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"It was only the wind, my dear," or Was It the Ghosts? The Innocents at the TCM Classic Film Festival

April 21, 2014 / May 16, 2015

Though this entry was originally published last year, it's been re-edited slightly for inclusion in My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon. Warning: Spoilers abound!



“The children are possessed. They live...and know...and share this hell.” So believes Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) in Jack Clayton’s 1961 psychological thriller The Innocents, which recently screened at TCM's Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. Anthony J. Mazzella, in his wonderful piece on the film in Henry James Goes to the Movies, remarked that The Innocents is “a never-ending nightmare” (29). If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know he means that in more ways than one. If you haven’t, proceed with caution (and then see the movie).


I always intended to write a piece on this film, as it’s one of my favorites and not as well remembered today, but as I recently posted about another Kerr movie, I See a Dark Stranger, I intended to adequately space this piece out as to not have a Kerr overload (get it?). Well, that went out the window when TCM unveiled the full schedule for their 5th Classic Film Festival in late March, as I happily saw The Innocents included in the lineup AND at a time I could attend. Instantly, all other films in the same time slot were dead to me.

Based on Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents follows young, inexperienced Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), who applies for a governess position looking after a wealthy bachelor (Michael Redgrave)'s orphaned niece and nephew, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin). Their previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), died suddenly, and their uncle is looking for someone to take full responsibility of the children without troubling him at all, because he has neither the time nor the desire to be part of their lives. Miss Giddens accepts and is off to Bly, the uncle's country estate.

So far, Bly looks relatively normal.

Upon her arrival, Miss Giddens meets young Flora and the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins). Though Miles is off at boarding school, Flora keeps insisting that he will be home soon, and strangely, soon thereafter Miss Giddens and Mrs. Grose receive word that Miles has been expelled from school for negatively influencing the other boys. Miss Giddens thinks this must be a mistake, and upon meeting him, she is sure of it: the child is absolutely captivating and seemingly very mature, if not a bit on the flirtatious side.


However, before long Miss Giddens starts to realize that Miles and Flora's relationship isn't exactly normal and neither are the goings-on in the house: the children are always running off and whispering secretively and Miss Giddens begins to hear eerie sounds and see strange sights, including forms of a man and, later, a woman.


The governess confides her early visions in Mrs. Grose, and based on her descriptions, the housekeeper says the man sounds like the uncle's valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde). There's just one problem: Quint is dead.

Things are starting to get weird. For starters, who is this?

Mrs. Grose discloses that Quint and Miss Jessel were lovers, though their relationship was rocky, to say the least. This information, along with the children's increasingly peculiar behavior, leads the governess to believe that Miss Jessel and Quint have possessed the bodies of Miles and Flora and “can only reach each other by entering the souls of the children and possessing them,” as she says point blank. Sounds a bit twisted, no?


After witnessing the form of Miss Jessel one day and positive Flora's seen it too, Miss Giddens confronts the young girl, but she turns hysterical, denies everything, and calls the governess wicked and horrid. To get to the bottom of things, Miss Giddens demands that everyone leave the grounds except for her and Miles, because she believes he wants to confide in her. In the empty house, the governess sits Miles down and presses him to speak, but he maniacally turns against her and runs outside as the form of Quint reveals itself once again. What happens next is something she could never have expected.


Now, those who know me are fully aware that I usually dislike scary movies, particularly ones that involve things - undead or not - that pop/appear/go off suddenly. I literally skyrocket out of the seat or forget to breathe, both of which can be embarrassing in a movie theater.

This is an example of something that would scare me in a theater.

That being said, the plethora of genres generally used to characterize The Innocents - gothic, supernatural, horror, psychological thriller - generally wouldn't entice me to see the movie, but 1961 'horror' is quite tame by today's standards, and the gothic atmosphere gives the film a creepy edge more than anything else. Furthermore, the placement of 'psychological' before 'thriller' assures more of terror takes place in Miss Giddens' mind than our eyes, which becomes a key question in the film: how much of what we see can we trust?


To me, that sounds like a film perfectly suited to a dark theater and big screen, and it definitely was.


The Innocents was the movie I looked forward to seeing most at the 5th annual TCM Classic Film Festival, and luckily, I may have been one of the only people who felt that strongly. I arrived two hours early to get in the standby line and was the first one - and only one - waiting for a while. By the looks of it, I'd easily make it in and finally get to watch one of my favorite thrillers on the big screen!

First in line! (Picture by Kim Luperi)

The theater wasn't very crowded, but I was with at least two people who had never seen the movie before, which I love, especially for thrillers. Right before the film started, the audience was warned that the first 45 seconds consisted of a child singing "O Willow Waly" over a black screen before the credits began, as some projectionists and audience members think the blank screen is a print or projection mistake. A friend noted that this opening would play wonderfully in the theater, and he was right; listening to the film's incredibly creepy lullaby/theme song in a pitch black space cranked the atmosphere up to spine-chilling before nary an image appeared on screen.


Though I've seen the movie countless times, my heart still raced during some of the more starling sequences; when Quint's face appears up close for the first time, for instance, my pulse quickened as Miss Giddens shrieked and loud gasps came from startled audience members. It's been so long since I've seen the movie for the first time that it was nice to be surrounded by people who didn't know what would happen next - I imagine their reactions were similar to audience members in 1961.

This sequence got such a great audience reaction.

Though the film follows James’ novella closely, the script is actually based on William Archibald’s play, which ran on Broadway in 1950. Screenwriters Archibald and Truman Capote (yes, you read that right) and John Mortimer, who contributed additional dialogue, did a great job keeping James' vagueness in place while sneaking subtle references in; apparently, Capote was behind some of the more Freudian touches. From there, Clayton's direction and the performances turned a glance here and brush of the hand there into surprisingly tense and highly charged moments.

Miss Giddens is beyond smitten with the uncle and his flirtatious ways. It doesn't take much...

The Innocents is really an ensemble piece, with the bulk of the story falling on the shoulders of Kerr, Stephens, and Franklin. Kerr, one of my favorite actresses and way more versatile than most realize, won rave reviews for her portrayal of Miss Giddens, navigating the character from a naïve young daughter of a Minister who perceives the uncle’s flirtatious nature as personal to a woman taking things into her own hands while on the verge of a mental and spiritual breakdown. Years later, Kerr remembered the experience as "the most exciting and exacting role I have ever played," recalling that "with Jack Clayton's help, plus my own feelings, I tried to tread a very narrow tight-rope between Miss Giddens being internally a sexually tormented woman, and a completely normal human being who found herself beset by evil powers" (133-134). 


From the beginning ,it’s clear that Miss Giddens is repressed, but that’s almost all we know of her at first; only later does she reveal that she was raised in a quiet house where it was hard to “keep secrets” because her father was usually preparing his sermon. Her assumed strict religious upbringing can account for any sexual frustration or curiosity she has, since she most likely was never exposed to much in that realm. Her brush with the uncle early on, whom she noticed “has a way with women,” charms and overwhelms her, and later, when she wants to talk to the local Vicar about the children, she admits that “he’ll think I’m insane or it’s some stupid trick for him to notice me.” You've got potentially possessed children and you're worried about men, Miss Giddens?


As the governess eventually learns the details of Quint and Miss Jessel’s torrid and inappropriate affair (Mrs. Grose admits the two used rooms “by daylight as though they were dark woods”), it also seems that she projects her desire of love onto the children. In one montage, Miss Giddens dreams of seeing Flora dancing with Miss Jessel while Miles and Quint watch, and in another sequence, she is besieged by sounds, one a voice saying “Love me, love me.” Perhaps the lack of love in her own life could be contributing to an overactive imagination?

Miss Giddens has a lot going on in that mind of hers.

The governess is also overly eager to please and an easy target for the children to take advantage of, whether through actions or thoughts. At the beginning, she tells the uncle she loves children, and throughout the narrative she admits she only wants to help them; however, for a governess, she isn’t the best discipliner of children. For example, when Miles almost strangles her in the attic, she shakes the incident off (RED FLAG, MISS GIDDENS!), and after Flora throws a tantrum, she blames herself for being in a bad mood: “What a hateful, what a grumpy governess you have!” Her brushing off their actions or taking the blame isn’t helping them one bit; rather, it lets them get away with more. It’s only later in the film when Miss Giddens starts to think the children are possessed that she tightens the reigns and becomes paranoid, attributing every little thing they do to their perceived possession, as she tells Mrs. Grose: “They are not living with us. We are not part of their real life…they’re talking about them…talking horrors.”


Speaking of the children...


Played to chilling perfection by Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, the portrayals of Miles and Flora in the finished film are that much more astounding when one hears the story behind their casting and performances. The two actors were signed on only two weeks before shooting began, but that didn't make much difference in terms of memorizing lines or becoming acquainted with the story (134). Clayton, in an interview with Brian McFarlane for his book Autobiography of British Cinema, revealed that he felt that, as the director, he was responsible for the children's performances, because they had no idea what the overall story was about! The secrecy was fully deliberate: To save them from any "alarm" or "nightmares," Stephens and Franklin were given their lines the day before each scene was shot (128-130) and based their performances off Kerr and Clayton's leads (134).

Not scary...

...not scary at all.

As with Miss Giddens, Miles and Flora's actions are open to much interpretation. It's a good thing Stephens and Franklin could act well, because from a visual standpoint they are simply adorable with their big eyes, broad smiles, and (mostly) playful personas, though multiple times both characters hint that they may not be as angelic as they seem. In one scene early on, Flora recites her prayers before bed and asks Miss Giddens where the Lord would take her soul if she were to die. When Miss Giddens tells her that she would go to Heaven because she's a good girl, Flora replies, “But I might not be, and if I weren’t, wouldn’t the Lord just leave me here to walk around? Isn’t that what happens to some people?” (RED FLAG COUNT: 2, MISS GIDDENS). As for Miles, he is found one evening walking around barefoot outside. When brought inside, he tells the governess: “I wanted you to think me bad for a change…I thought I might be becoming a bore…” The scene afterwards involves a dead pigeon and an inappropriate moment between the two – far from boring (or normal), Miles.


Sidenote: I have been permanently scarred by English children's voices because of this movie.

By the way, this is how we're introduced to Flora.

The Innocents is as well-known for its performances as the look of the movie itself. Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis listed this among his favorite films that he photographed and the one he came closest to being "completely happy" with, despite shooting in CinemaScope, which Clayton was disappointed with. However, Clayton and Francis didn't have much of a choice in the matter: 20th Century Fox financed the film and that's what they wanted, but looking back at it, Francis admitted the film was designed for CinemaScope. To appease his director, Francis rigged up special filters to "bring the edges in and take them out as we wanted" and utilized different lighting techniques and paint (particularly in garden scenes) to emphasize details in the black and white film (208).


Another method used eerily combined Francis' cinematography with editing: as exhibited in several transitions, the last few frames of one scene and the first few frames of the next linger on screen, usually cross fading extremely slow so the audience’s mind stays on the last scene well into the next one. Creepy yet effective.

Miss Giddens deep in though (or terror)

Another visual tool employed by Francis was the frequent use of extreme camera angeles; these shots helped heighten the sense of fear and doubt the governess felt as the apparitions appear more frequently and the children’s actions become increasingly suspicious.

The children's laughter freaks Miss Giddens out.

Francis also adeptly utilized deep focus in many shots, which kept the action on the same field but further served to hold the audience in the dark about what was really going on. One scene, for example, has Miss Giddens, in the background, asking Flora how she knew Miles would be coming home. Flora remains silent, only saying, “Oh look, it’s a lovely spider, and it's eating a butterfly.” Why does she refuse to answer the question? (Fun Fact: Scenes such as this required a large amount of light, so much so that Illeana Douglas, in her introduction, said that Deborah Kerr frequently donned sunglasses in between shooting to shield her eyes).

What little girl doesn't like to watch a spider eat a butterfly? 

I have no idea how Francis wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for The Innocents. I’d say the cinematography almost plays a larger role than the actors, because the way in which the action is photographed leaves as much room for doubt and horror as any of the performances. For instance, some of the more beautiful shots, such as one in which Miss Giddens works in the garden surrounded by flowers, are instantly followed by grotesque images – in this case, a close-up of an insect coming out of a hidden, broken statue’s mouth. What does this mean? Why is it there? Francis' ability to capture both the beauty and disgust of the location and story superbly created an atmosphere of ambiguity and fear in which we can't really be sure of the meaning behind anything.

Beauty and fear wrapped into one. Does Flora see anything?

It’s not just what she sees, or doesn’t, that has Miss Giddens - and us - doubting. Like the cinematography, the sound played an important part in the film, as Douglas noted in her introduction. As I’d seen the movie on the small screen several times (and had the option of turning down the volume when it got too loud), I was able to fully realize and appreciate the sound design in a large theater. From the softest noises (Miss Giddens hearing someone call out ‘Flora’ when she first arrives at Bly) to the loudest (flocks of birds chaotically dispersing) to the downright unbearable (Flora scratching her pencil against her chalkboard and later screaming/shrieking incessantly), the sound greatly added to the mystery. Again, you don’t know if you can trust Miss Gidden’s eyes or her ears but these audio cues put us in the governess' head – faint cries, soft music, and low voices greatly affect and haunt her, and ordinary noises such as the wind, doors, and echoes are emphasized to show the disconnect between her mind and her surroundings.

Miss Giddens caught in a maelstrom of sounds.

The Innocents premiered in London in November 1961, opened in New York one month later, and played at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival to mostly positive critical acclaim; additionally, Archibald and Capote were nominated for and won several awards, as did Clayton. The film itself was up for a BAFTA and included in the National Board of Review’s Top Ten Films of 1961. However, all the praise only moderately translated into box office (136), though since then, the film has become somewhat of a cult classic and prime example of good, old fashioned psychological terror.


Most stories in the same genre as The Innocents that were made before the 70s or 80s don't hold up well compared to the all-out-gore/torture porn flicks that pass as 'horror' or 'thriller' today. In the realm of ghost stories, audiences have become accustomed to classics like The Exorcist and Poltergeist and even contemporary films like The Conjuring where the spirits manifest themselves in more violent manners. However, The Innocents retains the ability to truly terrify today, which is a pretty spectacular feat that I got to see firsthand. Watching the film in a theater amplifies the ambiguity that comes from the story, performances, and look and feel of the movie. Though I've seen The Innocents multiple times, I kept searching the screen for clues as to what was real and what wasn't. The uncertainty ironically makes one thing certain - you will be frightened, whether from the governess’ visions or Miles and Flora's menacing laughs or some of the more appalling sequences, which I'll briefly discuss in a moment. Something's not right in The Innocents, but where the blame and fault lies is anyone's guess.

Another clip from Miss Giddens' beautifully crafted nightmare montage.

I've held off disclosing any of the more scandalous scenes, but I'd be amiss if I didn't touch upon the film's surprising shock value. It usually takes something offensive or taboo to shock people nowadays, and The Innocents boasts some of the latter. Two scenes in particular still astonish audiences as much (or perhaps moreso) than they must have in 1961. All the friends I’ve shown this film to, and the audience at the TCM Classic Film Festival, let out the same confused/grossed out/surprised reaction during both scenes, particular the second one, occurring in one of the last shots. (You'll have to see the movie to find out what exactly I'm talking about!)


After the screening at the festival ended, I watched the faces of the audience members exiting the theater. It was a decidedly confused-looking crowd, which I knew it would be – that ending in particular can put a bad taste in some people’s mouths. As patrons walked away, I heard murmurs about the aforementioned ending, and words such as 'eerie' and 'creepy,' were tossed about. It's a film that can leave viewers uneasy and torn about what happened on screen, and ultimately, it makes you think, which can oftentimes be scarier than what you see.


So what is it about this movie that has me hooked? I don't know - literally! What I love about The Innocents is that you are never really sure what is happening; you can watch it over and over and find new ways to dissect the story and performances, but ambiguity rules in the end. Over the past century, critics and scholars have argued over the reality of evil in James’ story: are the ghouls real or representations of the governess' fissuring sanity/frustrated, repressed sexuality? After all these years, I still don’t know, though I lean towards the ghosts being real, as several critics do, because of a certain scene near the end. Clayton left his adaptation open on purpose, and years later when he was asked about the ghosts, he remarked that even after hearing that question so many times, “I’ve still got no replies ready. Life is not as straightforward as that…I just love a film that, at the end, lets you take it either way” (128-130).

Your eyes will be this wide too during a few scenes.

How to watch Deborah  Kerr lose her mind:

The Innocents is available for purchase on I would recommend watching it on as large of a screen and as dark of a room as possible for maximum terror.


Also, if you live in Los Angeles, the Academy is screening The Innocents on Thursday, May 28, 2015 at the Linwood Dunn Theater as part of their series "This is Widescreen."  As I've stressed, this is a film that should ideally be seen in a theater! Unfortunately, I can not make the movie, but I'm currently plotting ways to get out of my previous engagement...

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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