Categories
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
British Drama

The Stars Look Down

The last remaining British coal mine recently closed, bringing a way of life to an end. My Welsh ancestors were among those who worked in this industry, giving movies about life in the pit a special power for me. The movie about British mining towns that Americans are most likely to recall is the John Ford classic How Green Was My Valley, but there’s a film of this sort I appreciate even more: The Stars Look Down.

Fans of my recommended film Night Train to Munich will be justifiably excited to watch The Stars Look Down, which was made immediately before it by the same director (Sir Carol Reed) and stars (Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood). But the two films otherwise could not be more different. The Stars Look Down is a working class drama with fewer light moments and a more downbeat final act than Night Train to Munich, making it a much more weighty work.

The plot: In a grim Northern English town, miners toil in Scupper Flats, seeking to extract the coal from the earth without breaking through to the millions of tons of water that threatens their existence. The Fenwicks are like any other family in town, except that their elder son Davey (Redgrave) has earnt a scholarship. Davey hopes that a proper education will enable him to become an effective political advocate for exploited miners. But he is diverted from his plans by his love of a local lass named Jenny (Lockwood), whose desire to immediately escape the miserable trappings of working class life lead Davey to sacrifice his educational opportunities. Meanwhile, his erstwhile friend and Jenny’s former beau Joe Gowlan (Emlyn Williams) also tries to make his way in the world, but does so by betraying his roots, with disastrous consequences.

Redgrave and Lockwood are both terrific here, playing characters a million miles from the light-hearted lovers of Night Train to Munch (and before that, the charming couple in peril in another of my recommendations, The Lady Vanishes). I was particularly impressed by Atwood’s willingness to break away from being everyone’s sweetheart and instead play a petty, grasping human being who is at the same time sympathetic (after all, she is only what poverty made her). Emlyn Williams, remembered mainly as an author, gives one of his best performances, starting out as somewhat comic and then devolving into unmitigated avarice. Under Reed’s direction, the supporting performances are also strong, most affectingly Nancy Price’s portrayal of Davey’s hard-bitten mother.

A.J. Cronin adapted his own novel to co-write the script with J.B. Williams, and it’s appropriately unromantic about how cruel working class people can be to each other and how ambivalent they sometimes are about one of their own rising to a different class. The only weakness of the script is the opening and closing voiceover narration, something that worked very well in Reed’s best film, The Third Man, but seems heavy-handed here. But it’s an easily ignored flaw in an otherwise dramatic and powerful script.

Last but not least, the special effects and camerawork in the mining scenes are extraordinarily vivid. Reed knew how to draw the audience into the lives of his characters, even when their fear of the horrors of the pit would make them want to pull away. The result is a meaty working class drama with shattering emotional impact.

p.s. One person who experienced that impact was my one-time Reality Based Community co-blogger Michael O’Hare’s mother, the sculptor Berta Margoulies (1907-1996). Her 1942 piece, Mine Disaster, in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, was directly inspired by The Stars Look Down.

Image Courtesy of the Whitney Museum
Categories
British Mystery/Noir Romance

The Lady Vanishes

the-lady-vanishes-4

As the British phase of his magnificent career was winding down, Alfred Hitchcock turned in a film as entertaining as anything he would make in America: 1938’s The Lady Vanishes.

For the first 25 minutes, the movie is a light-hearted romantic comedy featuring an utterly charming Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave as, respectively, a wealthy American heiress bound for a loveless marriage with a penurious but titled aristo and a footloose music scholar manqué who clearly has some growing up to do. That they will fall in love is never in doubt, but intrigue and murder intrude as they make a train journey across the fictional central European country of Mandrika. An elderly, kindly, British-as-Sunday-roast governess named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty, effortlessly fine) is at the center of events. After our heroine is coshed on the head by a falling flower pot, Miss Froy befriends her. But soon Miss Froy vanishes without trace and everyone denies that she ever existed! As in so many other films of this sort, the central character must struggle with whether her fears are real or are imagined (as everyone around her keeps saying).

As you might guess from the above description, the plot contrivances in this film are many, even by Hitchcockian standards. Most notably, if you watch the final few scenes carefully, you may wonder why the film wasn’t titled “The gun-toting bad guy vanishes”. But Hitchcock was aiming for a romp, not a piece of cinéma vérité, and a tremendously entertaining romp it is. Even some of the wonderful visual effects seem as much intended to invoke mirth as tension (e.g., the opening miniature shot). Screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (who also scripted another of recommendations, Green for Danger) produced a pearl of a script, with laugh out loud humor, cleverly constructed comic bits and suspenseful situations, cute late 1930s style sexual innuendo, and some lovely character sketches.


The most famous of the latter are Caldicott and Charters. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford were born to play the parts of the two cricket-obsessed, faintly barmy Englishmen abroad and they just about made a career of it from here on out, both in movies and television. Their timing is on the same level as Bob and Ray, but their sensibility is unmistakably English (not British mind you, English). It’s a testament to the actors and the writers that they were able to create characters that audiences could laugh at even though they were themselves being mocked to some extent (Decades later, The Simpsons would pull off the same trick on American television).

Hitchcock fans argue over whether this film or another of my recommendations, The 39 Steps represents his best British work. I tend toward the latter by an eyelash, but why choose when both hold up so well three-quarters of a century after they were made? If you like one, you will like the other as the plot elements are similar and in both cases, the heroes have none of the darker shades that Hitchcock favored more as he aged. Lockwood and Redgrave are uncomplicated young people who are brave, smart, funny and in love.

The Lady Vanishes was such a success that the same writing team and a number of the actors were reunited to make another movie of the same sort, this time directed by Carol Reed. My recommendation of that movie is here.

The Lady Vanishes is in the public domain, and there is a a perfectly nice print from The Internet Archive you can watch here. The Criterion Collection version, available for purchase, looks even better and also includes some wonderful extras.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

The Hill

Sidney Lumet’s brutal, gripping 1965 movie The Hill opens with a solitary figure laboring up the man-made torture device that gives the film its title. In one of Oswald Morris’ many mesmerizing crane shots, the man collapses in the North African heat and then the camera begins to move slowly away, off into the distance, abandoning the man and the compound in which he is forced to live. As in the rest of the film, no music is heard, which lets the hopelessness and isolation of the people we are watching sink in.

The story begins with five British soldiers arriving at a military prison. Four of them are privates who have committed various crimes (including Ossie Davis as a West Indian soldier and Roy Kinnear as a fat spiv), but the fifth is something different. Joe Roberts (Sean Connery) was a heroic sergeant major who has been busted down for beating up his commanding officer. Connery, given his first chance as a star to do something different from James Bond, plays the part well, showing how Roberts can be callous in some respects yet gentle in others. He is in emotional agony, for reasons that become clear as the film progresses.

The most complex performance is given by Harry Andrews, as RSM Wilson, who runs the daily operations of the prison. It would have been easy to write and play the character of RSM Wilson as a heartless martinet. But Ray Rigby’s script and Andrews’ acting are much more sophisticated than that. Yes, the RSM can be tough, but he also shows compassion because he is committed to rebuilding the prisoners rather than simply destroying them. He’s a three dimensional person, unlike the newly arrived Sergeant Major Williams (Ian Hendry), who is uncomplicatedly nasty. Ian Hendry, who was by all accounts a piece of work in real life (sadly, he drank himself to death in his early 50s) is convincingly vicious as Williams. As Connery’s character says “Wilson wants to build toy soldiers and Williams wants to break them”.

The prisoners struggle against the harsh prison regime, and also among themselves. But as Williams gets more brutal, causing a tragic incident, they begin to unify in opposition to the screws. They are aided by a diffident medical officer (a solid as ever Michael Redgrave) and a staff sergeant whose motives are interesting to speculate about (Ian Bannen).

Two complaints. The film would have benefited from some tightening in length and from dropping the final stages of evolution of Ossie Davis’ character. His behavior at the end seems a theatrical flourish to please a 1965 audience and not, like the rest of the film, a realistic take on WWII prison life. His performance though, like that of everyone else in the all-male cast, remains top-notch.

It would be an injustice to close on such cavils, however. Sidney Lumet’s “movie as play” style works perfectly in the claustrophobic setting of a prison. Cinematographer Oswald Morris and editor Thelma Connell do brilliant work throughout, particular during the scenes in which the prisoners are forced to climb the hill (In one case, while wearing a gas mask — horrifying). Given its subject matter and tone, this isn’t a date movie…but it’s a great movie.

A closing note on Connery’s evolution: As this critically-acclaimed movie bombed at the box office he saw audiences line up world wide to munch popcorn and watch Thunderball, which began to disgust him with the James Bond franchise and the state of his career. But while he didn’t know it at the time, he had already made the wisest move possible, which was to link up with a great director who saw more to him as an actor than the Bond films revealed (For more on this, see my recommendation of The Offence).