One of the most famous literary mysteries of all time revolves around the unspeakable secrets swirling through Henry James’ classic ghost story, The Turn Of The Screw. Published in 1898, the novella is told mostly in the form of a remembrance by a governess hired to oversee two young children at a remote country estate. Numerous ambiguities in the story have frustrated and delighted both readers and critics ever since, particularly the main question, one James refused to answer: is our narrator, the governess, reliable or insane, i.e. are the ghosts in her account real or the figment of a twisted imagination?
It’s a mind bending debate made even more maddening by James’ prose. My graduate students last year wanted to have me lynched for making them read it, so difficult can it be to understand his sentences. For instance:
“I can’t express what followed it save by saying that the silence itself–which was indeed in a manner an attestation of my strength–became the element into which I saw the figure disappear; in which I definitely saw it turn as I might have seen the low wretch to which it had once belonged turn on receipt of an order, and pass, with my eyes on the villainous back that no hunch could have more disfigured, straight down the staircase and into the darkness in which the next bend was lost.”
That’s not even one of the really difficult sentences!
Suffice, then, to say that, even though a ghost story–still as popular a genre as it was in 1896–a novella of even this critical magnitude and renown might make difficult an adaptation into the cinematic form, particularly given the immutable truth this masterwork, at least according to some, is most famous for ambiguities, literary mysteries and twisting sentences, three elements one must agree modern audiences don’t rush to embrace, elements that also would make it seem, even to the greatest, most brilliant talent, un-filmable.
Take that, Henry James!
Yet towering over every other cinematic ghost story, perfect for this Halloween week, stands The Innocents.
It is difficult to discuss this remarkable movie without giving away its malevolent pleasures. As such, I will avoid my usual lengthy diatribe. Yet along with encouraging you to find the movie and give it a watch, let me note only a couple of things that make the film so amazing, the first being the cinematography. Quite simply, The Innocents is one of the greatest achievements in cinematography. Filmed in Cinemascope (ultra, ultra wide screen) director Jack Clayton and DP Freddie Francis use both the frame and the lighting in remarkable ways.
Even the simplest of images, in the bright of day, have an unsettling quality:
Or take the introduction of Flora, the little girl in the story. The first shot of her, a reflection in the water, not only gives her a ghostly appearance but calls into question from the start her motivations and honesty.
Many scenes are shot in very long takes, maximizing the tension. And there are numerous layers to every shot. See below the creepy statue way in the background through the door? Clayton and Francis stick these statues everywhere to very unsettling effect. These statues become a character unto themselves, always seeming to peer into the house. Rather than standing guard, their effect is to create a trapped, claustrophobic feeling. Someone or something is always watching.
Here we see their use of layers of reflection:
Of course, given the movie is a ghost story, there is masterful use of pitch black including a lengthy, very scary sequence of the governess exploring the house late at night, a sequence that also has some of the best sound I’ve ever heard in a film.
I can’t even show you some of the greatest examples of why the movie is so brilliant, as they would give away some of the best moments. Besides being gorgeous, the movie is edgy and very ahead of its time in terms of content. For just a hint at many WTF moments from the movie, check out this still from a scene that sent executives at Fox into a tailspin when they saw the final cut:
It must also be noted that Deborah Kerr’s performance is stunning, the best in career dominated by wonderful performances. A six time Academy Award nominee, I’ve never seen Kerr give anything less than a stellar performance. She is one of the most reliable, capable performers in film (and stage) history. Yet even with such a pedigree, her work here is phenomenal, navigating the mystery of the narrator’s mental state brilliantly. The great mystery of the novella remains just as debatable in the movie due to her subtle, complex turn.
Another reason to screen this movie? After years of there only being a crappy DVD to watch, Criterion has released a stunning transfer with incredible visuals and sound. It’s gorgeous.
Find this version, make some popcorn and settle in. You’ll be happy you did — though you might not sleep.
As a reminder, “A Great Movie You’ve Probably Never Seen Vol. I and II can be found here and here.