|The perfect marriage|
of literature & cinema
Dir. Jack Clayton
Starring: Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde,
Megs Jenkins, Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin, Michael Redgrave
Review By Greg Klymkiw
There are few pieces of literature in the English language which can come close to the icky dread achieved by Henry James in his novella "The Turn of the Screw" and even fewer still that dare match its almost nectarous levels of creepy, languorous and bone-chillingly odious delights. It's writing that sticks to the roof of your mouth and short of attempting to dig the thick ooze from your maw, you're more often tempted to let it slide stealthily to the pit of your gut until it makes its abominable presence known within your intestines and sits there, like an immobile blob of mucky goo, never to be fully expunged, but just waiting for you to partake of its abominations again and again and yet again until all hope of it ever leaving you is hope worth abandoning. James hooks you for a lifetime and you never shake yourself free of his prose until you're good and dead. Even then, one suspects it will follow you to whatever place your soul ends up in.
That's just the way it is with "The Turn of the Screw" and one of the most phenomenal achievements in all of cinema is how astoundingly producer-director Jack Clayton was able to replicate James's literary power in his film version The Innocents, yet do so in ways that only cinema is capable of. Clayton, of course, surrounded himself with only the finest collaborators to pull this off including a screenplay adaptation by Truman Capote and William Archibald, astonishing cinematography by Freddie Francis, a haunting Georges Auric score and Jim Clark's first-rate cutting.
There's also that to-die-for cast. The gorgeous Deborah Kerr leads the charge. Her icy beauty is pinched and coiled within her indelible performance as Miss Giddens, the repressed, small-town preacher's daughter who takes her first step away from home to be governess to the creepy Miles (Martin Stephens) and innocent Flora (Pamela Franklin), the respective nephew and niece of the confirmed playboy bachelor Uncle (Michael Redgrave) who leaves his "inherited" charges socked away in his sprawling, isolated, lonely country estate managed by the kindly housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins). What should be idyllic (though in fairness, creepy rural mansions can never really be idyllic), soon gives way to unspeakable horrors in a house so pernicious that each revelation of the evil and perversion coursing through the estate's very soul grips us as obsessively as it does Miss Giddens. The previous governess, you see, the prim but comely Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), fell hard for the coarse, brutish groundsman Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and their relationship was not only one driven by sadomasochistic abuse, but Giddens discovers that the children were privy to it, if not even victims of it.
And yes, Giddens see ghosts. Quint and Miss Jessel died most tragically on the grounds of the estate and worse yet, Giddens fears that their ghosts are attempting to possess the innocents, the children, in order to keep their sick, venal, sordid sexual relationship alive in the bodies of the brother and sister she's been sworn to protect.
The very idea that children, siblings no less, could be compelled to offer up their bodies and souls to a continuance of sadomasochism is the stuff of both great literature and cinema.
The novella is written primarily in the first person by Miss Giddens and her "voice" is captured quite remarkably in the trademark Henry James ultra-long sentences, replete with endless parenthetical connectors and interjections. The prose yanks you this way and that way and yet, you're never less than compelled to plough through the eerie, horrifying, mounting and ever-perverse delirium of the text. There are, of course, given its first-person, subtle signposts suggesting that Giddens's narration might not always be reliable, and that there might not even be ghosts at all, but that she's simply going quite mad from repression, longing and isolation. And yet, in spite of this, we always believe that what she's seeing, she believes.
Though one suspects Clayton's mise-en-scene would have always employed the approach he eventually took, it was finally enhanced by the happy accident of distributor 20th Century Fox insisting the film be shot in their patented ultra-widescreen format Cinemascope. This at first annoyed Clayton, but as he soon resigned himself to this format, he and Freddie Francis concocted a brilliant approach which is as faithful to James's prose style as any film adaptation of a literary source could be. Objects and figures are placed at extreme ends of the frame, movements are subtle, yet pointed, and the outer edges of the frame are always treated with distorted anamorphic effects and filtering to create the sense that you're in a world that exists exclusively within the domain of this wretched house, one which is haunted by sick, loathsome spirits.
The other astounding thing is how Clayton scares the Bejesus out of you - not by shock cuts, but by both the languorous, gorgeously composed camera movements, but better yet by the appearance of the ghosts. They appear in the frame almost naturally, sometimes in broad daylight. (James used his prose to create light and often, it's these very segments that are scariest). The POV of the ghosts is almost always via Giddens, but there's one astounding appearance of the vile Quint at a window where we see him before Giddens does. I can assure you, you'll fill your drawers when this occurs. As well, Clayton makes judicious use of dissolves which act, not just transitionally and in terms of delineating time and space, but to also add an essence of the creepy crawly whilst also capturing the very heart and soul of Henry James.
At approximately 125 words, here's a sample of James's creepy prose style in ONE SENTENCE. Note the twists and turns, the parenthetical asides and connectors, all of which are so similar to Clayton's visual style:
But it was a comfort that there could be no uneasiness in a connection with anything so beatific as the radiant image of my little girl, the vision of whose angelic beauty had probably more than anything else to do with the restlessness that, before morning, made me several times rise and wander about my room to take in the whole picture and prospect; to watch, from my open window, the faint summer dawn, to look at such portions of the rest of the house as I could catch, and to listen, while, in the fading dusk, the first birds began to twitter, for the possible recurrence of a sound or two, less natural and not without, but within, that I had fancied I heard.
These very images and sentiments, if not literally captured by Clayton, are spiritually captured by the manner of how things are placed in the frame and how he and Francis manipulate our gaze to where they want us to go. The aforementioned passage is also important as it presents visual touchstones and feelings that should be infused with beauty and caring, but also creepily hint that things with Miss Giddens and/or the house itself are not quite right. Clayton through his miss-en-scene does the same thing, not with words, of course, but through his lens. Like some miracle, Clayton furthermore can capture Giddens's "restlessness" and infuse it with both face-vslue feeling, but something just a touch off.
At a mere 65-words, here's a sentence from James, using Giddens's "voice" wherein we're privy to one of her nocturnal wanderings. The very length and structure of the sentence, glides with a somnambulistic ease and yet, replicates feelings and actions within Giddens that induce us to feel what she feels:
Tormented, in the hall, with difficulties and obstacles, I remember sinking down at the foot of the staircase – suddenly collapsing there on the lowest step and then, with a revulsion, recalling that it was exactly where more than a month before, in the darkness of night and just so bowed with evil things I had seen the specter of the most horrible of women.
That Clayton replicates this very thing cinematically is beyond simple skill as a filmmaker, but is, rather, the work of an artist who himself is so possessed with James (and by extension, James's creation Miss Giddens) that his own directorial touches, whilst remaining wholly cinematic, are as Jamesian as they are his own.
The Innocents is filmmaking at its finest and it's a film that creates images and feelings that are as haunting for you as they are for the characters in the film and even more miraculously, as haunting as they were in written form in a work, so ahead of its time, yet also of its time. The repression of the very ethos of Victorian culture and literature is unabashedly created by Jack Clayton in his film to deliver a movie that will not only terrify the living wits out of you, but stick to your craw and haunt you - at least until you see the film again, and again, and yet, again.
And trust me, the movie never ceases to creep you out.
Never! No matter how many times you see it.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
The Innocents is available from The Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray and DVD. The anamorphic monochrome images have not looked this good since I first saw a 35mm print on a big screen and the gorgeously designed and mixed sound which was applied via the delectably monaural track affixed literally to its prints via optical in the late, great and lamented analogue process. Both of these elements are handled with utmost respect to the original approach via the high definition digital process of an all-new 4K digital restoration, with the uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The extra features are absolutely first-rate and this might well be one of the best, if not THE best home entertainment product generated this year. We get a fine wide introduction and remarkable commentary track by the noted cultural historian Christopher Frayling, an unbelievably wonderful interview with cinematographer John Bailey about director of photography Freddie Francis and the look of the film which, I'm happy to say (and by virtue of all the things Bailey points out), corroborate my own belief that the miss-en-scene is as faithful to Henry James as any film has a right to be faithful to its literary source without being literary, but wholly cinematic. An additional added feature includes 2006 interviews with Freddie Francis himself, editor Jim Clark and script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis - all of whom provide just the kind of insight into the making of the film that delivers pure, practical as well as artistic knowledge that will appeal to both film lovers and filmmakers. You'll also find the requisite trailer and sumptuous accompanying booklet.