15
Jul
09

The turn of the screwballs

The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)

The Nightcomers (Michael Winner, 1972)

It’s been pissing it down for most of today, hence it was a good day to close the curtains and settle down to an old-fashioned ghost story. I’ve been having a bit of a Winner phase lately and when I picked up the latter title, I was a little disappointed to discover that it’s an adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw- as is the former, which I saw two or three years ago on its BFI re-release. But they’ve each taken the material to rather different places and I thought The Innocents might merit a second look.

Truman Capote is credited for the script, though you’d never guess as the presentation of the whole is as primly English as tea and scones (subject and casting imply that Jack Clayton sought to disassociate himself from angry young new wavers, after his Room at the Top debut). Deborah Kerr is Miss Giddins, a vicar’s daughter, a wholesome Snow White governess who receives her instructions from Michael Redgrave. He’s a playboy, by his own admission “a rather selfish person”, with no interest in his orphaned niece and nephew. He keeps them out of of sight and mind in his country estate and wants someone to raise the children and never, ever bother him under any circumstances. By the way, the previous governess died; but he clearly hasn’t given it enough thought to suspect any kind of foul play.

All the classic ingredients for a spooky yarn are there. It’s a great stately home, most of it vacant, the not-lived-in bits all dust and cobwebs. Freddie Francis’ B&W photography sees the camera swoop down oak bannisters and through arched doorways, luxuriating in deep-focus shots. The soundtrack uses all the tricks of the trade. By day, a theremin when someone makes an ambivalent remark, amplified buzzing flies when Kerr explores the nooks and crannies of the house; creaking doors, whispering wind and distant laughter when Kerr is having her candlelit night terrors. 

The two children, Miles and Flora, are about 10, polite and well-spoken. Their heads aren’t going to rotate 360 degrees any time soon. But they seem somehow wise beyond their years, slightly removed from the adults. On Miss Giddins’ arrival, Flora excitedly tells her that “Miles is coming” although the end of his school term is weeks away. Next morning a letter arrives, informing them that Miles has been expelled. The governess decides there’s something there. 

Although it obeys these conventions on the surface, the fascination of The Innocents is the way it manages to keep you off-centre. It all hinges on one question; is she or isn’t she bonkers? We feel that she probably is, but there’s always an element of doubt. The strait-laced Deborah Kerr unravels very quickly in that spooky big house and before long, what we have is half ghost story, half Polanski’s Repulsion. From her first night in the house, we’re given hints that she’s not as on top of everything as she endeavours to appear; she tosses, turns, sobs and whimpers in her sleep, as Flora stands over the bed smiling.

After a while, Miss Giddins starts seeing things. Figures in the distance, corresponding to the shapes of a man and a woman. When Flora finds her music box in the attic, it contains a cracked pendant with a picture of Peter Wyngarde. Within seconds, Miss G is confronted by Wyngarde as a gurning ghost. Now, why could that be? Interrogation of her sounding-board, the doting housekeeper Mrs Grose, reveals that this was the valet, Peter Quint. The previous governess loved him, he loved to slap her around- and she liked it. Furthermore, they had exhibitionist tendencies and used the house for purposes “better suited to dark woods”. When Quint was found dead, his lover drowned herself and we musn’t mention them to the children. All of which serves as rocket fuel to the already fertile subconscious of Miss Giddins.

The children, as well children might with a great big estate to run around, inhabit a world of their own. They’re always off whispering together, hatching plots. Miss Giddins doesn’t like it. Flora summons her to witness the assured horse riding of young Miles. She tucks him up one night, and is given a lingering kiss by open lips. She does not pull away. The title of the film gets seriously ambiguous.

As her visions keep coming, she becomes convinced that the siblings have been possessed by the spirits of the dead. We are invited to choose between the bemused scepticism of Mrs Grose, and the things Miss Giddins sees and hears. One unforgettable night scene features a piano playing in an empty room, an unfamiliar voice whispering to her, luring her into the corridors of locked doors where she hears all sorts and every shape glimpsed from the corner of the eye is ominous. It will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever been afraid of the dark. 

Kerr threatens to involve the vicar, then Redgrave, but finishes by trying to confront the children with the presence (as far as she can see) of the dead couple. Flora reacts badly but Kerr perseveres, sending away the whole household so she can be alone with Miles and exorcise him. She harries Miles as far as she can. Sweat pours from their foreheads. Wyngarde makes an appearance and Miles is forced into uttering his name, but drops dead from the exertion.

The Innocents drops hints about the dark heart to its story, and chooses to keep the worst off-camera. Michael Winner, in his inimitably vulgar, irreverent style, rips aside the curtains and shows us everything. His Nightcomers is a prequel to The Innocents, showing the house and the children in the days when Peter Quint (Marlon Brando nonetheless- in Last Tango mode, bald up top with straggling hair at the back) ruled the roost.

Winner is an in-your-face pop director, always taking the piss and looking to pin-prick seriousness. The Nightcomers is shot in vivid autumnal colours, with a strident cod-baroque score and two russet-haired, rosy-cheeked children for the disquieting porcelain dolls of The Innocents. The film has a bright, airy, confident feel. It’s a world away from the shadows and whispers of Clayton’s and it advertises this in one of the first scenes, where Brando’s charming Irish layabout demonstrates to the children what happens when you give a cigar to a toad (“He likes it so much he can’t stop. I’d say he’s happy”). The frog expands, and finally explodes. This isn’t going to be a psychological study.

Winner loves to remind you he’s there, never able to resist jump cuts and other displacing stunts- it’s a style not unlike Godard’s. Thora Hird’s  priggish, fussy Mrs Grose prepares a lavish salad in the kitchen, and the camera zooms in to a big fat worm amongst the lettuce leaves.

Brando is of course the centrepiece, and even with a very silly accent he’s magnetic. Seeing him in this film is like watching Ronaldinho turn out for Coventry City. Quint is an alcoholic Irish tramp, but Brando fills the screen with such command and authority that even when his method of seducing/molesting the governess is crude and blunt, it’s quite convincing that she should submit. Their sport is bondage, humiliation and soft-porn rumpy-pumpy, with young Miles agog at the window all the while. Brando is in better form the morning after, when telling an extended anecdote to the children- a tall tale of how his father sold a “mangy old nag” to some “gyppos” on “the highway from Carrickfergus to Belfast”.

The children worship him because he offers access to an adult perspective- unlike Grose or the governess, he never evades a subject or talks down to them. When the others demur, it is Quint who tells them, without sentiment or obfuscation, that their parents have died. They therefore accept him as an authority when he scotches the governess’ accounts of heaven and hell (“the dead don’t go nowhere, they got nowhere to go”). When she leads the children through their evening prayers, he is hidden behind the door, pulling funny faces and making a voodoo doll of Mrs Grose.

Soon the children turn to play-acting, mimicking the rope tricks of Quint and the governess in incestuous games. These episodes are sensationalist, but very funny. The ropes hurt Flora; Miles thinks “it’s supposed to hurt”. Flora declares that “ecstatic love-affairs are boring. Is it long til teatime?” As they wrestle on the bed, Mrs Grose intervenes and demands an explanation. Miles proudly tells her, “We have been doing sex”. Cut straight to their parents’ coffins being lowered into the grave.

Thora Hird scolds Miss Jessel in curious little haikus and tries to lay down the law with Quint, banning him from the house, but is no real match- he simply calls her bluff by holding the end of her shotgun to his face and asking her to pull the trigger. Colonel Kurtz v Nora Batty. Her perspective is closest to Deborah Kerr’s, telling the kids that “the devil’s in both of you”, but she is quite sidelined. The children lure her to their treehouse and steal the ladder, so the coast is clear for Jessel and Quint to hook up and teach the kids that “if you really love someone, you hate them and you want to kill them”.

The film starts to drag at around this point, until Grose threatens to blow the whistle and the governess agrees to leave. The children put their learning into practice and abruptly kill Jessel and Quint, Quint with a bow and arrow and Jessel by drowning. Reared on Brando’s taoist worldview, such horrors are perfectly logical to them. It’s a quite different kind of horror from The Innocents, as the worst is served up so matter-of-factly; Brando finds a stiff corpse floating on the lake, and Miles finishes him off with an arrow through the bald patch. The stiffs look deliberately artifical, like stiffs from a Bunuel. The stately baroque music makes a reappearance as the new governess arrives, and the film takes its leave with a shot of Brando face down in a pond, surrounded by golden leaves.

I’m sure most will prefer The Innocents as a piece of work and they’re probably right, but it all depends on one’s taste and for me the flippant audacity of The Nightcomers, misdirected though it may be, makes it an intriguing curio from the fringes of the cinematic annals- there is much to enjoy in there.

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2 Responses to “The turn of the screwballs”


  1. 1 tom
    July 16, 2009 at 11:36 am

    What a super blog!! Keep up the good work

  2. 2 Jamie
    July 19, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    Thank you!


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