July 4, 2022
This Jack Clayton adaptation of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is one of the rare pictures that does justice to Henry James. It’s beautifully crafted and acted, immaculately shot (by Freddie Francis), and very scary.
By Sven Mikulec
Probably the most esteemed, critically and academically discussed of all of the adaptations of Henry James’ works turned out to be The Innocents, director Jack Clayton’s 1961 eerie and soul-chilling interpretation of James’ 1898 horror novella. Widely regarded as one of the best horror films ever made—with the Guardian including it in its list of 25 best horrors ever—The Innocents took some time to get the attention it deserved. The stellar collaboration of Clayton and his impeccable cast, the writers, brilliant director of photography and ingenious editor received high praise upon BFI (2010) and Criterion’s (2014) DVD and Blu-ray editions, these reissues serving as a welcome reminder of the underseen brilliance from half a century ago. In the process of adapting James’ novella, Clayton turned to William Archibald, the playwright who staged a Broadway adaptation of The Turn of the Screw in 1950. The screenplay for the film was therefore conceived as an adaptation of Archibald’s stage play, but it seems Clayton wasn’t fully satisfied with Archibald’s work. The main problem and point of disagreement was the way Archibald portrayed the supernatural events present in James’ novella as real, leaving out the ambiguity which made ‘The Turn of the Screw’ such a popular subject of analysis in the first place. Clayton then brought in John Mortimer to go over Archibald’s script, but finally decided to hand over the project to American novelist Truman Capote, with whom he worked on Beat the Devil (1953).
Capote, whom Clayton seemed to admire very much, transformed the screenplay into what we see today: a cinematic story with clear Freudian undertones, a complex depiction of uncanny events which invites the viewers to use their own judgment when determining the nature of what unfolds before their eyes. Capote took a break from writing In Cold Blood in order to polish the screenplay in three weeks, and was even present when the production started for emergency rewrites. Even though Capote and Archibald share the writing credit, with Mortimer credited only for additional scenes and dialogue, according to most film scholars The Innocents is first and foremost Capote’s work. A meticulous perfectionist as Clayton was, however, the filmmaker polished the end product until—as his cinematographer Freddie Francis put it—“it became Jack Clayton’s The Innocents.”
Before diving into all the factors that make The Innocents a true classic of cinema, it wouldn’t hurt to quickly revisit the basic beats of the story. A young woman called Miss Giddens (the marvelous Deborah Kerr) applies for her first position as a governess. Her employer (Michael Redgrave) is a rich man who doesn’t plan on sacrificing his luxurious, carefree lifestyle in order to look after his niece and nephew. Unconcerned with her complete lack of experience, he offers Miss Giddens the job if she promises to accept full responsibility for the children and never bother him with any problems that might occur in the process of looking after them. She accepts and soon finds herself at the huge Bly Manor, a wealthy Gothic country estate where she is to live and tend to her little protégés. Miss Giddens meets and immediately falls in love with Flora (Pamela Franklin), the niece, and when the nephew Miles (Martin Stephens) suddenly arrives—having been sent home from his boarding school for being a bad influence on other children—Miss Giddens has a hard time believing such a sweet boy could cause any trouble whatsoever. The Bly housekeeper, a kind woman called Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), helps Miss Giddens adjust to living at Bly and everything seems to be alright. That is, at least until Miss Giddens learns about the fate of her predecessor, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), and her abusive lover Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the family’s valet. As Miss Giddens starts seeing Miss Jessel and Quint’s apparitions in and around the house, the fragile governess steadily grows more nervous and suspicious of the children’s occasional secretive and strange behavior. Miss Giddens begins suspecting the children have been possessed by the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Quint, who morbidly wish to resume their relationship in the physical form through the innocent vessels that are Flora and Miles. Burdened by her promise to fully take care of the children and genuinely wishing to protect them from what she perceives as imminent danger, Miss Giddens decides to free Flora and Miles from the otherworldly invaders.
It would be fairly easy to classify The Innocents as a ghost story, but at the same time such a label would inevitably bring along an oversimplification of a complex narrative. Just like Henry James steered clear of explicitly stating whether the events at Bly Manor surrounding Miss Giddens are indeed of supernatural origins, or they are manifestations of the governess’ inner, psychological world, Jack Clayton wanted to follow the same modus operandi and use ambiguity to provoke an intellectual response from his audience. A good portion of the beauty of The Innocents is exactly that: you can interpret the events at Bly Manor at face value, and you get an utterly chilling story of a haunted mansion with two malevolent spirits plaguing the innocent occupants. On the other hand, if you deem the tragic occurrences at the lonely estate as products of the protagonist’s tormented, fractured psyche, a result of years of emotional and sexual suppression which escalates to the point where Miss Giddens becomes the one tormenting and terrifying the children with her own version of the truth, you still get a gut-wrenching and heartbreaking film bound to keep you at the edge of your seat. The true origin of the horror is practically irrelevant—the horror is still here for all to experience.
“With Jack Clayton’s help, plus my own feelings, I tried to tread a very narrow tight-rope between Miss Giddens being an internally and sexually tormented woman, and a completely normal human being who found herself beset by evil powers,” star Deborah Kerr later recalled. “I think Jack and I both wanted to leave it to the audience, which resulted in the film’s strangely disturbing quality.”
Having made the acclaimed Room at the Top two years earlier, Clayton was eager to take on the project because he didn’t want to be associated exclusively with the British New Wave, and believed creating in a new genre would highlight his versatility and ability to adapt. The filming of The Innocents took place at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, with interior sequences shot on sound stages, and Clayton chose to shoot the exterior scenes at the Gothic mansion of Sheffield Park in East Sussex, which provided the ideal setting for this dark Victorian tale. With a budget of almost half a million pounds, Clayton was able not only to complete the cast he desired, but also attracted top-notch collaborators who helped him transform his inspired vision into a beautiful film.
Clayton’s direction, the cast’s talent and the writers’ brilliance aside, what still makes The Innocents stand out first and foremost is the overall look of the film. More than fifty years after its premiere, The Innocents looks absolutely gorgeous, and much of this needs to be credited to one of cinematography’s greats, Freddie Francis. Forced by 20th Century Fox to shoot in CinemaScope despite Clayton’s objections, Francis assured his director the additional space on both sides of the frame would not present a problem. Not only that, but he found a brilliant way to make the most out of this unwanted aspect ratio: by using color filters, lighting tricks and even hand-painting the edges of the lenses, Francis produced a unique visual identity for the film, where the events unfolding on screen were haunted by the darkness looming from the edges of the frame, further highlighting the inescapable sense of claustrophobia and paranoia.
“I made two additional filters while shooting, because on set the criteria might change, and I might want something that the set of twelve simply couldn’t give me,” Francis explained. “Apart from changing the exposure, they made the picture’s imagery more uneven. I have always been very proud of the filter idea and felt it subsequently gave the picture another dimension, almost framing all the action in a cocoon of darkness. (…) Although of course it is a CinemaScope picture, the audiences don’t usually realize it was shot in the process. By this I mean that there are no edges to the film; most, if not all, the content of the picture is concentrated in the center with the remaining are going off into sets, foliage, and darkness. The effect was that the action and images usually take place in the center. As far as Fox was concerned, they had a negative that was CinemaScope ration, and as far as Jack was concerned, he had a film that was framed in normal film proportions. We never had any complaints.”
Editor Jim Clark worked closely with Clayton in the post-production and admired the filmmaker’s perfectionism and precision. Inspired by George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, Clark came up with numerous dissolves and superimpositions, which made the cross-fades between two scenes last five times longer, sometimes even blending in a third, near-subliminal image. Clayton was very satisfied with Clark’s technique, later explaining this “gave him opportunities to explore this field, which he had never done before: to create in those multiple dissolves images which hang there, and have a meaning which applies both to the end of the last scene and the beginning of the next.”
The score was composed by famed French composer Georges Auric, but when Auric was too ill to make alterations to his initial score, Clayton invited W. Lambert Williamson to apply the necessary changes. The Innocents also earned its place in film history books for the groundbreaking use of synthesized electronic sounds created by British composer Daphne Oram, one of the central figures in the evolution of electronic music. The music in The Innocents manages to find subtle, unobtrusive ways to help tell the preternaturally abnormal story that takes place on screen, and perfectly accompanies Clayton and Francis’ impeccably staged black-and-white, often candle-lit shots.
Today considered a classic psychological horror, The Innocents seems to have finally cemented its place in the cinematic pantheon. Martin Scorsese incorporated it in his list of eleven scariest horror films ever made, Time Out put it on position number 18 in its list of the 100 greatest British films of all time, Guillermo del Toro talked about the influence it had on his Crimson Peak. Its legacy untarnished, its qualities widely recognized and celebrated, its subtext discussed and analyzed in film schools all over the globe, it still makes perfect sense to occasionally take a breather and look back at this rare instance where an artistic collaboration resulted in a finished project whose quality probably exceeded each and every one of the collaborators’ expectations. The Innocents is one of the best films ever made.
Infatuated with the world of film since the early days, when ‘The Three Amigos’, ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Back to the Future’ rocked his world, Sven Mikulec majored in English with a special emphasis on American culture and started an unlikely career in organizing pub quizzes. Huge fan of Simon & Garfunkel, a mediocre table tennis player and passionate fridge magnet collector, he’s interested in fulfilling his long-term goal of interviewing Jack Nicholson while Paul Simon sings ‘April Come She Will’ quietly in the background. Read more »
Screenwriter must-read: William Archibald & Truman Capote screenplay for The Innocents [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). A special thanks goes out to our keen supporter James Mangold, the kind soul who generously sent us this unbelievable screenplay. The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
THE GOTHIC GLAMOUR OF ‘THE INNOCENTS’
Dressed for distress—beautiful costume designs for Deborah Kerr in Jack Clayton’s haunted-house classic The Innocents. —British Film Institute
‘THE INNOCENTS’ BY CHRISTOPHER FRAYLING
In this stimulating introduction to The Innocents, Sir Christopher Frayling traces the film from its genesis in the original novel ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James, via contemporary critical contexts and William Archibald’s 1950 stage adaptation of the same name, to the screenplay by William Archibald, Truman Capote and John Mortimer. Drawing on unpublished material from Jack Clayton’s archive—including Capote’s handwritten drafts for the film—and interviews with Deborah Kerr, Freddie Francis, and John Mortimer, Frayling explores how this classic ghost story came to life on screen.
FREDDIE FRANCIS, BSC
“Somewhere around this time, the American film critic Pauline Kael kindly remarked, ‘I don’t know where this cinematographer Freddie Francis sprang from. You may recall that in the last year just about every time a British movie is something to look at, it turns out to be his… in each case with a different director.’ That is praise indeed from such a lady. I don’t mention it to blow my own trumpet but to express the fact that I felt at that time (and everything is dependent on the time and opportunities) I had reached my peak as a cinematographer and was looking toward a new direction in my career.” —Freddie Francis on The Innocents
“That is one picture I’m still very happy with. The director, Jack Clayton, was a very dear friend, and we had to overcome many technical hurdles during the project. We only found out about that a few weeks before shooting started, following months of talking about how we were going to make the picture. CinemaScope lenses also couldn’t focus very close, but Jack wanted the camera to be in tight with the actors. We had to use a lot of light to build up the stop and increase the depth of field. We had a huge garden set built on the stage at Shepperton Studios, and we couldn’t get nearly enough light on it for the stops we wanted, so I had the art department paint one side of the foliage silver and white to create a false highlight. That way, our fill could be what our key would have been. We had to do all kinds of tricks like that.” —Cinematic Glory: Freddie Francis, BSC
Cinematographer John Bailey, ASC (The Big Chill, Cat People) discusses director of photography Freddie Francis’ unique lensing of The Innocents, focusing on the sense of “movement and dynamic space” within its CinemaScope frame.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Photographed by Ted Reed © Achilles, Twentieth Century Fox. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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