Innocents, The (1961): Jack Clayton’s Superlative Version of Henry James Ghost Story

After the success of the 1959 Oscar-winning A Room at the Top, Jack Clayton took a completely different approach and material in his second feature, on which he was both producer and director.

A ghost tale, The Innocents, was adapted by Truman Capote from the classic Henry James short story The Turn of the Screw, which Clayton had first read when he was ten.

Capote’s screenplay (with uncredited contributions from John Mortimer) was adapted from William Archibald’s stage version of the story.

Clayton was contracted to make another film for Fox, as was actress Deborah Kerr, whom Clayton had long admired.  As a result, he was able to cast Kerr in the lead role as Miss Giddens, a repressed spinster who takes a job in a large, and remote English country house, as the governess to an orphaned brother and sister.

Giddens gradually comes to believe that her young charges are possessed by evil spirits.

Kerr’s superb performance is often rated as one of the best of her long and impressive career.

The tough, complex, unsettling performances of the two juvenile leads, Martin Stephens (Miles) and Pamela Franklin (Flora) is also powerfully impactful.

The eerie score by renowned French composer Georges Auric contributes immeasurably to the atmospheric mood.

The black-and-white widescreen cinematography of Freddie Francis is lush, lavish and evocative of the tale’s ominous mood.  Although Clayton was initially dismayed at Fox’s insistence that the film be shot in CinemaScope, lenser Francis used it to great advantage, carefully framing each scene, and using innovative techniques, such as placing protagonists at the extreme opposite edges of the screen during dialogue scenes, or focusing on the central region while using specially-made filters to blur the edges of the frame, creating a subtle but disturbing sense of unease.

Although it was not a commercial hit, it earned positive reviews on release and its reputation has grown steadily over the years. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael praised it as “one of the most elegantly beautiful ghost movies ever made.”

Under Clayton’s assured helming, the film benefits from sustained nervous tension and creepy feeling throughout, all based on the characterizations and dialogue, with no reliance on any sight of blood or special effects, which are characteristic of the horror genre.

Clayton, Freddie Francis, and Truman Capote all rated their work on the film as the best of their respective screen careers.

The film has been widely acclaimed as a classic of psychological horror by many leading directors, including Frenchman Francois Truffaut, who thought that “The Innocents is the best English film after Hitchcock goes to America.”