At the Movies

Michael Wood

Deborah Kerr had been around by the time she came to her role in The Innocents (1961). In the movies, I mean. She had been in love with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, swooned over Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember, and sung and danced with Yul Brynner in The King and I. This is a way of saying she wasn’t the twenty-year-old girl of ‘The Turn of the Screw’, had not lived what James called ‘a small, smothered life’, and was most unlikely not to have seen herself full-length in a mirror before she got to the haunted house at Bly.

Of course she sheds much of this past when she comes to the new film – she’s an actress. But she’s also a film actress and so can’t entirely shed anything: her old acts will always be her contemporaries. We see the curious mixture of innocence and experience in her face from the very start. She’s lonely before she gets to the lonely place. She looks clear-eyed and beautiful but strained, anxious, like a person who has been anxious a lot, not like a learner. If this is her first job as a governess, what has she been doing for the last twenty years? All of this helps the film greatly, far more than some sort of casting fidelity would have done. The spinster’s problems are even more interesting than those of the parson’s daughter’s first outing.

The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton and wonderfully shot by Freddie Francis, can now be seen in a restored print at the BFI. It is also very well evoked in a new BFI Classics book by Christopher Frayling. The film is a little heavy in portents, swirling curtains, flickering candles, bumps in the dark, and the ghost of Peter Quint in particular looks as if he has come from a bad night at a rock concert. Still, Psycho was only a year old, and it must have been reasonable to think the audiences even for a classy film needed plenty of signals (shrieking music, for example) to show that evil can be found or imagined in all sorts of quiet places. And the film steadily develops more real fear and horror than most of us are going to need.

Is the evil found or imagined? The writers of the film – Truman Capote and William Archibald, the author of the stage play on which it was based – were accused of going too much for the ‘psychological’ reading of James’s tale, most famously advanced by Edmund Wilson: there are no ghosts, it’s all in the governess’s mind. She has been sent down to the country mansion to look after two small orphans, she is frightened and sex-starved, she starts imagining things, in particular that a former governess and a former manservant are showing up as spirits, seeking to live through and even possess the souls of the children. It’s true that the film opens, as the tale does not, with a stress on the imagination. ‘Do you have an imagination?’ Michael Redgrave asks, as the feckless playboy uncle who wants the children off his hands. But he’s not glancing at the development of the story, he merely wants to know if Miss Giddens (the character is unnamed in the tale) can see herself in the job he wants to dump on her. And by this early signal the writers are suggesting not that the governess has only imagined the ghosts, but that ghosts appear only to those with imagination.

The film sustains James’s ambiguity on the subject of the ghosts, and in a certain detail goes one better than the tale. In James the least equivocal evidence for the ghosts’ actuality is the governess’s ability to describe the shadowy figure she has seen in terms that exactly match the dress and features (including his red hair) of the dead Peter Quint, of whose very existence she was until then ignorant. In the film, as in the tale, the governess catches sight of the shade of her predecessor, Miss Jessel, in the schoolroom. She is seated at a writing desk, crying. As our heroine approaches her, she vanishes. Then in the film our governess looks at a slate with sums on it, as well as what seems to be a teardrop. It is a teardrop, new and wet to the touch, that is to say as real as anything else in this film, including the house, the uncle, the children and the governess. This seems pretty conclusive. Pauline Kael, in a remarkable essay from her pre-New Yorker days, wrote of ‘that little wet tear, that little pearl of ambiguity’, and her piece was accompanied by a still of Kerr staring at the damp spot on her finger. Is the instance even ambiguous? Someone has been crying on the slate, and it’s not our governess. But do ghosts cry real tears? Even real ghosts ought not to. Perhaps the ghosts in this movie do; they can’t walk through windows or walls, a small feat most of their kind easily manage. In fact, all they really do well is disappear. ‘We know,’ Kael says, ‘that in this cultivated domain the ghosts wouldn’t dream of doing anything so vulgar as themselves impinging on the action.’ But then why is Miss Jessel allowed to offer this actual trace? Perhaps it’s just a puzzle, like the dream flower left behind in reality that Godard uses as an emblem of cinema.

The great question in the film and the tale is not the existence of the ghosts but the way the governess understands their no-longer-lived lives and desires. She herself speaks in the tale of her ‘obsession’ and her ‘infernal imagination’, which in part is what gives rise to the ‘psychological’ reading. Kerr conveys this aspect of her character through precisely the mixture of innocence and experience I have mentioned. She knows what evil is: that’s why she is not merely innocent. She means well – horribly well – and that’s why she is not guilty of gratuitous imaginings. She is guilty, if that’s the word, of dramatising to extremity the ghost story she is in. Assuming the ghosts exist and that in life their avatars exerted a formative influence on the children, we still know nothing about that influence except what the governess guesses at, and her guesses form an elaborate morality play – as distinct from what might be our own messier or more modest estimates of the ghosts’ activities. They are certainly up to no good, but are they as extravagantly, doctrinally bad as the governess thinks? It’s almost as if she doesn’t care about the ontological questions their presence raises, as if she is actually pleased to have the chance to fight off such lurid evil. Francis’s brilliant lighting and a series of low-angle shots stress a quality of scariness in her: she’s not just afraid, she makes you afraid. At one point, dedicated to what she thinks is the salvation of the children, she says: ‘To wake a child out of a dream, is that a cruelty?’ The answer is almost certainly yes, but the degree of cruelty will depend on the dream and the child. She does save the children, but only by driving the girl into an agony of pain and rage and by killing the boy through the pressure she puts on him to deny his old friend Peter Quint. ‘It was like fighting with a demon for a human soul,’ she says in her written narrative within the tale. For her there is no ‘like’: she is making a verbal concession to her future readers. James’s magnificent last sentence is: ‘We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.’ The boy is dispossessed of the devil, like children in so many later horror movies; but he is no longer there to enjoy his exorcism.

Even if the exorcism was needed, this is a terrible outcome. It’s possible that the many subtle psychological readings of the tale are in part ways of avoiding the thought of this terror, the portrait of the good woman and the dreadful result of her actions. And of course it is possible, even if the ghosts really are hovering around, that the children are innocent, not colluding as the governess eagerly supposes. This effect is brilliantly caught in the film by the acting of Martin Stephens as Miles and Pamela Franklin as Flora and the way they are directed. They are not only irritating, as Frayling says, they are unbearable, perfect pictures of what old-fashioned snobbery used to assume was the perfect child. How could they be the innocents of the title, when they are so posh, polite, worldly and composed? They talk like Henry James – no, like Oscar Wilde parodying Henry James. When a candle goes out with a crashing noise, terrifying the governess, Miles smoothly says: ‘It was only the wind, my dear.’ But then they can’t be guilty, busily conspiring with ghosts, just because we don’t like their style, and after all what does innocence or guilt look like? The movies are designed to fail to answer this question. A face is a face, we read all kind of things into it, but it’s just a blank text, however meaningful we think it is. It won’t finally confirm or deny any reading. Truffaut said The Innocents was the best movie made in England after Hitchcock left, and there is a quality of, say, Suspicion about the film. A poisoned glass of milk doesn’t look any different from an unpoisoned one even when, as in Hitchcock, it has a light bulb glowing in it. And a child’s face, smiling, friendly, infinitely kind, offers just as good an image of evil as it does of innocence. As Kael says of the governess, ‘in her idealism, she may expect children to be so innocent that she regards actual children as corrupt.’ We are not at all far from The Exorcist, where our fantasies require us to prefer possession by the devil to a child’s growing up and learning to curse.