Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Innocents (1961)

The Innocents (1961) Poster

"All I want to do is save the children, not destroy them."

This film is a masterclass of suspense and why it's not on the 1001 movies to see before you die list I'll never know. Beverley Hills Cop is on the list, not that it pretends to be suspenseful, it's just the fact that it's there and this one isn't that irritates me. *shrugs*

It's unsettling from the first moment, with birdsong and a child singing "O Willow Waly" over a black screen for nearly a minute. This was so unusual that, according to Wikipedia, projectionists thought that there was something wrong with the film.

The story starts with Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) being interviewed for her first position by wealthy playboy bachelor (Michael Redgrave) who has been "saddled" with two orphans, for whom he has no time for "neither mentally nor emotionally". The children live at his country house, Bly. He tells Miss Giddens that the previous governess died, and so he offers her the position, making it clear that her role would be to take on all responsibility regarding the children and that he should never be contacted or bothered about their upbringing again. First Miss Giddens meets Flora (Pamela Franklin), who tells her that her brother, Miles (Martin Stephens), will be arriving shortly, although he is not expected. Miss Giddens then receives a letter from Miles' school, telling her that he's been expelled but does explain why. Miles arrives and evades all questions about his school by precocious flattery. The new governess begins to see things, such as a man on the tower, and after questioning the housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins), learns of a valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), who died and whose body was discovered by Miles. She is also told more about her predecessor, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop). As she learns of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel and their affair, the sightings of the ghosts become more intense. Miss Giddens is convinced that the two children are possessed by the spirits.

For me, apart from The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, The Turn of the Screw is the finest ghost story and it's mostly due to its ambiguity. For this reason, The Innocents is the perfect adaptation, with Truman Capote's added dialogue emphasising the disturbing Freudian psychological elements to the story. We see what Miss Giddens sees, but everything she experiences is preceded by a trigger - the story of Quint and Miss Jessel unfolding slowly through the film via Mrs Grose. It can be seen both as a ghost story, and also as a depiction of paranoia. 

The mystery of Miss Jessel and Miles's expulsion play on her insecurities in a situation she is not comfortable with. The children are mysterious and their closeness is something she cannot penetrate. She is disturbed that they are not completely angelic. There is little in the way of adult company, further isolating her, and Mrs Grose encourages her speculation rather than grounding her. Miss Giddens is charmed by her employer, but, on his terms, cannot have contact with him. The story of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel's affair only intensifies her frustration - she sees their abusive, torrid relationship as wicked, but grows increasingly infatuated with it at the same time. She feels nervous but proud of the responsibility her master has given her, but ultimately she is ill-equipped to deal with the children, particularly as her obsession with the "ghosts" grows. As Miles states near the end of the film, perhaps her ghost story is the result of mental illness, or even a strange attempt at distracting herself from her fear of insanity. The master approved of her "imagination", so maybe this is a desperate attempt to make him notice her.

The choice of Deborah Kerr does smack of the token "big" filmstar with the necessary pulling power at the cinema. She is clearly playing a role which is intended for someone much younger; someone naive, nervous and inexperienced - not something you would expect from a woman with forty years of life behind her. However, her portrayal of a woman on the brink is excellent and her expressions of horror are unrivalled. It's easy to believe that she is simply a woman from a sheltered background venturing into employment to make her own way in the world. Anyway, it's Deborah Kerr and you'll never hear me say anything negative about her. It's a small cast, but everyone, especially the children, put in great performances. 

The direction, cinematography and lighting is equally wonderful. A good decision was made in shooting it in black and white. The film is incredibly eerie, nightmarish, paced and beautiful. I can't help but think that the key to a ghost film is subtlety and the building of suspense. There are no big shocks in this film, it simply plays on your fears in a strange, mysterious house when the darkness seems darker and every noise is sinister. The first line of the film is, "Do you have a good imagination?" and our imagination plays on our greatest fears with a few visual and aural cues. As it is so rare for a filmaker to understand this (particularly in contemporary cinema), so a film like The Innocents remains a benchmark and one of the finest examples of its genre.

Screencaptures galore under the cut.


"Mrs Grose, what was she like? The other governess. The one who died."


Flora: "Miss Giddens, where will the Lord take my soul to?"
Miss Giddens: "To Heaven."
Flora: "Are you certain?"
Miss Giddens: "Yes, of course, because you're a very, very good girl."
Flora: "But I might not be. And if I weren't, wouldn't the Lord just leave me here to walk around? Isn't that what happens to some people?"


"Well, sometimes one can't help imagining things."

Miss Giddens: "Flora, didn't you say last night that Miles was coming home?"
Flora: "Oh look! A lovely spider and it's eating a butterfly!"

Miss Giddens: "Miles has been dismissed from school. Sent home. Expelled. They say it is impossible to keep him - that he is an injury to others... You have never known him to be bad?"
Mrs Grose: "I wouldn't say that."
Miss Giddens: "You mean you like a boy with spirit? Well so do I, but not to the degree to... contaminate. To corrupt."
Mrs Grose: "Oh, Miss. Are you afraid that he might corrupt you?

Miss Giddens: "Were you happy at school?"
Miles: "May I tell you something? I think you're far too pretty to be a governess."
Miss Giddens: "Miles, dear Miles. Can't you see that I want to help you? Trust me. Oh! The candle's gone out!"
Miles: "Don't be frightened. It was only the wind, my dear. The wind blew it out."

Miss Giddens: "Miles, how long have you been here?"
Miles: "Oh, I don't know. Twenty, thirty minutes."
Miss Giddens: "Then you must have seen him!"
Miles: "I've been quite alone, except for my greedy friends."
Miss Giddens: "Well that can't be true. Not two minutes ago I saw a man standing exactly here."
Miles: "Perhaps it was me."
Miss Giddens: "No, no, it was a man. He was looking at me."
Miles: "I expect you imagined it."

Miss Giddens: "I saw him. Don't tell me I didn't because I did. I saw him staring. The man in the tower."
Mrs Grose: "Would you say he was handsome?"
Miss Giddens: "Oh yes, handsome. Handsome and obscene. Yes I... I know where I've seen him! There's a picture, a picture of him. A miniature in a cracked glass in the attic, I'll show you!"
Mrs Grose: "It can't be."
Miss Giddens: "It can't be?"
Mrs Grose: "Quint. Peter Quint, the master's valet. But you see, Miss, he's dead."
"Flora! Who is it over there?"

"Mrs Grose, there are two of them. Two of those... abominations. I can't pretend to understand what its purpose is, I only know that it is happening. Something secretive and whispery and indecent. Believe me, the children are in dreadful peril. You do believe me? You don't think that I'm imagining it?"

Miss Giddens: "Were Quint and Miss Jessel in love? They were in love, weren't they?"
Mrs Grose: "Love? Oh, I suppose that's what she'd call it but it was more like a sickness, a fever that leaves the body burned out and dry. There was no cruelty she wouldn't suffer. If he struck her, and oh yes, I've seen him knock her to the floor, she'd look at him as if she wanted the weight of his hand. It hurts me to remember. Bad she was but no woman could have suffered more. Oh, Miss, there's things I've seen... I'm ashamed to say. Rooms. Rooms used by daylight as though they were dark woods."
Miss Giddens: "And they didn't care that you saw them? And the children?"
Mrs Grose: "I can't say, Miss. I don't know what the children saw. But they used to follow Quint and Miss Jessel, trailing behind hand in hand, whispering. There was too much whispering in this house, Miss."
Mrs Grose: "Master Miles is a good boy, Miss. There's nothing wicked in him."  
Miss Giddens: "Unless he's deceiving us. Unless they're both deceiving us. The innocents."
Mrs Grose: "Sometimes I wondered if they really cared for them, those two, or if they weren't just using them."
Miss Giddens: "Using them? Yes, of course they were. And still are."
"It's a secret."

Mrs Grose: "What will you say to the master?"
Miss Giddens: "Oh yes, I know he'll think I'm insane or that it's some stupid trick to get him to notice me."

"Everything has changed. She was here. She was waiting for me. She spoke. It came to that. Oh, I could feel pity for her, if she herself were not so pitiless. And hungry, hungry for him; for his arms and his lips. But she can only reach him - they can only reach him by entering the souls of the children and possessing them. The children are possessed. They live and know and share this hell."

 "Softly, the children are asleep. Kiss me. You're hurting me. The children are watching."

Miles: "I'm not hiding it. I'm keep it warm. I found it this morning. One of my pigeons. I couldn't, could I? Leave it out there alone?"
Miss Giddens: "But Miles, it's neck. It looks as though-"
Miles: "Someone had broken it. Yes, poor thing. I'll bury it tomorrow."
"Kiss me goodnight, Miss Giddens."

Miss Giddens: "And where, my pet, is Miss Jessel? Where is she, Flora? Where is she? You know you can see her. Look, Flora, look! There, you know you can see her!"
Flora: "I can't! I can't!"
Miss Giddens: "Admit it! You know you can see her! But look, she's there. But you know you can see her. You must!"
Flora: "I cant see anything, I've never seen anything! You're cruel! You're wicked! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! You're wicked to frighten me so!" 
"To hear such filth from a child's mouth. I never heard her speak like that before, never. Until you came."

"You and Flora will leave tomorrow. I shall send the servants away. It's my decision. He put me in charge, in sole charge, Mrs Grose. Tomorrow I must be alone here with Miles."

Miss Giddens: "Why were you sent home from school? What did you do?"
Miles: "I said things. Sometimes I hurt things and sometimes at night, when everything was dark, they screamed. The masters heard about it. They said I frightened the other boys."
Miss Giddens: "And when did you first see and hear of such things."
Miles: "I made them up."
Miss Giddens: "Who taught them to you? Shall I tell you who taught you? Shall I tell you his name?"
Miles: "You don't fool me, I know why you go on and on. It's because you're afraid. You're afraid you might be mad so you keep on and on trying to make me admit something that isn't true; trying to frightened me the way you frightened Flora. But I'm not Flora, I'm no baby. You think you can get to my Uncle with a lot of lies. But he won't believe you, not when I tell him what you are - a damned hussy. A damned, dirty-minded hag. You never fooled us. We always knew."
"He's gone, Miles. You're safe. You're free. I have you."


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