Friday, February 21, 2020

The Innocents

The Butlers & Maids Blogathon is an event that honors the domestic servants of film. Paddy and I thank you for taking part. You can find the roster of participating bloggers here and at her site.

The Innocents
YouTube viewing

I thought I had seen The Innocents before, when I worked in video retail, and maybe I did, but either it was on while I was helping customers and I couldn’t pay attention or I just forgot, because I would’ve remembered. This is one weird, freaky movie.

The only Henry James novel I’ve read was Washington Square and that was way back in high school, so I’ve never read The Turn of the Screw. It was published in 1898 as a 12-part serial in Colliers Weekly (with illustrations by one Eric Pape) and has enjoyed a long life, not only within academic circles, but in other media: it has been reincarnated as a ballet, an opera and a stage play. There have been film adaptations in multiple languages. Ingrid Bergman starred in a TV version directed by John Frankenheimer. A prequel was made called The Nightcomers. And references and homages to the story have popped up lots of places in different media. The Innocents, though, might be the best-known adaptation.

Brief word about Deborah Kerr: haven’t seen her in many movies. The last time I saw From Here to Eternity was on TCM years ago, but when I think of her, she’s dancing with Yul Brynner in a grand, royal ballroom wearing that fancy dress. The King and I is one of the few classic musicals that has really stuck with me all these years, ever since I first saw it during my video store days. Something about the peculiar relationship between Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam, as embodied by Kerr and Brynner and set to music by Rogers & Hammerstein, was always entertaining to me, charges of whitewashing be damned. Not quite a romance, yet undeniably romantic, in its way.

In The Innocents, Kerr is the governess to a pair of orphaned kids, appointed to the job by their indifferent uncle. She gets to live in a big beautiful mansion, the kind you always see in Gothic horror stories, and just like those kinds of houses, there’s a supernatural presence of some sort—only here it may be having an adverse effect on the kids. Can Kerr do something about it?

A governess is a glorified nanny, though it’s not entirely clear what Kerr does for the kids other than be their companion. There’s one scene where it looks like she’s teaching them in a formal setting, but we never learn what she’s teaching. She doesn’t need to cook or clean. She’s just kinda there to be a surrogate mom. Not a big deal story-wise, but it is something I noticed.

There is a more traditional servant character in the movie, a maid played by Megs Jenkins, a British actress who also appeared in the same role in a 1974 TV adaptation with Lynn Redgrave (her father Michael is in The Innocents) called The Turn of the Screw. Jenkins is there to be worried and to provide exposition about the house, the kids, and the dead people who may be haunting the kids. She’s quite good and plays off of Kerr well.

Director Jack Clayton lays the shadows on heavy and creates some beautiful compositions with Kerr, standing by windows, carrying a candelabra, moving outdoors. Perhaps the obvious comparison is to the original version of The Haunting, which came out two years later and must have been influenced by this, but I also thought of the earlier film The Old Dark House, though James Whale is a bit more playful with his use of shadow in that one.

I was impressed with the kid actors: Pamela Franklin as Flora (this was her first film) and especially Martin Stephens as Miles. The rapport he has with Kerr, innocent on one hand but manipulative and calculating on the other, reminded me of Charles Boyer in Gaslight, the way he preys on Bergman’s sense of self, her security, and stokes her fears, bringing all the doubt and insecurity into the open. Stephens does the same thing to Kerr, to the point where you start to wonder whether or not she’s crazy. He was also in the original Village of the Damned, so he could do “creepy kid” very well.

Like The Haunting, the terror is psychological. You can never quite tell what the deal is with Miles and Flora; sometimes they just seem like precocious upper-class kids, but then they do peculiar things. The poem Miles recites in one scene is a prime example, one that creeps the hell out of Kerr too. I thought she and Jenkins seemed quick to accept the supernatural as an explanation, but if this takes place around the turn of the century (19th to 20th, of course), well, I guess people were more superstitious then.

If you’ve read the James book, perhaps the ending makes more sense to you than it did to me. I understood what happened; I’m just a little fuzzy as to why. It was a shock, to say the least, and it made me wonder whether or not Kerr’s interpretation of events was mistaken, or lacked certain information—but somehow I don’t think so. It was just a gut punch.

Other movies with butlers, maids and other servants (an abbreviated list):
The Help
The Butler
Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris
How to Murder Your Wife
A Separation


  1. The sense of unease through The Innocents makes it, for me, both a difficult and a fascinating watch. I think it is one of Kerr's finest performances and how it was overlooked by the Academy, the Globes, and all those other trophy purveyors is a mystery to me.

  2. Certainly the cinematography and editing were also award worthy. Set design too. This didn’t need much in the way of special effects, but it’s not that kind of movie.

  3. Hi there, here's my post for tomorrow's blogathon...

  4. LOVE this film! It's become my favourite horror film. I also consider it to be the best haunted house and psychological horror film ever made. Deborah delivers possibly her best performance here, and the child actors are both remarkable. The cinematography is stunning.

    Thanks for co-hosting this Blogathon, Rich.

  5. Yeah, I had forgotten just how good it was.


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