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British Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Innocents

The Innocents 1961, directed by Jack Clayton | Film review

Many an eerie film has been described as a “spine-tingling” experience, but few live up to that description literally for most cineastes. The movie that did that to me more than any other, giving me physical shivers like a bucket of ice down my back, is The Innocents.

Producer/Director Richard Clayton’s 1961 art house thriller demonstrates that a skilled director can jangle nerves without spattering the screen with blood. Clayton started with ideal source material: Henry James’ psychological horror masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw (Although the film’s title comes from William Archibald’s prior effort to adapt the novel to the stage). But Clayton was wise enough to bring in a modern master, Truman Capote, to write most of the script. Capote kept the best elements of the Victorian English novel and suffused them with Freudian overtones and a dose of American Southern Gothic, rotting blossoms and all.

The plot sounds deceptively unoriginal on the surface. A wealthy man uninterested in two child relations (Michael Redgrave) hires a sheltered, rather jejune woman (Deborah Kerr) to be their governess. She moves in to care for them in a Gothic mansion, and the children at first seem wonderful. But strange passions and mysterious events arise which plunge the woman into a terrifying experience. The film, like the novel, leaves the central question of the plot a matter of some ambiguity, making it almost as enjoyable to analyze and discuss as it is to watch.

I don’t know how the 40-year old Deborah Kerr was cast as the lead in this film (unless her governess role in The King and I typecast her), because James’ governess character was originally conceived as a naive woman barely into adulthood who had never been away from home before. Yet Kerr turns in one of the best performances of her storied career, steadily unraveling before our eyes. To the extent the film is interpreted as portraying the psychologically deleterious effects of loneliness and sexual frustration, a 40-year virgin gave Kerr lots of material with which to work her magic.

Astonishingly, the veteran Kerr is matched step for step by the riveting acting of a 12-year old, Martin Stephens. He was already a star in Britain, based in part on his similarly unnerving turn in Village of the Damned. His role here is even more challenging because not only does he need to mix childlike moments with menacing ones, he also has to convey sexual awareness well beyond his years. He manages it all brilliantly.

This is also an amazing looking film, with the gardens and house exteriors (Sheffield Park), and the custom built interior sets contributing to the atmosphere. Even more important is the camerawork of superstar cinematographer Freddie Francis. From the very first shot, he pulls off an impressive array of visual feats, including blackening the edges of many of his interior shots to create a claustrophobic effect, as well amping up the central lighting when needed to get depth of field shots in CinemaScope’s otherwise flat look. Without spoiling the movie, I will just offer that the images from the most frightening scenes of The Innocents have stayed with me forever.

This movie didn’t quite land with audiences or critics when it was released. It was too arty and reserved for fans of more typical horror films of the period, and too traditionally haunted house bound for the arty set. I’m not going to embed the trailer for this reason, because all it does is show that even a major studio with a big promotions department could not figure out how to effectively market The Innocents. Fortunately, as magnificent films sometimes can do, The Innocents gained a larger and larger following as the years went by, until today it deservedly wins a place on virtually every “best horror films of all time” list.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama Romance

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Have you ever seen a movie that stuck in your head for reasons you couldn’t fully explain? A film that you eventually realized had a much bigger impact on you than it seemed to when you were sitting in the theater? That was my experience of 1943’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Made during the war by the legendary team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (aka “The Archers”), the film tells the eventful life story of Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) over a more than 4-decade span. The borderline-bizarre opening sequence, which might just as easily have presaged a big-budget MGM musical, introduces us to Candy in the winter of his life, where he has taken on the unappealing characteristics of the self-satisfied, out of touch cartoon character known as Colonel Blimp. But with a nice bit of camera trickery, Candy recalls the memory of his salad days, and is transformed into the markedly different young man that he was: Handsome, kind, brave, and in some ways boyishly innocent. The film then portrays his adventures through heroic moments, comic situations, romance and friendship, with two other other figures serving as foils. One is a noble German officer whom he meets in World War I (Anton Walbrook) and the other is the eternal feminine: Three different characters all played by Deborah Kerr who stay the same age as Candy ages through life.

There is much to love about this long, multi-layered and richly rewarding film. The craft and humanity of the producer-director-screenwriting team is on full display, making it surprising that this movie is not remembered as often as their other triumphs such as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Powell and Pressburger’s characters are unusually well rounded and evolve over time, which was rare for movies of this period. Indeed, Winston Churchill allegedly opposed the release of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp because it portrayed a German soldier so movingly that the British public might sympathize with their current enemy (once you have seen the movie, you will realize how ludicrous this fear was).

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) | Film Capsule

The thematic latticework of the film is truly compelling. On the surface, the movie can be enjoyed as an exciting life story full of moments of humor and action. But at a deeper level, the film explores how old-fashioned values were unable to meet the demands of the mid 20th-century, how the young can grow up to be very different older people than ever they planned, how loving one’s country has rewards and limits, how men may think they are smarter than women but are almost always wrong, and how we don’t always understand what we long for until it is gone. Wonderfully, the film never preaches a particular simple message about any of these themes. Rather, it gives each character and viewpoint its due, sympathetically and sometimes sadly, without ever taking sides.

Visually, this brilliantly restored film is Technicolor at its best, with Georges Périnal painting the screen with one stunning shot after the other. The anchoring performances by Livesey, Walbrook and Kerr are also magnificent, not just individually but in the way they play off each other. Indeed, the performances (and the well-scripted characters) make the film even better than a similar epic movie made in the same era: Cavalcade. That fine movie at times kept the viewer at some emotional distance because its toffy characters were a bit inaccessible; here one can’t help but be drawn into the emotional lives of the people on screen.

There could be no better closing to this review that Martin Scorsese’s description of how this landmark movie inspired him. Scorsese is not just a brilliant filmmaker in his own right; he is also a lifelong student of cinema and a champion of preserving its past. He first saw The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as a child. Even though it was a mutilated version with over 40 minutes cut out and the rest of the scenes re-arranged, and even though he watched it on a small black and white television, he could still perceive Powell and Pressburger’s genius.

p.s. For another perspective on this classic movie, let me recommend my friend Hans Kundnani’s analysis of what the film has to say about Englishness and the relationship between Powell and Pressburger.