The Innocents (1961)

When it’s on: Sunday, 31 December (10.00 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

One of my favourite Christmas traditions is the classic ghost story. M.R. James, the Godfather in this regard, introduced his now famous yarns by reading them orally to his friends on Christmas Eve, only later having them collected into written volumes. These later found new audiences via television and the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series by Lawrence Gordon Clark in the 1970s, which has been revived with more recent adaptations that carefully follow the filming style and maintain the tone and pace set by Clark. These offerings can be frustrating for younger viewers, used to the jump cuts and CGI of modern horror cinema, but I would argue they drip with atmosphere and have an oblique quality so lacking in the films made now. For instance, It, the most successful horror film in recent years, is terrifying in places and I enjoyed it, though the conflict is a fairly straight ‘good versus evil’ story where anything but triumph for the former would amount to cheating the viewer. James’s yarns are fascinating because their protagonists aren’t necessarily bad people, but become embroiled in situations they would be better leaving alone, often with links to some forgotten, arcane past and ancient spirits that take unkindly to being disturbed. Crucially, there’s a suggestion that all the horrible things that take place are happening entirely in the characters’ heads, that their horrific encounters are the embodiment of psychological flaws, or a naive, closed mind unequipped to deal with elements of the unknown.

All these stories relied, above all, on atmosphere, a very careful build-up of dread from quite mundane starting points, the suggestion of course being that similar things could happen to anyone. Films that work similarly hard to create this are pretty much at the top of my horror genre tree. It doesn’t get a lot better than Robert Wise’s The Haunting, but there’s the folk horror of The Wicker Man, the streets of Venice brought to dimly lit, decaying life in Don’t Look Now, and the psychological thrills of Val Lewton’s RKO films to consider. None of these films came with enormous budgets. Gore and body horror were barely present. What they had was mood, often a downbeat tone related to some personal loss, suspense to spare, and a dark pallor. The body of work produced by Lewton is celebrated now and was at times box office gold contemporarily, not because of thrills but down specially to what you don’t see, your imagination filling in those shadowy, black spaces that of course contain nothing at all.

Into this comes Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, adapted from Henry James’s 1898 story, The Turn of the Screw. The film has what in effect are two parallel plotlines. They are:

Plot One
Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is hired by Michael Redgrave as Governess to his recently orphaned nephew and niece. The children live in his sprawling country estate, a massive dwelling that turns out to be haunted by the ghosts of two recently deceased people – Quint (Peter Wyngarde), the ill-natured valet, and Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), the former Governess who fell in love with Quint, carried out an open sexual affair with him often in front of the children, and committed suicide after his demise. To her dawning horror, Miss Giddens finds that Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin) remain in thrall to the pair, possessed by their spirits, and resolves to free them before it’s too late.

Plot Two
Miss Giddens is an inexperienced Pastor’s daughter hired by Redgrave as Governess. Redgrave’s man about town cares only that someone is present to fill the role and therefore ignores Miss Giddens’s naivete, giving her full authority over the Bly spread. Despite being advised by the housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins), that the children have a habit of running rings around people, the new Governess finds them both delightful and indulges them. Practically alone with the children in an enormous stately pile, away from the confines of her small home and with little beyond her cossetted upbringing to reply upon, she starts seeing things, picturing spirits of the dead. Her grip on reality slips as she hectors Flora and embarks on a relationship with the apparently ‘mature’ Miles that borders on the inappropriate, while around her the house shows signs of the decay that reflect her own fraying nerves.

You can choose either version of the events. The film simply throws out the clues and leaves the rest for the viewer to decide, and a deliciously constructed conundrum it is. I’ve watched The Innocents many times and can’t make my mind up entirely, however it’s a personal favourite and one to enjoy late at night, all the lights switched off so that the weird, off-kilter dreamscape it presents can take full effect. It’s worth bearing in mind that before this was released, haunted house movies were made more as bits of fun, loaded to ensure that things went bump in the night and offering audiences a good scare, so to make such a serious-minded film was a gamble by 20th Century Fox, who invested a not miserly $1 million in getting it made.

The studio’s backing came with a stipulation that The Innocents be shot in Cinemascope, which presented a challenge as Clayton – who thought the claustrophobic atmosphere he wished to create would be diminished – then had to work out what to do with the edges of the screen. Director of Photography Freddie Francis came up with the idea of using lighting to blur those edges, forcing the viewer’s focus to remain on the screen’s centre so that when things take place away from it – or do they? – there’s a feeling of disorientation. Photographed in black and white, and beautifully shot throughout, the film makes virtuous use of its many shadows, those scenes showing Kerr wandering around the house at night holding a candle and suggesting things following in the blackness around her. The Sound Design department deserves credit also, surrounding Kerr with the lamenting cries of Miss Jessop, real or imagined, and a host of effects that keep both the character and audience off balance.

More often and in a change from the usual, The Innocents’ horrors come during daylight. The garden is depicted often, gorgeously landscaped but teasing at corruption, such as the shot of a beetle crawling out of the mouth of a cherub statue, and more obviously the sights Miss Giddens has of her predecessor, standing in the reeds and watching her, silently and with malevolence.

It takes almost half an hour before the film’s first ‘haunting’ makes an appearance, but already Miss Giddens shows signs of mental unravelling – her persistent questions to Mrs Grose about Quint and Miss Jessel, the unsettled way she reacts to the children keeping secrets from her, her feeling that Miles and Flora are mature beyond their years, and her conclusions about why that might be. When she does see ‘ghosts’, she is looking in that direction before they appear, further raising the suggestion that her mind is filling in the blanks.

The Innocents’ original screenplay was written by William Archibald, adapting it from his play of the same title and based on this rather than directly from James’s source novella. In the play it’s very obviously a ghost story, but Clayton was unhappy with this interpretation and hired Truman Capote to work on the script. Capote realised the book had very little in terms of plot and practically started from scratch, inserting the Freudian subtext that focuses on Miss Giddens’s sheltered upbringing, her frustrated sexuality and thus her dealings with Miles. In one of the film’s most infamous scenes, Miles reaches up to kiss the Governess, but it’s an adult kiss and she fails to break it, despite the shocked expression on her face. It was this relationship, verging on the obscene, which handed the film an ‘X’ certificate.

Kerr gives one of her best performances as the beleaguered Governess, out of her depth and over the course of the film dressing increasingly like Miss Jessel, the virginal white dresses giving way to black as her innocence also is brought into question. Aside from the frankly creepy acting from Stephens and Franklin as the children, the ‘innocents’ of the title – or are they? – the whole production rests on Kerr, eyes wide, terrified, steadily falling apart as the story edges towards its shocking conclusion. Kerr was almost certainly too old for the part, and yet is absolutely convincing as the cloistered Miss Giddens, buying into the ambiguities of the story so that it’s never quite certain whether what’s happening to her is really taking place, or if it’s the product of her fevered mental state. Kerr would go on to add that ‘I played it as if she were perfectly sane – whatever Jack wanted was fine; in my own mind, and following Henry James’s writing in the original story, she was completely sane, but, because in my case the woman was younger and physically attractive it was quite possible that she was deeply frustrated, and it added another dimension that the whole thing could have been nurtured in her own imagination.’

The result is one of the most intriguing, interesting and imaginative ghost stories committed to film. Atmosphere takes precedence, as it should, and without even attempting to answer the film’s central question it’s perfectly possible to enjoy The Innocents as a spine tingling exercise in dread, indeed that might well be the best approach to take. It certainly holds its own as a haunted house movie taken straight from the top drawer, beautifully constructed and performed, and in the tradition of the classics of its genre. Don’t have nightmares. Do sleep well.

The Innocents: *****

Quo Vadis (1951)

When it’s on: Friday, 24 August (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s sprawling novel about persecuted Christians and the mad Emperor Nero during the first century AD, may very well have been published initially in 1895 but it remains a stunning read. Make it past the first few pages of scene setting and the pace is strong, the description alive and the whole is suffused with a sense of bitter injustice. Sienkiewicz researched his tome by visiting many of the places featuring in the novel, soaking up historical details for use in the prose, and whilst it isn’t entirely factually accurate Quo Vadis emerges as a work rich in periodic authenticity.

There’s also an undercurrent of allegory at play. Sienkiewicz felt deeply for the state of his native Poland and ensured that, if readers wanted it, reflections of the people’s misery were on hand within the text. It’s an element entirely missing from the 1951 cinema adaptation, which was made chiefly to try and drag people off their sofas, the couches that more and more faced brand new television sets, and into their local theatres. Where the ‘box’ offered soft black and white images on a 12″ screen, Quo Vadis came in full colour and served up the dazzling sight of Imperial Rome, featuring thousands of extras and a rousing tale of the early Christians. Side reasons included a valid excuse to shoot women wearing diaphanous gowns (period detail, right?), not to mention evading any blacklisting worries by putting out a feature with strong Christian sympathies whilst allowing Americans to wallow in the grandeur of the Roman Empire at its height. No expense was spared. Robert Taylor was a suitably Latin looking American star, backed up with a cast of British actors to extend the link between Received Pronunciation and films set in the past.

To enjoy Quo Vadis, one really has to find some degree of empathy with cinema audiences in the post-War years. Imagine a drab world, one without modern luxuries and still very much recovering from conflict, and the rare treat that must have been the opportunity to watch something like this, with its incredible props, costumes, vast sets and those many, many extras all simulating the experience of a long lost time in history. Throw in a love story that crosses religious and cultural divides, involving two impossibly glamorous performers, and then give us a mad king who can annihilate cities and people at a whim, and how can you not have a winner? Make no mistake. There are things on the screen of Quo Vadis that viewers will never have seen before, the offering of spectacle on a dizzying scale. It must have been intoxicating.

Watched now, the film’s weaknesses become more glaring. Its main problem is a pace that oscillates between stately and glacial, all those lingering ‘money’ shots of the forum and long, long romantic interludes between Marcus Vinicius (Taylor) and Lygia (Deborah Kerr) in which endless talk replaces passion. Perhaps spectacle alone did for contemporary audiences, yet now it make Quo Vadis an endurance test of a watch. Both actors are fine in their parts. Taylor has been accused of putting in a stagey performance, but I don’t think that’s it and rather the issue is one of the actor being unable to fill such a wide screen. Few could. It’s no surprise that a force of charisma like Charlton Heston kept getting work in epic cinema, but his is a rare gift. Kerr is ravishing and whilst allowed to show little of the frustration that made her so charged in Black Narcissus, signs of the conflict she faces between her faith and Vinicius are clear enough.

Quo Vadis’s main draw is of course the turn by Peter Ustinov as Nero. It’s more a gift than a job of work, in fairness, but Ustinov has great fun in a role that bounces between comedy and evil, and is even capable of eliciting some sympathy for his terrible Emperor, shown in the moments when he seeks validation from his closest counsellors but all he gets is grovelling. Ustinov’s so good that he almost obliterates the impression made by Leo Genn, playing a ‘good’ Senator and the one man close to Nero who’ll tell him what he really thinks. It’s a game, of course, and Petronius is as toadying as the rest when he needs to be, only he knows how to play his cards better. Watching him tie the hapless Emperor in intellectual knots is great entertainment.

A bit of a flawed experience, all told, one directed by Mervyn LeRoy in an assignment that must at times have felt more like a task of crowd control. Quo Vadis was filmed at Rome’s massive Cinecitta Studios and employed 32,000 people to act as soldiers and Roman citizens. The crowd scenes are enormous in scale, largely because all those individuals are really there on the screen, fleeing Rome in flames and advancing on Nero’s Imperial Palace. LeRoy also gets in a few stylistic touches, such as the long shot of Rome ablaze, which was inspired by the director’s childhood memories of witnessing the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.

Quo Vadis: ***

Black Narcissus (1947)

When it’s on: Monday, 14 May (2.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Exploring sexuality seemed to be an obsession of Michael Powell’s films. Some of his best work – Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom, the former two made with long-standing partner in celluloid, Emeric Pressburger – were studies of repression in its various forms. It was a brave subject to go into, and it didn’t always yield acclaim at the time, though all three films have attained treasured status in later years.

Black Narcissus is a joy from start to finish. Even if the subject matter – some nuns set up a convent high in the Himalayas and begin losing their way due to a combination of the climate and the culture – doesn’t grip, each scene is a thing of beauty. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff won an Academy Award for his work. Alfred Junge, who was responsible for the film’s design, was also Oscar-bound. Both were worthy winners. The luscious images and sensuous levels of colour load atop each other to provide a riot of visual appreciation. Whether it’s a shot of one of the sisters ringing the convent bell at the top of a vertiginous sheer cliff face, or the flowers, or the sunset viewed from a window, Black Narcissus is one of the loveliest looking films ever made.

Powell and Pressburger were working with a group of well known character actors who were all at the top of their games. Heading the sisterly order is Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh, almost the image of sexual denial in the demure habit she wears throughout the picture (apart from in a few flashbacks). Like her sisters, Clodagh’s senses start going into overtime once she enters the convent, which was previously a harem for the local general’s women. Explicit artwork decorates the walls and a picture depicts the things that the women used to get up to in there. As though the building retains its memories of those days, the imagery works on Clodagh to conjure repressed memories of her own past and an old love, the ending of which compelled her to enter the sisterhood.

She isn’t the only one who falls under the spell of the ‘House of Women.’ Another sister who’s responsible for the gardens plants exotic flowers instead of vegetables. And then there’s Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), taken along because of her frequent bouts of illness. Already one bead short of a full rosary, Ruth becomes infatuated with Mr Dean (David Farrar), the charismatic British agent, which turns into a pathological jealousy of Clodagh as she suspects a latent mutual attraction between the pair. Added to the mix is Sabu, playing a young General who turns up to the convent to improve his learning but who instead falls for the earthy charms of a flighty dancing girl (Jean Simmons).

Incredibly, almost the entire film was shot at Pinewood Studios, matte paintings filling in for the Himalayan vistas. You can’t tell. It’s all so masterfully put together that you can almost feel the constant wind tugging at the sisters’ habits and smell the cool, clean air they blame for their emotional states. The colours are deliberately chosen and work wonderfully, especially the white of the nuns’ habits clashing with the exotic dress and flora they find themselves in, emphasising the sisters’ other-worldliness.

But the lasting image has to be that of Sister Ruth and her eventual fall into chaos. The way she goes from plain sister to glamourpuss and finally the pale-faced would-be killer of Clodagh is amazing. Her final scenes are terrifying. I’ve seen Ms Byron in many other features, notably The Small Back Room, in which she is once again partnered with Farrar. She’s a natural beauty. Yet every viewing of her in those other films takes me back to the sad, demented Sister Ruth, her mind lost to hate and vengeance. It’s a terribly affecting performance in a superb film.

Black Narcissus: *****