There are two things in my opinion that are certain after watching The Innocents (1961). The first is that this is the best of Jack Claytons British body of work, and I say this after watching three of his other sixties films in the last week. These included The Pumpkin Eater (1964) adapted by Harold Pinter from Penelope Mortimer’s novel, which deals with the disintegration of marriage. The very much overlooked and underrated Our Mothers House in 1967. A rather unfashionable story for a film released during the ‘summer of love’ but none the less a well-executed and compelling drama showing a darkly engaging slice of South London life where its religious and sexual undercurrent present us with a spooky atmospheric movie. Dirk Bogarde may have been the star, he was nominated for an Academy award for his role, but Clayton coaxed flawless performances from all the children whom you can't take your eyes of off especially the Japanese born British actress Pamela Franklin. And we must not forget Clayton’s debut feature film Room at the Top (1959). This was a groundbreaking film in the development of what was deemed the British New Wave (1959 -1963) and of course the British film industry in general, because of its sexual and general scenes and strong dialogue (for the time). Adapted from John Braine’s novel it was a decisive break from the staid middle class restraint and repression of films like David Leans Brief Encounter (1945). This was British Cinema coming of age, hard-hitting and realistic.
The second is that The Innocents is a masterpiece in the psychological horror/thriller genre, a template for many films that followed like The Others (2001) The Orphanage (2007) and the more recent The Awakening (2011). Yes, masterpiece is often over used when describing a movie and mostly I must say underserved, but in this case it seems highly appropriate for reasons I set out as follows.
All the best films must have a good story and it must of course be well told. Our subject matter has just that and more. As your probably aware it was the first feature film adapted from the novel, The Turn of the Screw, written in 1898 by Henry James that is, according to Susan Kenny, said to be one of the most influential ghost stories of all time. Not only does it appeal to those of us who like a good thrill, it is also a model for any aspiring writer of suspense. James's text is famous for its lasting mysterious qualities; though the story originally appeared over a hundred years ago in 1898, it still stumps readers everywhere to this day. Its many confusing twists and turns have sparked debates between critics since its publication, and the story has been examined from all kinds of different angles – from psychoanalysis to literary criticism. Part of what's so fascinating about it is the fact that James himself never clearly came out and told readers what he intended them to believe, and it's this ambiguity that makes it one of this prolific author's most famous, talked about short stories. All in all as a presentation of the novel, The Innocents is wonderful and enables an entirely new audience to sample the absolute genius that is Henry James ability to force you to conclude things for yourself. It was brilliantly adapted for the screen by playwright William Archibald and novelist Truman Capote who won a 1962 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the Best Motion Picture Screenplay for their efforts. I am reliable informed that the adaptation stays very close to the story which in it self is very simple. A governess is employed to look after two orphaned young children who live in a very large country estate by their wealthy bachelor uncle who wants nothing to do with the upbringing of his charges and is happy to leave the new appointee solely responsible for the children and the servants as long as she does not bother him.
|The kindly housekeeper Mrs Grose.|
Then there is the acting. Ignoring The Uncle, played by Michael Redgrave, who we only see long enough to give the viewer the basis of the story, the main characters are The Governess, Miss Giddens a rather reserved spinster performed impeccable by the serene Scottish actress Deborah Kerr, the kindly housekeeper Mrs Grose, played by the British character actress Megs Jenkins who gives a faultless performance of a loyal servant who is unwilling to reveal the secrets confined to the past at Bly House. Then we have the uncle’s valet Peter Quinn (Peter Wyngarde) and the previous governess Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop). I have, as they say, left the best until last, the children, again just as in Our Mothers House, Clayton has coaxed flawless performances from the two young actors, Miles is played by Martin Stephens whose you may remember from Village of the Damned in 1960 and Pamela Franklin in her debut feature film as Miles sister Flora. I believe that it was the fine performances from these two children that went along way to secure a nomination for a BAFTA Award for Best British Film, it lost out to Tony Richardson’s Taste of Honey (1961).
The third ingredient of this powerful Victorian thriller is the inspirational cinematography that was responsible for the films impressive gothic ambiance, employing deep focus in many scenes as well as the bold, minimal lighting. The man responsible for this was one of the United Kingdom best cinematographers Freddie Frances who had worked previously with Clayton on Room at the Top. His career spanned over 40 years from 1956 up until 1999 and during that time had won two Academy Awards for his work, Sons and Lovers in 1960 and Glory in 1989. It should also be pointed out that creating the overall atmosphere was helped by the use of naturalistic sound and also the opening song from the film ‘O Willow Wally’ that carries its haunting theme through out the 100 minute running time. It was written by Georges Auric and Paul Dehn and sung on the soundtrack by Isla Cameron who made a short appearance in the film as the servant Anna.
The movie, which tread’s a fine line between a conventional ghost story and a psychological tale of repression, was the final screening of this seasons Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre’s Film Club. It was re-released by the BFI as part of their gothic season and following its broadcast there was an interesting and well-attended discussion. As Henry James had made it quite clear we are meant to conclude the films meaning for our selves. This formed the basis of our debate i.e. are the children possessed by the spirits of the past or is it the governess who is mad and evil or possibly sexually repressed, turning her attention to a young boy and of course we must nor forget ‘the kiss’? I won’t repeat the details of what was discussed that would reveal too much of the films narrative, but I would say that we did not reach a firm agreement!
So lets leave the final word to Mark Kermode who described the film as a ‘shimmering gem, a master class in suggestion, a flawless recreation of the uncanny which pits the subconscious against the supernatural to genuinely hair raising effect’
 Anne Bancroft won the award for Best Actress at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival and the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress. She was also nominated for the Best Actress at the 37th Academy Awards, losing that award to Julie Andrews (who won for her role in Mary Poppins). Harold Pinter won the 1964 BAFTA Award for Best British Screenplay
 The location shooting took place in Croydon.
 Clayton made one more feature film in Britain before he died in 1995 The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987)
 Brief Encounter (1945) Directed by David Lean. The story of a pampered, spoilt and lazy woman who has an adulterous affair with a married Doctor who should know better. Badly acted, extremely corny and accompanied by some very irritating music.
 The Turn of the Screw (1959), an early live television play directed by John Frankenheimer and featuring Ingrid Bergman.
 Susan Kenny
 Mark Kermode The Observer.