Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Octoberfilms: The Innocents (1961) — The screw turns

It's about the hands. The answer is in the hands.

With The Innocents on DVD, we can give this beautifully eerie (and eerily beautiful) British ghost story the repeated viewings it demands and deserves. We can finally match our memories against its layers of teasing images and sounds to explore its more conversation-starting elements.

In so doing, I've discovered something I hadn't noticed previously: The hands. The prayer-clutched hands in the opening credits. Deborah Kerr's prim but high-strung governess repeatedly reaching out and disrupting the roses. A ghoulish garden statue clutching a pair of broken stone hands in its own (before an insect scuttles out of its mouth).

Then finally, at the moment where the film's slowly built dread could not squeeze any tighter, a shot of a single hand wrenches everything we think we know and, perhaps, puts the film's famous central question — are the ghosts real? — to rest for good.

My vote for one of the most intelligent and evocative ghost stories ever filmed, Jack Clayton's adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is cryptic in ways that force us to find clues insinuated in single lines of dialogue, or in the spaces between the lines. It's a movie that speaks in ellipses, not exclamation points. It sneaks under your skin, subtly and suggestively portraying something sinister and perverse that may exist only in the protagonist's head, but that doesn't mean it can't mess with yours. Last October at The Daily Beast, Martin Scorsese placed The Innocents on his personal list of 11 scariest movies.

The specters that Miss Giddens (Kerr) sees around the country estate might be what she insists they are, the evil shades of Miss Jessup and Peter Quint — the previous governess and her brutish lover — whose wanton sexuality had scandalized the rest of the household before they died on the property under hushed-up circumstances.

The longer she loses herself in the house's solitude, and the more she interacts with her strange and precocious charges (instant standouts Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin), the more she suspects that the dead couple are "abominations" still corrupting, even possessing, the two orphaned children who adored them.

Or is the virginal Miss Giddens living a more earthly tragedy of psychosexual disturbance triggered by her repressed yearning for the children's wealthy gadabout uncle (Michael Redgrave)? He wants nothing to do with his niece and nephew, ever; he's leaving indefinitely for attractions that are "not the sort of amusement one could suitably share with children." The admittedly inexperienced daughter of a reverend, Miss Giddens tells her employer that yes, she does have quite the active imagination.

Soon after she arrives at the vast estate, she encounters the indistinct but watchful spirits of Miss Jessup and the violent, "handsome" Quint. Is it dead Quint looking down from the top of the house, and who kisses her when the schoolboy Miles presses his mouth to hers with unsettling sensuality? Or are the governess' corseted desires snapping their ties as feverish hallucinations and shockingly lascivious psychosis?

The Innocents plays both sides of that polarity, and critics can argue reasonably that the film tries a bit too hard to have it both ways. The screenwriters — Truman Capote chief among them — carefully keep certainty a slippery surface.

However, at the jarring climax, a surprising and internally unprecedented point-of-view shift reveals a hand that (in my opinion) pulls the curtain back to reveal director Clayton's answer. It doesn't diminish the impact of the tragedy that follows, though it does enhance my watching it all again for revelations and insights more subtly prismed than anything M. Night Shyamalan could pull off on his best days.

The Innocents' reputation has it that the film avoids conventional gimmicks and shock effects. That's not entirely true. A ghostly figure passing through a room, Miss Jessup's disembodied voice ("The children are watching, love me, love me"), and Quint's face approaching a window from the night are touch points with its masterful double-feature contemporary, Robert Wise's The Haunting (another film where a repressed spinster's inner tensions seem to catalyze demonic forces in the house).

The inventive and atmospheric black-and-white CinemaScope by photographer Freddie Francis is as celebrated as the screenplay's Jamesian suggestiveness. In the long history of spook movies is there any shot more memorably chilling than the mournful, black-clad figure standing in the reeds across the lake, shimmering in the heat haze of a summer day or through the veil of an English rain?

Together Francis and Clayton use graceful cinematic techniques to do more than just illustrate James' novel. While their motif of dropping rose petals too pointedly shouts "symbolism," their use of white doves against the morbid and melancholy goings-on brings to mind the European delicacy of Franju's Eyes Without a Face. And then there are all those hands. I tell you, there's the key.

Deborah Kerr's layered portrayal is among the finest in her career. Whether or not Miss Giddens sees real apparitions or is a victim of simply needing a good roll in the four-poster, by not choosing to "play neurotic" Kerr achieves a reality that makes her exactly the right place to anchor our perspective.

Add the remarkable performances by the two children, and we're given a ghost story that stays with us not because of spring-loaded frights, but because of how it plucks our nervous system like a violin string.