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  • Writer's pictureThaïs Castralli

weekly inspiration #3: The Innocents (1961)



When young Ms. Giddens accepts her first job as a governess to a sweet girl named Flora, she has no idea she is agreeing to becoming a tutor for two children instead of one, calling a small palace with a dark past her home, and having her entire sense of reality challenged.

She hesitates to take the job at first, having no experience, but is won over by the children’s uncle, an eccentric bachelor who is offering her the position, for he has no desire to trade the London nightlife for taking care of children in the countryside. The man, played quickly but magnificently by Michael Redgrave, is the uncle to orphans Flora and Miles, who makes it explicit to Miss Giddens he does not wish to be bothered with any matters regarding the kids, no matter what happens. While Flora lives in his lavish state in a rural area, young Miles is boarded at a school he is soon to be expelled from. Without expecting it, Miss Giddens will become the governess to the siblings who may be sharing more secrets than most children.

This is the premise for The Innocents (1961), one of those movies in which all the pieces fall so perfectly into place that you cannot regard it in another way but a masterpiece. It is based on a Henry James novel, The Turn of the Screw, and adapted to the screen by Truman Capote and William Archibald. The source text is Archibald’s own adaptation of the story to his stage play, also entitled The Innocents.

Deborah Kerr plays the main role, Miss Giddens, and she regards this work as the finest interpretation of her carrier. That is no light statement - and it should be the starting point to consider the brilliance of this movie - coming from an actress who was nominated for six Oscars, and accumulated highly praised films such as The King and I, An Affair to Remember, and Black Narcissus.

Cinematographer Freddie Francis also considered this his best work. This is another hint to how The Innocents allowed each member of cast and crew, each piece of the puzzle to offer their most genuine creative effort and display of skill. In this case, the statement comes from a director of photography regarded as one of British’s greatest filmmakers (in my opinion, not only British, but one of the best - period), who also directed features and TV shows, and the artist who fellow top cinematographer Jack Cardiff selected as D.P. when he was a directing. Interestingly enough, Freddie Francis won an Academy Award for best cinematography in this movie directed by (equally brilliant cinematographer) Jack Cardiff. The film was Sons and Lovers (1960). And the one that would immediate follow for Francis would be his favorite, photographing Deborah Kerr on her own personal favorite.

Watching The Innocents, it is difficult to conceive that this is only the second feature released by director Jack Clayton. Serving as the producer for this movie as well, he had been producing for exactly a decade when he had his debut as a director, in 1959, with Room at the Top.

Although his filmography only counts ten productions as director, with six of them being feature films, it is absolutely no surprise to discover that Mr. Clayton is highly regarded by many filmmakers as one of the best directors in film history. In the same manner, The Innocents is considered by filmmakers and critics alike as one of the best horror movies ever created. This sophisticated psychological thriller might appear in countless “best horror movies of all times” lists, from The Guardian to Rotten Tomatoes, but the fact that it is one of Martin Scorsese and Guillermo del Toro’s favorite movies and Joe Dante’s favorite horror is what consolidates The Innocents as a masterpiece to me.

The movie tries to set the mood right from the start. Well, actually, it sets the tone even before the opening credits roll in. It begins with a blood-chilling song over black screen. Written by Paul Dehn and Georges Auric, the softly-sung, but macabre lyrics, is heard with no image to accompany it. Many theaters never exhibited those forty-five seconds of music before the 20th Century Fox logo appears, because projectionists presumed it was a mistake on the print, and edited that beginning out.

To give an idea of the eerie setting Clayton was striving for from the get-go, here's the original opening of The Innocents:

At the time of its release, the movie was largely projected starting with the studio’s logo. Prints used for screenings of the film today and the remastered version by Criterion Collection preserve the intro.

The two times I watched this movie in 35mm projections the pristine prints preserved the sinister intro with song. I wouldn’t expect differently, since the screenings were at the Academy’s series “This is Widescreen” at the Linwood Dunn theater, back in 2015, and at the New Beverly Cinema, for their Halloween horror matinees a week ago:



The Innocents is a gothic gem that only became such an atmospheric suspense because both director and cinematographer had to turn adversity into their best creative tool. 20th Century Fox’s president, Spyros Skouras, demanded that Clayton shot his film according to the studio’s most recent and most valuable marketing tool: the anamorphic process. In 1926, French inventor Henri Chrétien divides a process he called Anamorphoscope. By the early 50s, professor Chrétien had lost the patent on his invention, and originally had not presented much success, but after decades of improvements, the lenses he invented would be the answer to the widescreen race. The actual race to France occurred between the heads of Warner and Fox, who, witnessing the birth of Cinerama, looked for a process they could make available and profitable. The story goes that Fox beat Warner by hours, and so Chretien's lenses became Fox’s patented process: the anamorphic Cinemascope.

In its infancy, Cinemascope engage a spherical lens, and Chrétien’s creation, a “hypergonar” lens that allowed for a 2 to 1 squeeze of the image on film. With two lenses, productions had to employ two focus pullers working simultaneously. However, in 1954, just a little after Fox acquired the system, Bausch & Lomb won a technical Academy Award for the development of an all-in-one anamorphic lens. It was the answer Fox wanted to make their race worthwhile. The integrated system was so highly regarded that the first titles that follow the 20th Century Fox logo read “Cinemascope”, and on the opening credits, listed alongside heads of departments, are “ Lenses by Bausch & Lomb”:

This may have been a long dive into the anamorphic process, but in my opinion, the elegant visual representation The Innocents employs to tell the story is intrinsically rooted on the studio’s demand for it to be shot anamorphically. It was by, ultimately embracing the need for the widescreen framework, that director Jack Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis rethought the whole movie in visual therms, presenting sophisticated blocking for the interaction of characters, setting them in opposing ends of compositions, set in layered spaces.



Clayton wanted the movie to be shot in the classic Academy aspect ratio of 1.37:1. And was even prepared for the commonly considered “widescreen” version of the time: 1.66:1. With the change to 2.35:1 and the need to use anamorphic lenses, the director was thrown a curve ball. Anamorphic lenses from this early period presented a series of technical defects. Nowadays, filmmakers highly employ those lenses to take advantage of those imperfections, that can actually create “dreamy” imagery, with their light leaks, and chromatic aberrations, and be complimentary to faces and skin tone rendition. The idea is to indeed use this “vintage” look in favor of the film’s language. However, in the early ages of the anamorphic process, most filmmakers were not thrilled with the idea of aberrations, especially regarding what is known as anamorphic mumps - a distortion evident on faces in close up, when in foreground. Directors did not want to see their stars contracting a case of “anamorphic mumps” and for Clayton it went against the movie he had in mind: largely constructed around close ups of Debora Kerr.

Miss Giddens (Kerr’s character) starts to believe the countryside house is haunted and the children in her care might be possessed. The movie feeds this information to the audience through her. That means the audience doesn’t see anything she doesn’t, and only learns what she does. As there is no break in point of view, after being so tightly connected to Kerr’s face and expressions, the audience starts to ask themselves if what they (and she) believe is actually happening or just her imagination being haunted by stories. In order to create this intimate psychological connection between Miss Giddens and the viewer, director Jack Clayton knew it was important to always be inside her “headspace”. The frame should always place the viewer close to Miss Giddens’ face, so they could “buy” the insane scenario that builds up around her. “Square” aspect ratio offers the filmmaker the chance to present their actors’ faces in a portrait-style. Also, the tight frame would allow Clayton to explore the “claustrophobic” feeling he was after for the story.

Freddie Francis offered the director an idea: to break up the wideness of the frame he was being asked to work with by using many vertical lines in each composition. This ended up being a solution to trap Debora Kerr’s image inside the frame while being able to showcase the emptiness of the huge house around her. In the end, embracing these empty spaces allowed Clayton to imprint the thought that there’s always something lurking in the shadows.

In this aspect, the use of anamorphic lenses ended up proving to be beneficial as those had such drastic light loss towards the edges that the image rendered showcased hard vignetting. The obscured corners of the frame heightened the idea of darkness being always present around the characters - waiting on the corners.

Finally, to move Kerr away from the mumps, she would be showcased less in extreme close ups, allowing the darkness and the “presences” in the house to surround her in frame. Her close ups would be more carefully created, and without movement (so there would be no need for any extreme rack of focus that could call more attention to the imperfection). Additionally, the director took advantage of showing more extreme close ups of the children in foreground, so they could appear distorted, and somehow haunting (or haunted).

Use of vertical lines to break the wideness of frame, and sometimes to limit Debora Kerr's space inside the composition:

Extreme close ups reserved to the children, who appear mostly on foreground when interacting with Miss Giddens:

Another filmmaker’s mark that is shown throughout the movie is precise blocking during long shots. This is first witnessed on the opening sequence when the rich uncle is employing Miss Giddens’ services. She is confined to one spot - the spectator’s chair - as he paces freely through his office. The hesitant young woman can only follow the articulated, charming man with her eyes and head movement. This early stagnation points out to what shall unfold for the rest of the narrative: Miss Giddens’ will be trapped in one space. Even when she actively tries to leave the premisses of the countryside (in order to speak with the uncle), stronger forces pull her back. The attacking by the uncle and recoiling by Giddens is masterfully presented by the blocking inside this restricted space, clearly showing he has the upper hand, and right away putting the viewer with Miss Giddens, both placed on the spectator’s seat.

When Miss Giddens arrives at her new home, she is presented to the small palace by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. The camera pursues her amazement, and the viewer discovers the space with her, in the first of a series of long shots. The camera movement follows precise blocking that rearranges Miss Giddens and Mrs. Grose again and again in opposing sides of the frame, like pawns in a match. The chess board for this continuous movement of characters is a layered space shot in deep focus. The composition displays them moving from foreground to background, and vice-versa, sometimes adding the child Flora to the dance. In order to show the huge living room spaces in focus until as far as the eye can see, Francis had to use big lights with great output. The brightness was needed so the lens on the camera could have its iris closed down. With a small iris aperture there is more depth of field, so objects being photographed in different distances are still shown in focus. The intensity of lights to permit this sharpness throughout the sets was such that Ms. Kerr would usually wear sunglasses between takes.

The presentation of the house to Miss Giddens, by Mrs. Grose. Both characters keep being rearranged in opposite sides of the frame in a continuous camera movement. The long shot evidences the ample spaces of the house that are largely shown in deep focus. In the beginning of the sequence, the layered composition is clear, since even Flora is present in a third layer, on the background:

The bright lights used for the interiors and the harsh sunlight explored in exterior shots do not distract from the darkness of the story. And, darkness is itself used as a tool throughout the narrative to create the mood of the piece. Cinematography showcases high contrast as visual style that ends up being a feast for the eyes.

Wether the children are really possessed by evil spirits or if that’s only a manifestation of Miss Giddens’ imagination, the young actors are definitely lit (or barely so) to portray this haunting idea:

To conclude this essay, here’s a sequence that arranges together all weapons the filmmakers selected for their arsenal to build an atmospheric psychological horror. Miss Giddens is enraptured in an activity by herself at night when she is startled by noises. Already convinced there are spirits roaming the house, and that they wish to gain access to the children she cares for, the young governess, provided with the courage she builds up and a candlestick, marches off into the darkness to hunt down the evil presences:

If the horrors Miss Giddens experiences are real or imagined fear only the movie can reveal. All I can say is that if you are a fan of black and white and if you are ready for some unsettling scenes with children, watch The Innocents and join the team that regards this psychological thriller one of the best horrors ever made.

Thank you for reading!

Until the next week... and next Inspiration.

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