The Innocents: When Inner and Outer Horror Meet 


The Innocents (1961)
Directed by Jack Clayton
September 8 and 15 at Anthology Film Archives in 35mm, part of "From the Pen Of..."

“When I read [Henry] James I feel that something is happening to me, happening in slow motion but happening nevertheless,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, perfectly channeling him. In a good James story, a subjective sensation runs subliminally as you intuit the characters evolving throughout without knowing exactly how. Whether it’s a woman changing her mind about her husband or a child gaining perspective on her parents, he often achieves this effect through careful, sometimes close and sometimes far narration, making you feel like you’re both inside and outside the characters. You must discern what might be happening from what someone thinks reality is. In his 1898 tale The Turn of the Screw, the technique works masterfully. The story is told by an unnamed young governess from a poor background who sees ghosts while caring for children in a remote estate. You’re left unsure and wondering whether the place is really haunted, or whether the woman is tormenting herself.

The writer Truman Capote, who adapted James’s novella into the film The Innocents (he was one of several screenwriters, but the film’s director, Jack Clayton, said Capote wrote over 90 percent of the final script), took a different approach. He wrote it while researching his eventually celebrated book, In Cold Blood, a fictionalized account of a real murder that attempted to show and tell everything about why two young men committed a crime. Peoples’ mysteries are solved in Capote’s book. He fleshed out the film’s governess’s ambiguously Freudian fears (a middle-aged woman who might spend her life alone) by externalizing the real, physical, concrete terrors of the estate. Capote infested the place with beetles emerging from statues’ mouths, creatures crawling, and thick plants hanging over water. Unlike in the book, where you see the haunted world through the governess (Deborah Kerr)'s eyes, here you observe a decaying world with her in it.

The Innocents has multiple authors. One can see director Jack Clayton (Room at the Top) filming a story about bad things happening when people from different classes collide; the cinematographer Freddie Francis (Sons and Lovers) using the black-and-white CinemaScope frame to show a person flattened into limited mobility within a gigantic, strange new place; the actress Deborah Kerr, turning 40 as the film was made, aging her stiff-backed, tight-lipped, wide-eyed persona, formed over numerous films (Black Narcissus, The King and I, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), as a frigid superior whose self-repression is potentially driving her mad. As for the writers, James penned a story full of inward horror, which Capote then turned outward. The film is about what happens when inner and outer horror meet.


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