Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961)


Jane Nightshade looks back at possibly the best cinematic ghost story ever made, Jack Clayton’s 1961 masterpiece, The Innocents…​

The best British film since Hitchcock left England for America.

That’s how the influential French New Wave director, François Truffaut, described The Innocents (1961), in a fan letter to its director/producer, Jack Clayton. A tour-de-force of psychological horror, The Innocents began as a moderately successful play penned by American playwright William Archibald. Archibald based it on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw (this most British of ghost stories, written by an American). The plot concerns an inexperienced governess assigned to care for two children on a remote country estate. The governess begins to believe that the ghosts of two departed servants, Quint and Miss Jessel, are possessing the children from the grave. The ultimate outcome isn’t good for the children, to put it mildly.

The play debuted on Broadway in 1950 and made its way to the West End in 1952, where it starred Flora Robson, who had earlier been in another play based on The Turn of the Screw. Eventually, the play was adapted to the big screen, courtesy of Clayton, who had been fascinated with the James novella from childhood. When he discovered that 20th Century Fox owned the film rights to the Archibald play, Clayton successfully pitched the project to Fox executives. It probably helped that he was just coming off the huge success of Room at the Top (1959), for which he received nominations for an Oscar, a BAFTA and a Palme d’Or as best director.

Pulling Out All Stops

Known in the film industry as ‘difficult‘, Clayton was a compulsive perfectionist who only directed a handful of finished films. He pulled out all the stops for The Innocents. American literary lion Truman Capote, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking true crime novel, In Cold Blood, was hired by Clayton to co-write the script with Archibald. He also tapped French classical composer Georges Auric, who wrote scores for the Ballet Russe, to craft the music (which includes the famous haunting ballad, ‘O Willow Waly’.) He then roped in the double Oscar-winning cinematographer, Freddie Francis, to shoot it. And he cast one of the greatest leading ladies of 20th Century cinema, Deborah Kerr, in the lead role as Miss Giddens, the inexperienced governess. Kerr would later say that her character in The Innocents was the best acting performance of her long career, and many critics agree.

The main cast is rounded out by two extraordinary child actors, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, who manage to appear both sinister and vulnerable; and the beloved character actress Megs Jenkins, as kindly, illiterate housekeeper Mrs. Grose (she played Mrs. Grose again in a 1974 adaptation.) All are excellent, but it’s Stephens who turns in the most dominant performance in the crucial role of Miles. He is a brilliant actor; unfortunately he didn’t continue his acting career into adulthood. The cinematic world grieves.

Working with a then-generous budget of £430,000, Clayton also seemingly spared no expense in recreating his Bly estate. The Sussex stately home, Sheffield Park, and its grounds served as the exteriors of Bly and Clayton had lavish interior sets constructed on the soundstage at Shepperton studios to match the exteriors of Sheffield Park. Whole truckloads of rose bushes, statues and other props were brought in to represent the lush, chaotic gardens of Bly.

Aside from Clayton, however, the one person who really was the most responsible for the eerie Gothic atmosphere of the film was the director of photography, Freddie Francis, the master of the black-and-white camera. Although Francis won two Oscars for other films, he considered The Innocents his best work. From the beginning he was presented with a formidable challenge: Fox demanded that he filmed in Cinemascope, its proprietary wide-lens process. Cinemascope, however, was made for sweeping epics of the John Ford or David Lean variety. Clayton, on the other hand, wanted to emphasise the claustrophobic nature of remote Bly and the effect it had on his heroine’s fractured mind.

miles in the innocents

Francis compensated by having his lenses hand-painted around the edges, creating a more compact frame than Cinescope would otherwise allow. Many other techniques were employed to get the effects he wanted; the leaves of all those imported roses were painted silver so they’d catch the light just so on black-and-white film stock. Meanwhile, special candles were made with four wicks each to produce an otherworldly glow to Miss Giddens’s candles while she wanders around Bly in the middle of the night. More details can be found in this extensive article from American Cinematographer, which describes the extraordinary measures that Francis took in order to achieve the film’s unforgettable imagery.

Helping out with the atmosphere is also the excellent score by Auric, with his eerie theme song, co-written with British screenwriter Paul Dehn, used repeatedly. (For years, I thought ‘O Willow Waly’ was a traditional English ballad, centuries old. Nope – it was written specifically for the film.) Ever the perfectionist, Clayton was unsatisfied with Auric’s first production of the score and had it rearranged and reorchestrated by Lambert Williamson.

All of the above combines to create one extremely classy film, or, as one reviewer on IMdB put it, ‘the Rolls Royce of ghost stories.’

Maddening Ambiguity

Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, loosely based on The Turn of the Screw, contains many homages to The Innocents (see below) — Flanagan certainly knows his horror history.

While well-made, however, the series doesn’t come close to capturing the maddening ambivalence of Jack Clayton’s film. The main question is, are the ghosts real? Or is Miss Giddens simply batshit crazy? The genius of the script is that it works as horror in both cases. Miss Giddens is either a nut who mentally tortures two captive children until they break — or she’s completely sane, and ghosts really are possessing the children.

miss jessop's ghost in the innocents

This tantalising ambiguity is credited to Truman Capote. In the original play, for example, Miss Giddens sees Quint’s ghostly face peering in from a window, then finds a photo of him in the attic. In Capote’s rewrite of the script, she finds the picture first and then sees Quint’s face, hinting that her suggestible mind is playing tricks on her. Clayton told her to play the part “straight down the middle,” not landing too hard on either interpretation. She succeeds magnificently, and her performance is possibly the scariest thing about The Innocents. When interviewed about it later, Kerr herself said she thought that the governess was imagining the ghosts.

In any case, the question has kept audiences and film historians arguing for over sixty years, and will probably keep them arguing for at least another sixty more. The hallmark of a truly classic film.

Innocents in The Haunting of Bly Manor.

● The name of the lead character is Danielle Clayton, an obvious reference to Jack Clayton, the producer and director of The Innocents.

● The eerie theme song, “O Willow Waly”, is the same theme used in The Innocents, written by Georges Auric and Paul Dehn especially for the film.

● There’s a creepy sculpture garden on Bly’s grounds, very similar to the one in The Innocents.

● The first appearance of the deceased Miss Jessel has her standing in the reeds across the lake at Bly, just as in The Innocents. The scene is from the book, but the way the shot is set up is nearly identical on both screens.

● Bly has a Gothic stonework gazebo facing the lake, same as in The Innocents.

● The children, Miles and Flora, put on a dramatic performance for the adults at Bly, same as in The Innocents, although the play is much creepier in the film than in the series.

Picture of Jane Nightshade

Jane Nightshade

Author of The Drowning Game, ebook on Amazon. Retweeted by Sonny Corleone.

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