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Innocents, The (1961)

Main image of Innocents, The (1961)
35mm, black and white, CinemaScope, 99 mins
DirectorJack Clayton
Production CompanyTwentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
ProducerJack Clayton
ScreenplayWilliam Archibald, Truman Capote
Additional dialogueJohn Mortimer
PhotographyFreddie Francis
MusicGeorges Auric

Cast: Deborah Kerr (Miss Giddens); Peter Wyngarde (Peter Quint); Megs Jenkins (Mrs Grose); Michael Redgrave (The Uncle); Martin Stephens (Miles); Pamela Franklin (Flora)

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An overly imaginative young woman takes a job as a governess, caring for two precocious children in a vast and shadowy mansion...

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Long established as one of the greatest of all ghost stories, Henry James' 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw has been filmed many times, but by universal consent the definitive version is this 1961 film by Jack Clayton, his second feature after the groundbreaking Room at the Top (1958).

Deborah Kerr gives a virtuoso performance as Miss Giddens, the emotionally repressed vicar's daughter who takes up a job as governess at a vast country mansion but finds herself comprehensively outmanoeuvred by her precocious charges Miles and Flora. Confiding in the housekeeper Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins), she discovers certain things about her predecessor that she hadn't been told at the time of her appointment, notably the circumstances in which she met her mysterious death. It therefore comes as little surprise that Miss Giddens starts seeing things out of the corner of her eye - or does she?

As with all great ghost stories, we are never sure, which gives her ultimate resolution to confront "the evil" head-on an element of genuine tragedy. (Thankfully, Clayton and his writers - who include Truman Capote and John Mortimer - preserve James's famously unresolved ending). Who are the innocents? The sly, giggling, unnervingly knowing children (Miles in particular has an unmistakably sexual hold over Miss Giddens, in scenes that are arguably more disturbing now than they were in 1961) or their naïve, suggestible governess and the doggedly loyal Mrs Grose? Or is everything filtered through Miss Giddens' hyperactive imagination and we cannot therefore trust the evidence of our own eyes?

Throughout the film, Clayton demonstrates an encyclopaedic understanding of the nature of supernaturally-charged fear. The Innocents is too elegant and subtle to be labelled a mere horror film, but too genuinely marrow-chilling to fit any other pigeonhole, with cinematographer Freddie Francis giving a masterclass in the use of black-and-white CinemaScope to convey the full panoply of night-time scares and lurking (his use of candlelight is particularly effective).

But many of the most disturbing visual coups take place in broad daylight - an evil-looking cherub disgorging a fat black beetle, the hazy male figure on the top of the tower, above all the black-clad image of the former governess Miss Jessell standing in the reeds by the lake. Despite its origins on the page, The Innocents is one of the most cinematically literate of all British horror films, and still packs a powerful punch four decades on.

Michael Brooke

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Auric, Georges (1899-1983)
Clark, Jim (1931-)
Clayton, Jack (1921-1995)
Francis, Freddie (1917-2007)
Kerr, Deborah (1921-2007)
Mortimer, Sir John (1923-2009)
Redgrave, Michael (1908-1985)