Thursday, March 3, 2011

Film Review: THE INNOCENTS (1961, Jack Clayton)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Deborah Kerr (BLACK NARCISSUS, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY), Peter Wyngarde (FLASH GORDON, JASON KING), Megs Jenkins (INDISCREET, OLIVER!), Michael Redgrave (THE LADY VANISHES, THE BROWNING VERSION), Martin Stephens (VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED), Pamela Franklin (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE). Music by Georges Auric (THE WAGES OF FEAR, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST). Cinematography by Freddie Francis (THE ELEPHANT MAN, CAPE FEAR '91). Sound design by Ken Ritchie (ROOM AT THE TOP) and John Cox (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DR. STRANGELOVE, THE THIRD MAN). Directed by Jack Clayton (THE GREAT GATSBY, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES). Adapted by Truman Capote and William Archibald (I CONFESS) from the novella by Henry James.
Tag-line: "Apparitions? Evils? Corruptions?"
Best one-liner: "It was only the wind, my dear." or maybe "I wish there was a way to sleep in several rooms at once..."

In a familiar alleyway, now decorated with Victorian flair...

–"What are you prattling on about?"
"One of the most beautiful, terrifying, and well-acted films ever made. A titan of cinema! THE TURN OF THE SCREW adapted with intricate and perverse panache from Truman Capote under the workmanlike direction of Jack Clayton and through the dark and exquisite lens of Freddie Francis!"

–"I think I read that in high school. Snoresville, U.S.A."
"You take that back! Henry James was a genius!"
–"More like Henry Lames, I sez."
"I oughta drag your ass to the Colosseum and straighten you out, DAISY MILLER-style!"
–"You and what army, booger bits?!"
"Hey, did you just quote MURPHY'S LAW?"
–"So what if I did?"
"This is the problem, man. You live in intellectual poverty. Something like THE INNOCENTS is precisely what you need."
–"Fine. So sell it to me."
"A disconcerting soundscape of gnarled, horrific screams and screeching pencils on slate echoing across a grotesque nightmare of overlapping images. A sound design comprised of a cacophony of ghoulish noises and tones, ahead of its time insofar as it didn't meet its equal until Lynch's ERASERHEAD. A cherubic statue holds severed hands and regurgitates a cockroach.

We close our eyes and seek solace in nature to escape- the croaking of frogs, the chirping of birds, and the murmur of a babbling stream. But these indicators of normalcy fall away and we're left with disquieting quiet– a dream zone where anything can happen and our worst fears are surely to be realized. A child sings in the darkness. Hands pray. A figure on the roof. Something flutters behind the glass.

We look for respite, but none is to be found. The child hums, insincerely, staring out of the window at the Stygian garden below. What does she know that we do not?

It is past midnight. For what does she wait? And for whom? If we could merely shed some light into this dusky chamber, perhaps we would find only the innocuous trappings of youth; hobby-horses and music boxes and paddleballs. Or perhaps we would find something more sinister: something perfidious and unearthly..."
–"Alright, I'm intrigued."
"That was just the mood. Now, the script. The story is full of baroque complexity and disturbing innuendo befitting of the legendarily prim James. Scholars have parsed each and every syllable of his private letters, hoping to gain some insight into his personal life. (T.S. Eliot said 'He had a mind so fine, that no idea could violate it!') Was he straight? Was he gay? Was he asexual? No one seems able to reach a consensus: he held his cards as close to his chest in his life as in his fictions. ...On the other hand we have the Truman Capote adaptation. Rarely would one use the word 'subtle' to describe his substantial persona, full of larger-than-life literary posturing. Even his suggestive biographical photo from the dustjacket of his 1948 novel OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS caused a scandal (which Capote quite possibly intended). So we have James, the furtive, Victorian master of equivocation; and then we have Capote, the outspoken, Southern-fried celebrity. In other words, Capote's tired of sneaking around- and he pushes the weird, frightening childish sexuality to the story's forefront, making even the most jaded viewer quite antsy. Uncomfortable mouth to mouth adult/child kissing? Sure, let's put it in! Take that, 1961 mainstream cinema! And so, the union of James and Capote at once feels completely natural and wholly unnatural. A perfect combination for an ambiguous literary work which had the 1898 critics as aflutter with theories as, say, the 1997 IMDb message boards for LOST HIGHWAY.
–"That's quite interesting, but–"
"And the acting. Dear God, the acting! Deborah Kerr considered it her finest performance, and I'm inclined to agree with her. She takes vulnerability, mania, and sheer nerve, bundling them together into a complex woman whose motives are either completely clearheaded or outright psychotic.

She takes James' material and embodies it so honestly that either camp can use the entirety of her performance as evidence to back their cause. Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens (whose 'Miles' is one of the greatest condescending shitbirds of cinema)

deliver possibly the finest child performances of all time. I'm not kidding- it's almost as if two genius thespians trod the boards for fifty or sixty years, living full lives and procuring the illuminations of old age only to find themselves trapped inside the bodies of ten-year-olds, performing in THE INNOCENTS. Of course, this strange quality of 'maturity-beyond-their-years' works in the film's favor: without such talented, unsettling child actors, the whole endeavor would fall flat on its face. This is why I never want to see a contemporary, airbrushed, overproduced adaptation of THE TURN OF THE SCREW starring K-Mart models, or whatever passes for child acting these days. Anyway, there is also a small but mesmerizing role by Peter Wyngarde who, in real life looks like your standard, gaunt Englishman- but in THE INNOCENTS, uses his talents to such a degree that even the most steadfast of viewers will be subject to the involuntary curdling of blood and curling of hair. Also, Michael Redgrave shows up to turn in an excellent, foreboding bit part."
–"Well, now you've made such a case that I'm afraid to see it."
"Fine. Why don't you go watch EEGAH, or something that you can handle."
–"Isn't Arch Hall in that? I like Arch Hall."

-Sean Gill

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