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: *****

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

When it’s on: Thursday, 25 December (9.00 pm)
Channel: BBC4
IMDb Link

A library of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers has made its way into the Christmas schedules (two of which will be covered here), and BBC4 have chosen The Lady Vanishes for a primetime slot on the big day itself. A good thing too. With the possible exception of The 39 Steps, it’s the peak of Hitchcock’s career as a British-based director and makes for wonderful entertainment.

As with many of the best Hitchcocks, the success of The Lady Vanishes pivots on a very simple plot twist. A young woman, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is travelling on a train that’s crossing Europe. Her companion is a genial middle-aged lady, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), who disappears after Iris has had a nap. Asking after her whereabouts, Iris is told by her fellow travellers that there was no lady and she must have imagined her entire existence. Having received a blow to the head before joining the train, there are grounds to suggest that may have been exactly the case, particularly as the eminent Doctor Hartz (Paul Lukas) indicates there might be psychological reasons for her ‘creating’ Miss Froy. But Iris isn’t convinced and sets about trying to prove that the lady was on the train; in this she’s helped by a raffish English musicologist, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave).

That’s the central storyline, however there’s so much more to The Lady Vanishes. Iris has come across Gilbert before, when he disturbs her sleep in the hotel where they’re both staying. He’s a cad, a charming cad but a cad all the same, and his offer to assist her on the train carries a delicious undertone of dislike and irritation. There are strong hints that Miss Froy’s disappearance might have something to do with areas of Europe through which they’re travelling falling under Fascist control, suggesting the plain looking lady might be an unlikely secret agent for the British secret services, and that certain passengers on the train may be working for countries that were quickly becoming enemies. Cecil Parker and Linden Travers play fellow travellers Mr and Mrs Todhunter, only they’re an eloping couple, fleeing from their marriages to be together. The pair’s arguments about the need to be discrete and their fluctuating levels of devotion to each other have them making decisions about Miss Froy’s disappearance that help the plot move along.

Best of all, finding great popularity with British audiences and remaining a big draw for the film, are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as English tourists Charters and Caldicott. Inserted purely for comedy purposes, the pair are used to poke fun at typically ignorant English attitudes to the dangers of the time; while Europe is collapsing into war and a lady has just gone missing on the train, their only interest is the England Test Match taking place in Manchester and their desire to make it back in time for the final day. Radford and Wayne were such a hit with the public that Charters and Caldicott would go on to appear in a number of further movies; the actors played a very similar pair of characters (obsessed with Golf rather than Cricket) in the later Dead of Night.

Redgrave and Lockwood were both very much up and coming talents at the time, indeed this is the former’s earliest screen credit after some distinguished work in theatre. As thrown together sleuths they have real chemistry together, matching the growing attraction that develops between their characters as the sense of peril rises and they find themselves increasingly depending on each other. The dialogue crackles also. The Lady Vanishes was an unusual Hitchcock film for the relative lack of involvement the director had in the screenplay. Known for working on treatments at their earliest stages as part of pre-production, in this instance he pretty much stuck with the script handed to him by British writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, who themselves channelled the source novel by Ethel Lina White, considering the plot to be ready made for a screen adaptation.

The Lady Vanishes starts relatively gently, taking time to introduce its characters and appearing very light in tone. The levels of suspense, however, increases all the while, Lukas’s Doctor emerging as a villain along with various passengers to the extent that Gilbert and Iris have no idea how to tell friend from foe. There’s enough going on to tease at complicated back stories from even minor characters, such as the nun looking after Hartz’s completely bandaged patient who is discovered to be wearing high heels.

A major success upon its release for Gainsborough and Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes landed him with various awards, including the Best Director accolade from the New York Film Critics.  It helped him to negotiate the best possible deal for himself in America, landing him a contract with David O Selznick. His absolutely best work was still in the future, but this picture was an important keynote in establishing him as a major Hollywood player.

The Lady Vanishes: *****

If anyone has stumbled across FOTB on Christmas Day, may I take this opportunity to wish you the very best of Christmases, and thank you for visiting.