November 9-15, 2005

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To Kerr Is Human

Henry James' screw turns tightly in 1961 ghost story 'The Innocents'

By Richard von Busack

WHEN ASSAULTING that foreboding peak known as Mt. Henry James, novices are advised to try the pass bearing the quaint name "The Turn of the Screw." The journey is still perilous, short as it is, and many turn back.

Even a short story by James, master of the compound passive sentence, trips up the reader. The story's steady accumulation of mood is the result of the deliberate, circulatory pacing, like a dog about to lie down.

In essence, The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story of abandonment set in the mid-Victorian era in a lonely English manor. A governess, keeping the care of two young orphaned children, begins to think that a pair of ghosts are also watching over them.

The ghosts are the spirits of a decadent valet named Peter Quint and the previous governess, Miss Jessel, whom he debauched. By not acknowledging the ghosts, who are plainly visible to the governess, the lovely, innocent children are "playing—or being made to play—some game."

At least, that's how a line in the 1961 film version, The Innocents, puts it. Director Jack Clayton isolates one aspect of horror in the premise, which James only brushed against. James is fascinated with the carnal sport of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, and with the seen and unseen.

Clayton—and scriptwriters William Archibald and Truman Capote—underscores the cultured viciousness of the uncle (Michael Redgrave), who decides to lock his nephew and his niece away in the countryside. (If Capote had what they call abandonment issues, as the recent film Capote claims, this is a place where he worked it out onscreen.)

Despite the uncle's meanness, Deborah Kerr's governess, Miss Giddens, is still enthralled with him. Given his trust, she is all the more determined to mother the 10-year-old or so Flora (Pamela Franklin) and 12-year-old or so Miles.

The force of some screenwriter's words will turn all actors into a version of him, and Miles is like a dwarf Capote. Innocent as Miles is, he shares Capote's gift for barbing a compliment. After toying with the governess or laying a juicy childish kiss on her, a peaceful, satiated look comes over him, like Dr. Hannibal Lecter resting after a full meal.

Martin Stephens is the child actor in question. If the hell-kid looks familiar, it is because Miles echoes another famous Stephens role from the previous year: a blond-wigged Midwich Cuckoo in 1960's Village of the Damned.

While The Innocents is feverish in its intensity, it doesn't all come together. Megs Jenkins' Mrs. Grose is too much a fussy, standard stage maid. Unlike in the book, she never becomes a co-respondent to Giddens' horrible fancies. (Kerr lets a look of distaste flicker as this menial gushes forth gratitude for the governess's company.)

The lickerish ghost Quint, played by a conventional Celtic brooder named Peter Wyngarde, floats up behind a window in front of a statue of Pan. It is just like having an actor cast as Satan turn up wearing a cape and a tuxedo.

Yet the elegant, serious tone begins with one of the most terrifying of all film openings: a blacked-out screen as the children sing-song a folk tune by George Auric with neomedieval lyrics by Paul Dehn.

Even with the usual trappings of the Gothic—blowing curtains, wax-dripping candelabras and stagnant, leaf-covered ponds—The Innocents never quite descends into camp. That's due to the acting by the children and the almost brutal crispness and clarity of Freddie Francis' black-and-white cinematography.

Francis was an anti-Expressionist horror photographer. (He lit his Hammer movies white-hot, and the crimson velvets and spilled blood are so red they're nearly persimmon-colored.)

Here, light glazes the white faces, the eyes are pinpricked and there are ghostly highlights on candle flames and polished brass bed knobs. The mist at Bly House parts to reveal clear, cruel motives and power struggles that are unnamable—and unspeakable even if they could be named.

Kerr is perfect, never editorial-izing the part, and leaving a shadow of a doubt at the end (strict Freudians will have a job explaining the presence of a ghostly teardrop).

"True blue," scoffs David Thompson of Kerr, implying that the actress's place was to uphold the moral fiber of the British empire during those kitchen-sink-movie-prone years in the United Kingdom. But Kerr—who did the liveliest Scots burlesque in Casino Royale—excelled at nuns in heat.

Kerr is also perishing for lack of love in the second film on the program at the Stanford Theatre with The Innocents: Michael Powell's Black Narcissus (1947). Pairing these two films is a triumph of the double-biller's art, an art now as abandoned as poor Miles and Flora.

The Innocents and Black Narcissus play Nov. 12-13 at the Stanford Theatre in San Jose.

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