The Innocents

Deborah Kerr, "The Innocents" (1961)“All I want to do is save the children, not destroy them.”

– Deborah Kerr, “The Innocents” (1961)

"The Innocents" (1961)The Innocents

By Michael Hadley

Watching Jack Clayton’s psychological suspense film, The Innocents, is a bit like peering over someone’s shoulder as they descend irrevocably into madness. You’re powerless to stop it and it feels terribly invasive. At the same time, you cannot look away because what you’re witnessing is so spellbinding. The filmmakers have indeed crafted a movie that is irresistible on many levels: as a straightforward ghost story set in a haunted house with spirits appearing at windows and in darkened hallways; as a classic struggle between good and evil over the souls of two innocent children; and as a Freudian take on the repercussions of repressed sexuality in the Victorian era. A huge part of the fun for the viewer is the ambiguity about what is really going on. Is the governess imagining things or is she the children’s gateway to salvation?

Written by Truman Capote and William Archibald, the screenplay was based on the 1898 novella The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James and Archibald’s stage adaptation, which appeared on Broadway in 1950. Many sources credit Capote with a huge portion of the screenplay, particularly the sections that invite a Freudian interpretation of the story. The film was released in late 1961 and garnered favorable critical notices along with recognition from several prestigious film organizations. However, it was not a commercial success and it did not gain favor with Academy Award voters either. Its reputation has grown considerably over the years and a number of prominent admirers, including directors Martin Scorsese and Guillermo del Toro, consider it one of their personal favorites.

The Debonair Uncle

The Uncle to Miss Giddens: “Truth is very seldom understood by any but imaginative persons.”

The Uncle to Miss Giddens: “Truth is very seldom understood by any but imaginative persons”.

The film opens with a blank screen and the haunting sound of a child singing. A pair of hands clasped together in prayer appear and the accompanying voice-over intones words of sorrow and regret. The brief prologue then dissolves to the introductory scene in which Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is applying for a position as governess to two orphaned children who have become wards of their uncle. The uncle as played by Michael Redgrave is a dashing man about London who is more keen on enjoying a carefree bachelor life than tending to the needs of two small children.

Deborah Kerr, "The Innocents"

The scene unfolds as if the filmmakers are entirely sympathetic to Miss Giddens, who comes from a poor family in rural England.

Deborah Kerr raises the empathy level considerably by playing her as naive, sincere and eager to please. Miss Giddens is clearly inexperienced in romance and cannot help but blush when her prospective employer indulges in an offhanded attempt at manipulative flattery. You want her to be hired because you sense the children need her as much as she needs them. Of course, she gets the job and we are off to the lavish country estate called Bly.

"The Innocents"

The children live under the watchful eye of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins).


Something Wicked This Way Comes

"The Innocents"

Director Jack Clayton and the screenwriters convey an unsettling feeling throughout the early passages of the film without resorting to heavy foreshadowing or red herrings.

The new governess arrives at the country estate on a bright sunny day and the sound of birds singing in the trees fills the air. The story hints at a darker subtext when Miss Giddens walks into the grand entry hall and caresses the roses placed in a vase. Several petals fall to the floor in response to her touch. Although the housekeeper seems pleased to see her, there are indications that things are not well at Bly and haven’t been for some time. There is something fragile about the energy inside the mansion in contrast to the opulent furnishings and decor. Clayton does an amazing job of introducing the spookier elements as the story progresses without disrupting the deliberate pace of the film or diminishing its central themes.

"The Innocents"

Cinematographer Freddie Francis creates a rich visual presentation that captures the lighter and darker aspects of the remote setting.

Francis’ arresting visuals evoke the warmest and most familiar feelings of life in the country as well as the disconcerting ones. Filmed in CinemaScope and black and white, the exteriors were filmed on location in East Sussex, England while the interiors were shot at Shepperton Studios in Surrey. The Gothic mansion Sheffield Park in East Sussex represents the exterior of Bly.

"The Innocents"

Miles, played by Martin Stephens, was away at boarding school when Miss Giddens first arrived.


‘O Willow Waly’

This plaintive song is repeated throughout the film when Miss Giddens encounters young Flora and senses they are not alone. Sung by Isla Cameron with music by Georges Auric and lyrics by Paul Dehn, the tune represents the feelings of isolation and loss the young girl carries with her. We soon discover that the song comes from a music box that was a gift from the previous governess, Miss Jessel. Played with charming grace by Pamela Franklin, Flora has become accustomed to being alone and creating her own make believe world to pass the time at Bly.

Her older brother, Miles, played by Martin Stephens, is away at boarding school when Miss Giddens first arrives. His stay does not last long because he is expelled from school and sent home. The explanatory letter from the school accuses Miles of being “an injury” to the other boys. His abrupt dismissal plants a seed of doubt in Miss Giddens and she starts to question whether something is amiss with Miles and possibly Flora too. Her concern escalates rapidly and somewhat irrationally. Eventually, she becomes fearful that Miles has the capability “to contaminate, to corrupt.”

Deborah Kerr,"The Innocents" (1961)

Mrs. Grose to Miss Giddens: “Oh, miss, master Miles? Are you afraid he’ll corrupt you?”


‘What Shall I Sing To My Lord From My Window?’

Martin Stephens plays Miles with a disarming combination of sophisticated intelligence and flirtatiousness. His precocious manner both charms and intimidates the provincial young governess. On the way home from the train station, he leans in close and says, “May I tell you something? I think you are far too pretty to be a governess.”  He tosses compliment after compliment and behaves as her equal. He even convinces her for a brief time that he is not to blame for his dismissal from school. It isn’t long before his odd behavior and the governess’ suspicions bring him into question. This comes to a head when the children play dress-up and he recites an ominous poem about “following his Lord and Master.” As he looks imploringly through the window, Miss Giddens becomes certain that he is speaking to a spirit that wants to possess his soul.

"The Innocents"

At this point, the tone of the film shifts as Miss Giddens embarks on a self-righteous crusade to save “the innocents.”

She interrogates the housekeeper who shares the pivotal backstory of the former governess (Miss Jessel) and the valet (Peter Quint), both of whom are now dead. Mrs. Grose reveals that they were involved in a violent romantic relationship and were indiscreet about their affair: “Miss, there’s things I’ve seen, I’m ashamed to say. Rooms used by daylight as though they were dark woods.” This is sufficient for the governess to become convinced that the former governess and her lover have returned from the dead to claim the souls of the children.


The Freudian Touch

"The Innocents"

Many sources credit Truman Capote with adding the Freudian references to the screenplay and that makes sense, considering he wrote it at a time when the public’s fascination with psychotherapy was peaking.

Looking at the film today, the many phallic images are a bit obvious, although they may have gone unnoticed by the audience when the film was released in 1961. Probably the most blatant example occurs when Miss Jessel first sees the ghost of Peter Quint. She looks up into the sunlight from the flower garden and spots him at the top of an imposing tower with four erect spires in each corner. This occurs just after she has witnessed a dead bug fall out of the mouth of a cherubic female statue. In this pivotal scene, the film points directly at the governess’ repressed sexual longings as the primary catalyst for the events that follow.

Deborah Kerr, "The Innocents" (1961)

Deborah Kerr, “The Innocents” (1961)

According to Professor Christopher Frayling, much of the screenplay is derived from William Archibald’s play of the same name, which premiered on Broadway in 1950, rather than coming directly from James’ novella, though he credits Truman Capote with about 90% of the film’s script as it appears on the screen. Frayling attributes the Freudian subtext to screenwriter Capote, whose contribution gives the film a Southern Gothic feel – with the governess’s repressed erotic sensibility counterpointed by shots of lush and decaying plants and rapacious insect life. Clayton though chose to downplay this aspect in the finished film to preserve the ambiguity between the ghost story and Freudian element.
– Source: Wikipedia

"The Innocents" (1961)

The ghost of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, appears on the lake.

The central tug-of-war between the governess and Miles illuminates what both characters are capable of to prove their points of view. Although is he is merely a boy, Miles exhibits a boldly seductive attitude that feels calculated to throw her off her crusade to eradicate the corruptive influence of the former servants. Miss Giddens, for her part, becomes increasingly shrill and obsessed with saving the children from “these horrors.” As with most zealots, she loses perspective and miscalculates the eventual consequence of her actions:

"The Innocents" (1961)

Miss Giddens to Miles: “My father taught me to love people and to help them even when they refused my help, even if it hurts them sometimes.”


The Cast of The Innocents

Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens

Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens.

Deborah Kerr was a highly respected Scottish film and television actress. She won the coveted Sarah Siddons Award as Best Actress for her Chicago performance in Tea And Sympathy, a role which she originated on Broadway and repeated in the acclaimed film version. Kerr won a Golden Globe for the motion picture The King And I and she was a three-time winner of the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. She was also the recipient of honorary Academy Awards, BAFTA and Cannes Film Festival awards. She was nominated six times for the Academy Award for Best Actress but never won. In 1994, however, she was awarded an honorary Academy Award and cited as “an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance.” Her many notable films include The King and I,  An Affair To Remember,  From Here To Eternity,  Quo Vadis,  Black Narcissus,  The Night of the Iguana  and  Separate Tables. Sources: Wikipedia and IMDB.

Michael Redgrave as The Uncle.

Michael Redgrave as The Uncle.

“Sir Michael Redgrave was of the generation of English actors that gave the world the legendary John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, also called the Britain three fabled “Theatrical Knights” back in the days when a knighthood for a thespian was far more rare than it is today. A superb actor, Redgrave himself was a charter member of the post-Great War English acting pantheon and was the sire of an acting dynasty. He and his wife, Rachel Kempson, were the parents of Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave and the grandparents of Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave.” Redgrave was awarded Knight Bachelor of the Order of the British Empire in the 1959 Queen’s Honours List for his services to drama.
Source: IMDb Mini Biography By Jon C. Hopwood.

Peter Wyngarde as Peter Quint

Peter Wyngarde as Peter Quint.

“Peter Wyngarde was born in 1933 in Marseilles Bouches-du-Rhone, France to an English father and French mother. After a short-lived but glittering television career as “Jason King” (1971), Wyngarde’s career never reestablished itself after his arrest in 1975, with a truck driver, in the toilets at Gloucester bus station. At his trial, he was found guilty of “gross indecency” and fined £75. The previous year, he lost over £3,000 in a confidence trick carried out by his former secretary, Jeremy Dallas-Cope, and a male model, Anthony O’Donoghue. During the 1980s, he filed for bankruptcy twice: on the occasion of the first hearing, it was stated in court that Wyngarde’s 200-year-old farmhouse, in the Cotswolds countryside, had been repossessed, that he had no assets and was living on unemployment benefits (or ‘the dole’ as it is termed in the UK). And a petition to “bring back Peter to our screens”, which a Bradford housewife, Dorothy Szekely, collected 600 signatures for and then sent to the BBC as well as to the ITV networks, was unsuccessful.”
– Source: IMDB biography written by David Greatbatch

Megs Jenkins as Mrs. Grose

Megs Jenkins, right, as Mrs. Grose

“Megs Jenkins trained in Liverpool at the School of Dancing and Dramatic Art and then joined the Liverpool Repertory Company in 1933 before moving to London to appear at the Player’s Theatre four years later. During the 1950s, she was busy acting on stage and had considerable critical success in two plays by Emlyn Williams, Light of Heart (1940) and The Wind of Heaven (1945). She also played the vicious, unstable Alma Winemiller in Summer and Smoke (1951) by Tennessee Williams. In 1956, she was won the Clarence Derwent Award as Best Supporting Actress for her role as the stoic wife of a longshoreman in A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller. Among her screen roles, the best remembered are those of Nurse Woods in the excellent murder mystery Green For Danger (1946) and three of her many housekeeper roles: the proper one of Indiscreet (1958), the nervously anxious one, sensing danger in The Innocents (1961) and the warm, dependable one in the musical Oliver! (1968).”
– Source: IMDb Mini Biography by I. S. Mowis.

“The Innocents”

Miles and Flora: "The Innocents".

Miles and Flora: “The Innocents”.

Martin Stephens as Miles

Martin Stephens as Miles.

“Martin Stephens was the most popular child actor in Britain during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Having lost interest in acting as he became an adult, he moved to Belfast in 1968, where he studied architecture at Queen’s University, Belfast. He later returned to England, where he pursued his new career in architecture and as a teacher of Meditation.”
– Source: IMDb Mini Biography by Neill Kenmuir.

Pamela Franklin as Flora

Pamela Franklin as Flora.

“British actress Pamela Franklin was born in Yokohama, Japan and grew up all over the world in such places as Hong Kong and Australia. Franklin made her film debut at age 11 in The Innocents and went on to star in other popular films as a child star, including The Lion with William Holden and The Nanny opposite Bette Davis. She later delivered impressive performances in several critically acclaimed films, including The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) starring Maggie Smith and as a kidnap victim in The Night of the Following Day (1968) with Marlon Brando. She also turned in strong performances in a couple of horror films from the early seventies: Necromancy (1972) and The Legend of Hell House (1973). After continuing to act in television series, movies made-for-television and feature films, she voluntarily left acting in the early eighties to concentrate on her family.”
– Source: IMDB biography written by “woodyanders”

Jack Clayton, The Director, with Deborah Kerr.

Jack Clayton, the director, with Deborah Kerr on the set of “The Innocents”.

Jack Clayton made his first film when he was in the British Royal Air Force during World War II. It was a documentary titled Naples Is A Battlefield (1944). He later became an assistant film director and film editor at Alexander Korda’s Denham Film Studios in London. His first feature film, Room At The Top (1959), won two Oscars and brought Clayton a Best Director Nomination. His direction of Room At The Top, an indictment of the British class system, was credited with spearheading Britain’s movement toward realism in film, later known as British New Wave. Clayton also directed The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Our Mother’s House (1967) and the high profile adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in 1974. In later years, he directed Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes for the Disney studio. His last feature film was The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987) with Maggie Smith as a spinster who struggles with the emptiness of her life. Clayton is highly regarded as a forward looking director who influenced British and American filmmakers with his “new wave” style.
– Source: Wikipedia

Deborah Kerr, "The Innocents" (1961)

The Innocents: Nominations & Awards

Meg Jenkins, Pamela Franklin and Deborah Kerr in "The Innocents"

Meg Jenkins, Pamela Franklin and Deborah Kerr in “The Innocents”.

1962 BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Best Film Nomination: Best British Film and Best Film From Any Source
1962 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’OR: Nomination: Jack Clayton, Director
1962 Directors Guild of America, USA: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nomination: Jack Clayton
1962 Edgar Allan Poe Awards (“Edgar” Award): Best Motion Picture Winner: Truman Capote and William Archibald, Screenplay
1961 National Board of Review, USA: Top Ten Films Winner: Jack Clayton
1962 Writers Guild of America, USA: Best Written American Drama Nomination: William Archibald and Truman Capote

Critical Reaction Then and Now

Deborah Kerr and Pamela Franklin in "The Innocents"

Deborah Kerr and Pamela Franklin in “The Innocents”

“Folks who have never seen a movie set in a scary old house, where the doors creak, the wind howls around corners, ghosts pace the long, dark halls and hideous, spectral faces appear in the windows at night, should find themselves beautifully frightened and even intellectually aroused by Jack Clayton’s new picture, The Innocents.”
Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, December 1961

“Clayton’s filmmaking, mustering frisson by both candle and blazing daylight, could serve as an object lesson in its genre. Only Robert Wise’s The Haunting, out two years later, came close to its edge-of-sight menace, repressed Gothic angst and all-suggestion creep-outs.” Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice, 2005

“What is so marvelous about Jack Clayton’s film, insightfully scripted by Truman Capote from William Archibald’s Broadway adaptation, with additional input from John Mortimer, is that it allows that the viewer to view the apparitions as being entirely imaginary or for them to be physical manifestations of the supernatural.”
The Digital Fix, Noel Megahey, December 2006.

Written and researched by Michael Hadley

Deborah Kerr, "The Innocents" (1961)