Saturday, November 3, 2007

Bly Spirit

THE INNOCENTS (1961)

The BFI’s Region 2 DVD of THE INNOCENTS includes an introduction and commentary by Christopher Frayling, and one of the very few booklets that can be celebrated as a true DVD extra.

JACK Clayton’s densely ambiguous THE INNOCENTS, adapted from Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), builds suspense slowly, subtly, and inexorably. It tells the story of repressed Victorian governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), who is hired by a wealthy and irresponsible man (Michael Redgrave) to assume charge of his country manor, Bly House, and his orphaned niece and nephew - Flora (Pamela Franklin), and Miles (Martin Stephens). Giddens sees the ghostly apparitions of her late predecessor Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) and former groundskeeper Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and, knowing that the children were exposed to this sadomasochistic relationship, she becomes convinced that this memory must be purged from the children before it contaminates them.

The films’ gothic angst and creep-outs manipulate its traditional ghost story ethic with remarkable freshness. Metaphor is one of cinema’s richest streams, and Kerr takes perfect advantage of her respectable facade wrestling with unspeakable turbulence. Prim and sexually straitjacketed, her character is convincingly corrupted by the old house. The ambiguity is consequently fascinating or maddening - according to taste - with critics labelling Giddens certifiably insane to even a paedophile. Whatever your conclusion, it is an unforgettable portrayal, and with Franklin and Stephens delivering performances of astonishing maturity, THE INNOCENTS may well be the finest-acted horror film.
 
The possible otherworldly intervention of Quint in the life of Miles is one of THE INNOCENTS’ many ambiguous threads.

Photographed by Freddie Francis in CinemaScope, THE INNOCENTS’ musters its frisson by both candle and daylight - its oil-black and snow-white compositions teasing the eye in unbidden directions, toward faces haunting the periphery or deep background. Francis’ self-made red iris filter deliberately frames in oval twilight, making outer edges appear shadowy and mysterious. Most haunting are the glimpses of Jessel, sobbing uncontrollably at her lectern, or standing forlorn among the reeds, and Quint’s initial unexpected surge toward the camera (and Giddens) gives the distinct impression of movement within another dimension. The audio effects are also noteworthy, with the natural sounds of the house’s garden amplified so that even bird song becomes unsettling and harsh.

Deborah Kerr passed away on October 16th at the age of 86. Kerr’s angular beauty and self-possessed femininity distinguished more than fifty films in four decades. Though her poise might be ruffled in scenes of passion (most famously by her encounter on the beach with Burt Lancaster in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)), her well-bred airs and graces made Kerr a model of British womanhood in Hollywood. Yet her refined sensuality proved refreshingly attractive, since it hinted at hidden desires and forbidden feelings, giving an extra edge and interest. If she still looked more at ease on screen as a nun than as a nymphomaniac, or as a governess rather than a seductress, Kerr loved to hint at what she called "banked fires," the volcano steaming away beneath the surface. Never was this more evident than in THE INNOCENTS.