be returning to the home, Miss Giddens dismisses her statements as wishful thinking. However, a letter soon arrives advising that, due to an “incident,” Miles has been expelled from his school and will be returning to the estate within the week … and Miss Giddens starts to wonder whether Flora’s wishes weren’t more like prophecy.

Miles proves every bit as perfect and lovable as his sister, though he seems to possess strange wisdom for one so young. Miss Giddens has been warned not to speak of the previous governess, a Miss Jessup who perished suddenly. Giddens presses for the truth, but discovery comes with consequences. As she uncovers more and more of the tragic tale of young Miss Jessup, the tyrannical Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and the children,  a deepening sense of foreboding takes hold, and Miss Giddens must decide whether some secrets would be best left in the dark.

"The Innocents" is so achingly beautiful it almost makes me wish film had never moved past black and white.

On paper, this seems a trifling story. Haunted country mansion, oddly sensitive children, dark secrets, apparitions — it’s all the stuff of a traditional Gothic ghost story. But in the hands of director Jack Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis, “The Innocents” becomes an unsettling, even harrowing, experience. The black-and-white photography is deliberately designed to feel off-kilter. In several instances, the entire shot is in focus — both the foreground and the background — creating an almost Alice-in-Wonderland type effect. The technique is employed often and adds a “wrongness” to key scenes in the film. For me, one of the most effective sequences was an otherwise harmless enough scene between Miss Giddens and Flora in which Flora is in the extreme foreground while Miss Giddens remains in focus behind her. A still from this sequence serves as the main photo for this essay. Flora is watching a spider devour a butterfly, so she says calmly and sweetly, and the governess occupies the empty space next to the child’s overemphasized face. It’s deliciously odd and wrong, and is just one of innumerable instances where the filmmakers engage in fright-mongering without providing anything very out of the ordinary at all.

The play of shadow and light is also given wide range. Shards of light fall across faces or pathways and leave the rest of the frame cloaked in the darkness. Shadow fills the scene and makes it difficult to distinguish, say, a curtain from a skirt, or a cloud of fog from a ghostly apparition. The attention paid to every single sequence is just astounding. “The Innocents” is a truly beautiful film.

Though it would be enough to watch this film just for its bizarre beauty, the story from principal screenwriters Truman Capote and William Archibald is so intense and perfectly paced as to leave the audience breathless by the end. The screenplay is based upon the novel “The Turn of the Screw,” and I confess I am not familiar with the source material, so I don’t know how true to the original story this film stays. I do know that this slow-burning plot never overplays its hand, and the writers wisely reveal certain elements and details at certain times to keep the audience only as informed as the characters themselves are. In a film with a weaker story, allowing the audience to play along might be devastating, but “The Innocents” doesn’t give anything away for free.

Martin Stephens, only 12 when this film was made, is quite impressive. He grew bored with acting soon after this film was made, and he's now an architect based in London.

The filmmakers also smartly — in my estimation, anyway — avoid a neat, packaged ending. Some viewers will dislike the ambiguity, but I believe to answer all the questions would do a disservice to the shadowy nature of the film. It is a story which can be interpreted on different levels; there is a great deal of subtle subversiveness bubbling under the actual dialogue and action to support a number of differing theories. “The Innocents” is a movie which can be viewed again and again, with each subsequent viewing offering the chance to focus on each individual character’s role in the story. It is likely impossible to figure out what “really happened,” but then, I don’t believe that’s quite the point. In a film which acknowledges and preys upon the idea of the fragility of truth, ambiguity is the most you can expect.

Deborah Kerr and the young Martin Stephens turn in inspired performances. Stephens in particular is quite arresting in what is a tricky role. The audience must both be charmed by and suspicious of the young Miles, and the then-12-year-old is quite successful. He also manages to hold his own with Kerr in the go-for-broke final sequences of the film. I’m not one easily won over by child actors, but I must say Stephens made quite an impression.

“The Innocents” is exactly the sort of rare find I was hoping for when I began this 31 Nights of Horror project — a new-to-me movie that manages the awesome combo of being a high-quality film as well as absolutely terrifying. Many horror movies are one or the other, but both is something special indeed. Four stars out of four.

The Innocents“: Unrated (common sense rating equivalent to PG). Starring Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins, Michael Redgrave, Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin, Clytie Jessop, Isla Cameron and Eric Woodburn. Directed by Jack Clayton. Screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote with additional scenes and dialogue by John Mortimer and based on the novel “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James. Cinematography by Freddie Francis. Original music by Georges Auric.

2 Responses to “The Innocents (1961)”


  1. Girly (1970) « Rhanda watches -

    […] course, this could all be exactly what director Freddie Francis (the cinematographer of “The Innocents“) had in mind. The film seems to comment on the breakdown of the traditional family and the […]

  2. 31 Nights of Horror: Final thoughts (2010) « Rhanda watches -

    […] in other words, but more on the low end than the high end. There were two four-star reviews: “The Innocents” and “Eraserhead.” There was one zero-star review — “Death Bed: The […]

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