Night #10: The Innocents (1961)

Directed By: Jack Clayton

Well, that’s more like it. We have a movie tonight that was as good as yesterday’s was bad. That is to say a stone cold classic. Lush and sumptuous, they don’t make movies like this anymore, though they keep trying.

A Governess accepts a job from a loveless uncle to look after his niece and nephew because, as he puts it, he has “No room, mentally or emotionally,” for them. They’re living in his large estate in the country and the Governess will look after them, giving them all the stability they need, and essentially look after them as if they were her own.

When she gets there (On a day that, even in black and white, looks beyond sunny), it isn’t long before she starts to suspect that things are wrong. Her predecessor died in circumstances that no one wants to talk about, she hears noises that are not ‘right’ and possibly sees figures who aren’t there. And the kids seem to know more than they let on.

It’s a fascinating movie, and one that The Others owed a huge debt to. In fact, in a hilarious note, the IMDB trivia page for that movie notes that it was ‘Almost a remake of The Innocents‘. That’s certainly a way to put it. Technically, this is an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw and was scripted by Truman Capote, who added some southern gothic sensibilities that give the movie some distinction in the genre.

What’s notable is how the movie plays with ambiguity. There’s an equally strong case to be made for and against any haunting being real, and the movie doesn’t really come down on any definitive side by the end, which is refreshing, and something that a lot of the imitators since could learn from.

Make no mistake, it’s a highly influential as well since I think anything set in a spooky house has borrowed from this in one way or another. They all lack the gorgeous black and white photography though, which really makes the movie pop despite the absence of colour. This only enhances the effect of the environment itself seemingly changing as the story progresses (It’s no mistake that the only real sunny day we see is at the start).

The whole thing is a tricky balancing act too in regard to the performances. The kids are, basically, annoying. It’s unavoidable. They’re precocious and almost too twee, but it’s also to serve a point. That doesn’t mean they don’t do well in their roles, because they do, but it’s too easy to write them off as being ‘bad’ when it’s clear that they’re going for something that’s very deliberate. I would be remiss for not mentioning Deborah Kerr, who’s fantastic as the prim victorian who slowly unravels.

It’s hard to really talk about without going into spoilers, but it’s interesting to see a movie at the time be so positively freudian in its depiction of repressed sexuality. It’s easy to read that everything going on is being fed by the Governesses sexual immaturity, particularly since her predecessor engaged in flagrant sadomasochism with the groundskeeper (Detailed, believe it or not, in a prequel directed by Michael Winner and staring Marlon Brando), sometimes in front of the kids. There’s a pretty heavy sexual subtext throughout that, due to the time in which it was made, had to be hinted at but nevertheless drives the story.

I think that someday I’ll write a lot more about that, but for now I’ll say that The Innocents is well worth your time.


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