Tuesday, August 29, 2017


Warning: Possible spoilers

All filmmakers start out as film fans, so perhaps it should come as no surprise when—and I stress “when,” not “if”—they find irresistible the urge to pay homage to the movies and directors that inspired them. I don’t mean those directors who’ve built their entire careers on appropriating the style of others (Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino); rather, those filmmakers brave/foolhardy enough to adopt imitation as their chosen form of flattery.

Peter Bogdanovich hit critical and boxoffice paydirt by candidly riding the cinematic coattails of John Ford and Howard Hawks, respectively, with The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?. That is, until the leaden At Long Last Love exposed the director as having no gift for the light touch required of aping the musical romantic comedies of the 1930s. Macho Martin Scorsese fared no better with his stab at the stylized realism of the studio-bound 1940s musical with his shapeless and meandering New York, New York (1977); and Interiors (1978), Woody Allen’s first dramatic film and beginning of many attempts to clone his idol Ingmar Bergman, was, to many, such a tin-eared East Coast transmutation of Bergman’s trademark Swedish existential dread, it's said that at initial screenings some viewers mistook it for a tongue-in-cheek comedy spoof. 
Fragile Victim or Femme Fatale?

When writer/director Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde, Kramer vs Kramer, Places in the Heart) tried his hand at updating the 1940s private eye flick, the result was the smart and quirky The Late Show (1977): a small, unpretentious little gem (which flopped tremendously) that made self-referential neo-noir look effortless.

Although I can't deny it is both well-written and watchable, Kramer vs Kramer, Benton’s wildly popular follow-up to The Late Show, still strikes me as little more than a pedigreed Lifetime movie (decades before there was even such a thing as a Lifetime movie), but it nevertheless proved to be a mainstream cash-cow/award-magnet (a whopping nine nominations) netting Benton Oscars for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Success on such a grand scale does nothing if not feed expectations, so when it was announced Benton’s next film was to be a suspense thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock vein starring such heavy-hitters as Kramer vs Kramer Oscar-winner Meryl Streep (hot off The French Lieutenant’s Woman), two-time Oscar nominee Roy Scheider (then most recently for the critically acclaimed All That Jazz), and actual Hitchcock alumnus Jessica Tandy (The Birds); anticipation was so high it’s likely no film Robert Benton ultimately released could have lived up to the hype.
As it turns out, the public was spared from having to weigh in on the truth of such speculation when Robert Benton (collaborating with screenwriter David Newman) released Still of the Night. A film that, while unremittingly stylish, well-acted, atmospheric, and one of my I’m-pretty-much-alone-in-this personal favorites (Streep’s take on the Hitchcock blonde is my favorite of all her screen looks)—critics and audiences alike felt it to be a tepid toast to the Master of Suspense which failed to live up to the modest expectations one might harbor for even an episode of Columbo.
Meryl Streep as Brooke Reynolds
Roy Scheider as Dr. Sam Rice
Jessica Tandy as Dr. Grace Rice
Josef Sommer as George Bynum
While reeling from the dissolution of his 8-year marriage, emotionally insulated psychiatrist Sam Rice (Scheider) learns that one of his clients, an auction house antiquities curator named George Bynum (Sommer), has been brutally murdered. Bynum, a married, middle-aged narcissist with a Don Juan complex, had come to Dr. Rice seeking treatment for difficulty sleeping due to a recurring nightmare somehow related to the enigmatic, much-younger woman he was seeing.

Following Bynum’s death, Sam is paid a visit by the very woman in question, one Brooke Reynolds (Streep) Bynum’s assistant; a fragile, nervousy type with darting eyes, hesitant manner, and a hairdo in constant need of fiddling with. Sam, who through his sessions with Bynum has already developed something of a dream-girl fixation on Brooke, finds meeting the icy blonde in the flesh triggering paradoxical feelings of attraction and fear within him.
Killer's Kiss?
Basically an instance of an emotionally immovable object meeting a cryptic irresistible force, the fact that Sam and Brooke’s attraction intensifies in direct proportion to both the amount of danger their association places them in and the degree to which each fears and/or mistrusts the other, becomes a (grievously underdeveloped) part of their chemistry.

The investigation into Bynum’s murder, deemed to have been committed by a woman, appears to implicate Brooke, who, at least on the surface, comes across as fragile and damaged as the antiquities she oversees. But is she the vulnerable potential target of the murderer, or in fact a cold-blooded serial killer herself? As for Sam, the quintessential ordinary man drawn into extraordinary circumstances, his personal investigation into the crime proves a race against time as he tries to keep himself alive long enough to discover if his tapes of Bynum’s psychiatric sessions hold the key to the murderer’s identity.
Joe Grifasi and Homicide Detective Joseph Vitucci

In fashioning a Hitchcockian romantic thriller set in the cultured world of multimillion-dollar art auction houses and Park Avenue shrinks, it certainly can’t be said of Robert Benton that he faulted on the particulars. For indeed, Still of the Night is an enormously sleek and handsome film; a sophisticated murder mystery fairly drenched in atmosphere and style. Oscar-winning cinematographer Néstor Almendros (Days of Heaven, Sophie’s Choice) channels Fritz Lang and Hitchcock’s trademark close-ups, imbuing Still of the Night’s color-saturated interiors and shadowy nighttime exteriors with a tension and dynamism not always present in Benton’s intermittently dormant script.
But as many filmmakers before and since have learned, capturing the look and feel of a Hitchcock film is a relative cakewalk when compared to replicating Hitchcock’s gift for storytelling, his understanding of the elements of suspense, and his mastery of rhythm and pace through editing.
Sara Botsford as Gail Phillips

Still of the Night is a film I rank amongst my favorite Hitchcock homage movies, a list comprised of, but not limited to: Donen’s Charade, Chabrol’s The Butcher, De Palma’s Obsession, Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black, and Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath.

But as much as I take delight in Still of the Night being a smart and worthy entry in the faux-Hitchcock romantic thriller sweepstakes; I've no problem in confessing that I find the film to be somewhat lacking as a romance, and that Benton's screenplay feels like it's a story meeting or two short when it comes to the payoff ending. Either that or perhaps the victim of last-minute tampering, as Benton had a reputation for reshoots and rewrites.

If any of what passes for objective observations about Still of the Night ring false in my writing, blame it on the film’s title sequence. Composer John Kander (sans longtime collaborator Fred Ebb) composed music for Still of the Night described by biographer James Leve as a “nocturnal waltz theme.” When I sat in the theater on opening weekend back in 1982 and heard this beautiful melody playing beneath an elegant credits sequence comprised of a full moon floating gently across a midnight sky…I knew instantly, no matter how flawed the forthcoming film might be, there was no way I was ever going to completely "dislike" Still of the Night. That opening gave me goosebumps. 
To this day I think it’s one of the loveliest, most simply poetic title sequences for a “thriller” I’ve ever seen. So much so that while working on this piece, I made a nuisance of myself by asking my partner to play it for me on the piano nearly every day.
John Kander's theme for Still of the Night is intended to
"create an uneasy balance between romance and terror" - James Levee

As for the film itself, I largely regard Still of the Night as a sensual experience. I enjoy its surface pleasures while trying not to focus too much on all the lost potential. Unlike many, I actually think Still of the Night is a very effective thriller, providing suspense, mystery, and a few surprises along the way.  It has style, tension, strong performances throughout, and a visual distinction that marks it as one of the few films from the '80s to emerge unmarred by hideous fashions and embarrassing hairdos.
But while I easily find myself stimulated by the particulars of the plot, the ritzy setting, and the overall glossy production values; Still of the Night never engages my heart, rouses my empathy, or involves me in any meaningful, emotional way with the characters. I watch the film at a pleasured remove; happy to be seeing so much talent assembled in the service of an impressive Hitchcock carbon; all the while suppressing my disappointment that the film doesn't ultimately live up to the potential suggested by the collaboration of Benton, Streep, Scheider, Tandy, and Almendros.
Still of the Night succeeds stupendously in capturing the look and feel of a Hitchcock film, but Benton's screenplay really pulls up short when it comes to characterization. These are less real people than pawns operating in service of a plot. And even there I'm afraid the ball is dropped a bit, as the complex, marvelously intricate dream sequence that holds so many keys to the central mystery ultimately feels like a letdown when its banal Freudian code is broken.

Although easy to forget now, but one of the major selling points of Still of the Night in 1982 was that it was one of the rare thrillers made for grown-ups. In a marketplace flooded by horror sequels, teen slasher flicks, and sleazy erotic thrillers, Still of the Night's promise of a return to the classic suspense thriller shone like a beacon.
I'd been a Meryl Streep fan since The Seduction of Joe Tynan, so the idea of my favorite actress appearing in one of my favorite film genres was irresistible. In assessing her take on the Hitchcock blonde, here again, it must be said, objectivity is not likely to rear its head. I'm crazy about her in this movie. She's just so marvelous to watch. I just wish her role were better written.
Roy Scheider, perhaps one of the last of the grown-man actors Hollywood favored before switching to its current taste for superannuated frat boys, is also very good here. But again, his character is underserved by the screenplay, resulting in his chemistry with Streep being more muted than it should be for a film dubbed a romantic thriller.
An actor whose performance has improved over time is Josef Sommer as George Bynum. I was 25-years old when I first saw Still of the Night, and I remember being somewhat grossed-out at the time by this "old fart" who fancied himself a lady's man. Well, remarkably, Sommers was only 47 when he made this film (15 years older than Streep), a good 12 years younger than I am now. Suddenly he doesn't seem so old, although his character has remained every bit as odious. Sommer may not be playing a very likable individual, but his George Bynum is terrifically realized.
She's not given much to do, but it's always a pleasure seeing the great Jessica Tandy onscreen

Perhaps in an effort to stay one step ahead of Hitchcock-savvy audiences apt to figure out whodunnit by the 30-minute mark, Still of the Night clocks in at a brisk 93 minutes. And while there’s nothing wrong with a thriller being fast-paced (a wise choice in this instance, given the relative simplicity of the plot), haste of the sort that forces events to proceed so swiftly—leaving characters and relationships undeveloped—results in a story that feels rushed.
Brooke gives Sam a Greek Tanagra figurine to replace the desk statue she accidentally breaks when she briefly panics during an earlier visit
Still of the Night handles its suspense duties nicely, taking the time necessary to set up pertinent plot points and having them pay off later, also, allowing for the gradual disclosure of past events (via Bynum’s taped therapy sessions) to inform and alter our perception of things in the present. Similarly, the film handles the central murder mystery extremely well, cleverly revealing details in dual “Cherchez la femme” narratives: one told in flashback by the victim himself (Bynum) as he tries to unravel the mystery of the woman with whom he’s carrying on an adulterous affair; the other relayed in the present by Sam, who alternately fears and fears for the woman he barely knows, yet has fallen in love with. It is on this last point—the romantic relationship between Brooke and Sam—where Still of the Night could have most benefited from a few more minutes running time.
Innocent Seduction
Still of the Night takes two classic Hitchcock archetypes: the icy blonde-with-a-past (Kim Novak in Vertigo, Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, Tippi Hedren in Marnie) and the physician-heal-thyself emotionally fucked-up hero (James Stewart in Vertigo, Sean Connery in Marnie), and plops them in the middle of a genuinely intriguing murder mystery. Genre conventions demand they fall in love, but Benton’s screenplay devotes so little time to helping us understand these characters beyond the plot devices they signify, their union lacks the emotional intensity the film needs. 
Two beautiful enigmas kissing does not a romance make

Brooke’s allure and mystique is wrapped up in our inability to quite figure her out, thus her abrupt interest in Sam fuel’s the film’s suspense. We’re never sure if her attraction to him is authentic or masking a sinister, ulterior agenda. 
But Roy Scheider’s Sam is the character from whose perspective the film is told, so our being given so little information about him severely undercuts our engagement in the story. As written, Sam left me with more questions than Brooke: Is Sam’s remoteness a result of his marriage, or the reason the marriage dissolved? Why does a successful psychiatrist live a life of beige austerity? Beyond her beauty, why exactly is he drawn to Brooke? They never really even have a normal conversation.
Sam and his psychiatrist mother share a moment of "shop talk" in his
sparsely furnished I'm-not-ready-to-be-a-bachelor-again pad

Filmmakers who venture into the land of Hitchcock homage do so at their peril, for nothing wrests a viewer out of a narrative faster, nor tugs at the willing suspension of disbelief more aggressively, than being invited by the director to engage in a game of “Spot the Hitchcock reference.”
North by Northwest
Still of the Night features an auction sequence similar to the one in Hitchcock's film,
but where Cary Grant sought the attention of the police, Scheider attempts to divert it

Unlike those De Palma films where entire sequences are lifted from Hitchcock movies, Still of the Night wisely adheres to “in the style of” homage when it comes to its storytelling. Hitchcock references abound (North by Northwest blonde, Marnie red, Notorious daddy-issues) but they're subtle and unobtrusive enough for the film to be enjoyed by those not possessing a vast familiarity with the works of the Master of Suspense. Of course, for those who do, Still of the Night offers a wealth of Hitchcock-related dividends, but none so overt as to prove a narrative distraction.
Saboteur/North by Northwest
The one arm, hanging-by-a-thread rescue attempt
Rear Window
Bynum watches Brooke's apartment and spies her undressing for a stranger  
A bell tower is the site of a death suspected of being murder
Brooke and Sam analyze the details of a dream to solve a murder and unlock a dark secret
The Birds
An attacking bird features in the film's biggest "jump" moment

The working title for Still of the Night was Stab, so...there you have it

Although they share no scenes together in Still of the Night, Meryl Streep and actor Joe Grifasi are longtime friends, their association going back to their days at the Yale School of Drama in the '70s. Grifasi has appeared with Streep onscreen in The Deer Hunter and Ironweed. Click HERE to see them performing the musical intro to an all-star 2014 charity event.

On a 2012 episode of Andy Cohen's Watch What Happens: Live Meryl Streep offered up Still of the Night when asked to: Name one bad film that you have made."  

I remember back when Still of the Night was still known as Stab, Meryl Streep and Roy Scheider were presenters on some award show. Their pairing in the soon-to-be-released Stab was announced as they approached the podium. At some point in their stage banter Streep joked, "Oh, I kill him in that!"   As unlikely as it is Streep would divulge the actual ending of the film, I've never forgotten her saying this, and thus always wondered if there was ever an alternate ending for Still of the Night

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 207

Saturday, August 5, 2017


"It's time to speak of unspoken things...."
Ad tagline for Joseph Losey's Secret Ceremony (1969)

Ghost stories have always been a bit of a challenge for me. Not so much in literature, where my imagination is free to conjure up whatever horrors necessary to raise the hairs on the back of my neck and get the goosebumps tingling; but most definitely in film. There I find the visual medium’s gift for literalism is paradoxically at odds with the degree to which my imagination and mind's eye need to forget about how easy it is for move magic to create ghosts, yet how difficult it is for them to be made to appear even remotely scary.
Through the magic of special effects, films are ideally suited to granting vivid, tangible realism to even the most fanciful narratives; thus, the representational side of ghost stories—materialized apparitions, floating objects and the like—has always been well within the scope of where motion pictures excel. But too often in the attempt to provide solid scares, ghost story movies fall prey to an over-reliance on rote genre devices like loud noises, jump cuts, the scope of the ghost's powers, the grotesqueness of their appearance, and the malevolence of their actions. All standard suspense/horror devices which are fine in and of themselves, but in the supernatural realm tend to turn ghost stories into little more than paranormal stalker thrillers.

Since what has always creeped me out the most about ghost stories is the mere "idea" of ghosts—that the dead retain a presence and consciousness of life—the literal depiction of phantasms onscreen isn't enough to elicit much of a response from me. In fact, when it comes to ghosts in films, my personal experience has been that the more over-emphatic the visuals, the more muted their power to genuinely scare me.  
Authors and filmmakers tend to agree that the scariest, most vivid horrors take place in the mind. So, when a movie comes along that appears to have its priorities in order (revealing less, calling on viewers to use their imaginations more) and takes the time and effort to really mess with my head (allowing the visual aspects of the narrative to assert itself in service of, and in deference to, the engagement of the viewer's imagination); then I feel as though I’m in good hands.

When this occurs (as it frequently does in the thrillers of Hitchcock, Polanski, and Clouzot), I’m comfortable suspending my disbelief and surrendering to the full arsenal of cinema’s storytelling vocabulary—music, cinematography, performance, atmosphere, ambiguity, language—because it feels as though, in the formulating of the film as a whole, the director has already taken the active participation of the viewer into account.
In other words, in order for it to work, the film needs me to be alert and paying attention. All manner of information is hidden in plain sight on the screen, but the filmmaker who respects the symbiotic collaboration between artist and audience knows better than to hand me everything; he/she knows that my enjoyment of said film will be richer if I am trusted and called upon to discover things for myself.

To me, this is the hallmark of any well-made film, but when speaking of horror and suspense, it's absolutely essential. One film which accomplishes all of the above spectacularly, while also embodying the cinematic principle I call "the eloquence of ambiguity," is Jack Clayton's masterpiece The Innocents.
Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens
Martin Stephens as Miles
Pamela Franklin as Flora
Megs Jenkins as Mrs. Grose
Michael Redgrave as The Uncle

William Archibald’s 1950 play The Innocents adapted from Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw serves as the source for Jack Clayton’s decorously brooding 1961 film adaptation. This assured sophomore effort by the Oscar-nominated director of Room at the Top (1959) boasts a screenplay by Truman Capote and playwright/screenwriter John Mortimer (Bunny Lake is Missing), who contributed a few scenes and added a touch of Victorian verisimilitude to the dialogue.

And, indeed, the film's Victorian setting, with its demand for propriety and the appearance of order at all costs, is every bit a character in this ghost story as is the pervading presence of the tale's no-longer-living lovers. It’s a ghost story best whispered, a dark poem about past-lives lingering, and a solemn tale befitting the somber corners and shadowy hallways of a gothic mansion.
The Innocents stars Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens; a naïvely pious governess dispatched to a remote country estate which she comes to fear is haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor (Miss Jessel) and a valet of bestial repute named Peter Quint. The illicit lovers both died under mysterious circumstances on the estate not long before, yet it appears to be their wish that their presence remain felt in the lives of the present inhabitants. Their spiritual presence is fearful enough, but compounding Miss Giddens' dread is the mounting certainty that the nature and intent of the haunting is the moral corruption of the two children left in her charge: angelic, guilelessly morbid Flora (Franklin), and charming, disturbingly mature Miles (Stephens).
The film’s slowly intensifying disquietude—the narrative turn of the screw—arises both out of uncertainty and ambiguity. There's uncertainty as to whether the children are truly the innocents they appear to be, or if in fact, wily co-conspirators in league with the phantoms. The Ambiguity relates to the possibility that the spectral terrors befalling Bly House are not real at all, but merely figments of Miss Giddens’ imagination; the fevered manifestations of an emotionally-repressed mind. 

More than just a faithful adaptation of a literary classic, The Innocents is a visually stunning elucidation of the novella's themes. Taking great pains to distance itself from the full-color, purple gothic of the then-popular Hammer series of horror films, this British production has pedigree and craftsmanship oozing like ectoplasm from every frame.
Filmed in glorious black and white which grows increasingly starker as the film progresses,
the cinematographer is two-time Oscar winner Freddie Francis (who has the dubious distinction of being the director of Trog, Joan Crawford's last film, and a horror of a different stripe). Atypically for the genre, The Innocents is shot in widescreen Cinemascope: a 20th Century-Fox prerequisite for its “A” productions at the time.  
From Jack Clayton’s perceptive direction to the affecting performances of its talented cast, everything about The Innocents: location, décor, and especially its use of sound and the innovative integration of electronic synth to its music score--has been done to capture the feel of James’ novel and remain true to its subtle horror.
Clytie Jessop as Miss Jessel
But if The Innocents succeeds at being a deliberately paced, restrained horror film, it’s far from being a passionless one. In fact, in its own buttoned-up, Victorian way, it's near-hysterical. When one takes the time to process just what Miss Giddens' suspicions allude to, or what's to be inferred by the strange relationship she shares with Miles...well, it's really rather astonishing. Especially when considering the age of the children and the fact that this was made in 1961. Even the ostensibly progressive 1971 film The Nightcomers (a The Turn of the Screw prequel featuring Marlon Brando and Stephanie Beacham as Quint and Miss Jessel) felt it necessary to lessen the shock value by making Miles and Flora considerably older.
The Kiss

The Innocents is a film I came upon rather late in the road, seeing it for the first time only a few years ago after several friends—learning of my newfound appreciation of Deborah Kerr—recommended it as both one of Kerr's finest films and the actress' favorite of all her performances.
I have a vague recollection of seeing part of The Innocents when I was a kid; a memory wedded in my mind with seeing  The Haunting on TV (a film I now see owes quite a lot to Jack Clayton) and concluding in both cases that, to my Creature Features-weaned mind, the movies weren't scary enough to hold my interest because “nothing happens.”
Peter Wyngarde as Peter Quint
Now, to my mature, weary of the Rob Zombie/Eli Roth School of horror-for-the slow-witted eyes, I realize nothing could be further from the truth. Catching The Innocents on cable TV, I was absolutely thunderstruck by what an exquisite exercise in terror of the mind it really is. I was especially impressed by how true to the nature of Henry James’ novella the film remains, maintaining the particulars of the ghost story and tone of Victorian repression, all the while interposing layer upon layer of menace, deviancy, and psychological dread in ways wholly cinematic and dramatically evocative.

I can’t remember when I’ve seen a more beautifully shot horror film (the edges of the frames are blurred, giving the impression of things hidden and lurking in corners), nor one with a screenplay so richly detailed in character and a sense of time and place. The real trick up The Innocents’ sleeve is its narrative ambiguity. It’s extremely skilled in establishing Bly House as a place of strange goings on, of encroaching decadence and decay, but just as deftly it hints that the principled, impressionable Miss Giddens might be something less than a reliable narrator.
Are the others unable to see, unwilling to see, or is there just simply nothing there to be seen?

The puzzle of the story is compellingly provocative and the whole film is shrouded in a disturbing sense of discordant interactions, but what cemented The Innocents as an enduring favorite (and made watching the film a genuinely frightening experience I was more than happy to repeat) is how its ambiguous structure played with my imagination just as deftly as the shadows and barely heard whispers in Bly House played with that of Miss Giddens. 

My youthful antipathy toward the work of Deborah Kerr really kept me from a lot of films I know I would have enjoyed immensely during my adolescence. This gross discrediting of the immensely talented actress is rooted in my first having become aware of her work through a series of late-career head-scratchers that hardly did her justice. It did me no favors to come to know of Deborah Kerr via the films Prudence and the Pill, Casino Royale, and Marriage on the Rocks. They may have been movies she enjoyed making, but to me, they established her as a charming but starchy British actress drawn to moldy sex comedies, and I thereafter avoided anything with her name attached to it. Bonjour Tristesse is the film that turned me around, followed by the glorious Black Narcissus, and now The Innocents—unequivocally my favorite Deborah Kerr performance. It's in fact, I consider it to be one of the most extraordinary screen performances I've ever had the good fortune to come across. 
Given how often I’ve watched The Innocents merely to see the play of emotions across Deborah Kerr’s face—some of the most complex appearing in almost imperceptibly brief flashes of brilliance—I, like Kerr herself, am convinced this film is her finest screen performance. With the entire film hinging upon the arc of Miss Giddens’ character: from empathetic voice of reason to irrational, possibly unstable fantasist; Kerr moors this ghost story in a gripping emotional realism.
With no dialogue specifically addressing the source of her character’s many “issues” (the fervency of her devotion to children, the cause of her troubled dreams, the austerity of her existence, her sexual repression/preoccupation) she makes The Innocents as much a film about the dangers of repressed desire cloaked in moral rectitude as it is about the corruption of innocence.

Deborah Kerr makes the movie for me, but the two child actors portraying Miles and Flora are beyond impressive. Both Pamela Franklin (the wondrous actress from Our Mother's House and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie making her film debut) and near-veteran Martin Stephens (Village of the Damned) credit their performances with the patience bestowed by Jack Clayton, but I think that’s only partially the case. These kids bring an incredible amount of creepy purity to their roles.
Kids in horror movies are meant to ratchet up the jeopardy-factor, but too often the reality is, in the casting, that they tend to be a pretty vacuous addition; vortices of irritation, sucking the energy out of perfectly good horror films. For the radiance of every Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed there are countless half-pint deadweights like the twin blank slates cast in The Other (1972); that annoying brat in Burnt Offerings (1976); the dyspeptic son-of-a-devil in the 2001 remake of The Omen; and worst-offender prize-winner, the noxious child in the TV movie version of The Shining, who had viewers praying for his REDRUM.
Compare the knowing and disturbing performances of Flora and Miles in The Innocents (Stephens managing to be also heartbreakingly touching) with their elongated, vacant-eyed counterparts in The Nightcomers, and you get a true sense of the enormous contribution Franklin Stephens' and Pamela Franklin's canny knowingness makes to the overall chilly effectiveness of The Innocents.
Purity Devoured by Evil

A testament to the richness of The Innocents’ ambitiously ambiguous structure is that its themes of innocence defiled and wholesomeness decayed extend to the enigmatic efficiency of its title.
Who are "the innocents"?
Taken literally, it refers most obviously to Miles & Flora, children whose innocence Miss Giddens fears has been robbed of them due to their exposure to the “indecencies” of Quint and Miss Jessel’s relationship. And, taking this tack, most certainly the sheltered Miss Giddens also qualifies as an innocent; not only due to her novice status as a governess, but born of her naiveté and misguided moral indomitability in the face of an evil she can scarcely comprehend. Even Miss Grose, with her determined refusal to entertain even the dimmest thought of anything untoward, represents innocence preserved through obliviousness.
Purity Decayed
A bug crawls out of the mouth of a garden cherub

I personally gravitate to a literal interpretation of the film’s title, but equally persuasive is the theory that The Innocents is meant paradoxically, like the ironic titles of Edith Wharton novels: The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. From this perspective The Innocents could allude to the Christian concept of original sin and how all acquired knowledge—carnal or otherwise—is essentially innocence lost. From the perspective that even the mere awareness of or exposure to evil represents a form of spiritual corruption, no one in the film qualifies as an innocent.

The self-interested uncle feigns no innocence, although his lack of full disclosure to Miss Giddens as to what truly transpired between Quint and Miss Jessel in his country home can be interpreted as the pretense of innocence in order not to lose her as a potential governess.
Miss Giddens’ innocence is called into question when one considers how her reaction to the uncle (obvious infatuation) is mirrored in her response to first meeting Miles. It has been suggested that her fervent devotion to children and lack of interests outside of their welfare, masks a repressed, embattled sexuality. Like many an overzealous “family values” politician, Miss Giddens is a mass of closeted desires and is unwholesomely obsessed with obscenity.
Mrs. Grose, the only adult in a position to be fully aware of what risk to the children Quint and Miss Jessel posed, nevertheless prefers to shun imagination, close her eyes in the dark, and meet everything she doesn’t understand with a dismissive "Stuff and nonsense.” A willful ignorance, and a means of shrouding herself in false, "blameless" innocence.
The question posed by the superficially benign behavior of the children is the one Miss Giddens asks herself: are they truly oblivious to the hauntings and all they have been exposed to, or do they merely pretend? Although we hate to admit it, children have a natural sexual curiosity devoid of an awareness of morality. When we insist on imposing moral imperatives, telling them such thoughts are wicked and wrong, it's not difficult to view such well-meaning "protective" behavior - introducing children to the concept of evil - as a corruption of their natural innocence.
Sharing Secrets

Owing to my having more practical, real-life experience with familial dysfunction than either ghosts or haunted houses, I like horror films that make a case for supernatural disturbances arising from emotional and psychological crisis. When I think of my favorite horror movies: Rosemary’s Baby, Burnt Offerings, The Shining, The Stepford Wives, The Omen, The Exorcist, and The Haunting--they all start with characters whose relationships and/or emotional states are already shown to be under some considerable stress.

Early on in The Innocents, it’s hinted that the very qualities characterizing Giddens as a suitable governess—single (and perhaps given to flights of romantic fantasy, “You do look pleased!” remarks Flora, noticing Miss Giddens’ reaction to receiving a letter from the handsome uncle), sensitive, morally devout, a strong love of children—are the very aspects of her personality which will later prove to be where she is most vulnerable.
The positive, sensual overstimulation she feels with her arrival at the manor (whose every corner of tranquil beauty also reveals an air of decay) turns feverish and detrimental only in proportion to what she learns about the children’s past and their relationship with Quint and Miss Jessel. As The Innocents reveals itself to be a ghost story, it also exposes its roots in Victorian repression; for one gets the distinct impression that for Miss Giddens, the materialization of the ghosts themselves is a horror, but one secondary to the real “evil” they represent: sex. 
It’s precisely this‒the subtle overlay of human sexual neurosis upon the supernatural‒ that makes The Innocents such a compelling and uniquely creepy viewing experience. A film so intelligent and artful in execution that it can end on a note that leaves the audience with more questions than answers, yet at the same time feel wholly and utterly satisfying. Brilliant movie.

Insights: The Making of "The Innocents" (2006)  Click HERE to watch the 30 min. documentary
Director Jack Clayton and Pamela Franklin behind the scenes during the filming of The Innocents

This speculative take on the events preceding The Innocents is vastly inferior and literal-minded, but as a curiosity (Marlon Brando's accent!) it's worth a look.

"More than anything I love children. More than anything."

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2017