The Innocents (1961)

Based on a play adaptation of Henry James novel, Turn of the Screw, The Innocents must be seen by anyone who appreciates a fascinating story and outstanding cinema.

The film works on several levels, playing with themes such as deception, paranoia, and sexual taboo.  The film is cast perfectly.  And give the director of photography credit for turning every frame of film into a performer of its own right.  Freddie Francis photographs a tight and beautiful film.  Gimmicks don’t exist; such things would distract from this perfect film.  All of this is rolled into a very tight and convincing ghost story.

Other than one minor continuity error (compare shots in the scene when Miles rides a horse), everything in this film flows subtly and flawlessly to add layers to this story.

Two — perhaps minor — examples:

In the opening scene Miss Giddens is interviewing with a wealthy bachelor who is the uncle of two orphaned children for whom he has become responsible.  The Uncle does not have the time or interest to care directly for the kid and he is looking at Miss Giddens to replace the deceased governess he hired to watch the children.

Every detail in this scene is carefully controlled.  Take a mantel clock in the uncle’s study.  The time on the clock changes in real time with the progress of the scene shot after shot.  Toward the end of the interview a clock off-camera rings the Westminster Chimes; it marks the half hour, bu the mantel clock shows 11:10.  The uncle hears the chimes and looks at his watch.  He walks up to the mantel clock, touches the dial, and leaves it unchanged.  A deliberate error on the part of the director?  I think so.

Another example:

Miss Giddens has been hired and has arrived at the uncle’s country estate to care for his niece and nephew.  In an early scene she receives a letter from the nephew Miles’ school.   Miss Giddens consults with the estate’s made, Mrs. Grose, about the letter.  Mrs. Grose asks what is wrong and Miss Gidden offers the letter to Mrs. Grose to read herself.  But Mrs. Grose tells Miss Giddens that she cannot read.

In a later scene, however, Miss Giddens and Mrs. Grose are talking outside the parish church about the children.  Mrs. Grose can be seen going into the church carrying a Bible.

Mrs. Grose appears with the Bible in an important scene when Miss Gibbens implores Mrs. Grose to be completely forthcoming with what she knows about the hauntings of the country estate.  Is this deliberate?  Moreover would Mrs. Grose have a bible if she could not read?

One might conclude that Mrs. Gibbons was lying about being illiterate to evade being forthcoming about knowing the truth.

Throughout the film it is unclear what is real, or we presume perhaps that it is unclear.  Mrs. Grose’s sincerity right to her last scene is an uncertainty that defines a great deal of the tension in the film.  It is never entirely clear what she knows and what she hides, if anything.  Not knowing this adds the possibility that all that has happened is merely a case madness, Miss Gibben’s madness, perhaps.

In fact, we either have a literal ghost story — very well and convincingly done — or a story of madness.  The film is so well done that either reading — or a combination of both — works quite well.

I could write so much more, but now I am watching the Legend of Hell House (1973) which features a grown up Pamela Franklin, the actress who plays the child Flora in The InnocentsThe Legend of Hell House is nothing more than cotton candy up against a great film like The Innocents, but it’s still kind of fun to watch.   Fun to watch Pamela Franklin, too.

The Legend of Hell House is full of cheap gimmicks.  Literally.  For example, in an establishing shot between scenes, a black cat is shown running along a wall in front of fog-shrouded mansion.  You won’t get that cheap stuff in The Innocents!  Not needed.

(The black cat does have a scene later in the film, if I remember correctly.  Of course it does…this is Hell House!)

Watching The Legend of Hell House with its cliches and “controlled multiple hauntings” after watching The Innocents is a bad idea.  I am losing the convincing moody spookiness of The Innocents.  It is like stopping on the way home after a gourmet banquet for a Big Mac.  But even a Big Mac is a classic in its own right and so it might also be said of cheesey films like The Legend of Hell House

Maybe it is time for me to go to sleep.

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One thought on “The Innocents (1961)

  1. Pingback: The Turn of the Screw (1992) « A Little Tour in Yellow

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