The Innocents

UK 1961


After seeing The Innocents, François Truffaut told the director Jack Clayton that he had made the best British film since Alfred Hitchcock had left Britain. The Hitchcock exit happened in 1939. Truffaut probably met Jack Clayton at a party and whispered the comment in an ear but the remark confirms what we suspect from his films. Like Spielberg, the movies of Truffaut flatter rather than challenge. Truffaut worshipped Hitchcock, and many had disdain for British Cinema.   British films were considered to be staid and unambitious, actors trapped in stiff upper lips condemned to utter thoughts in a figurative language. Truffaut may have understood that this was a virtue in British culture and language and not a weakness. If he did, he should not have overlooked The Third Man, made in 1949.

Both The Innocents and The Third Man are masterpieces. The Innocents is the finest ghost story in cinema, and The Third Man is a thriller without equal. The supremacy consists of sophistication and impeccable execution by exceptional talents.


The Innocents is based on the great Henry James novella, The Turn Of The Screw. It is the only serious rival to The Signalman by Charles Dickens for the best ghost story in English literature. The book by James can be read as a right wing alternative to Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte argues for the virtues of the outsider to be recognised and for privilege to be denied. Henry James warns that victims are sometimes weak and fragile and cannot always be trusted. Miss Julie by August Strindberg is the final misanthropic alternative. He imagines the powerful and the powerless united and reduced by mutual envy.

Henry James wrote about what was seen and what we failed to see. He believed that art should not be corrupted by ideas, experience in a novel was more important than debate. The American made his home in remote Suffolk and in his retreat he fine-tuned our figurative language. Although we understand that James sees the world and people differently from Bronte the novel, like the film, is ambiguous. We are not certain whether the ghosts exist, whether Miss Giddens, the new governess, is a truth seeker or a paranoid fantasist. Repeat viewings of the film surprise. The ghosts appear as real images and often. It is not how we remember the film. This is not an accident. It requires cinematic skill to suggest that the fears of the governess may be rooted in sexual repression and neurosis. Freddie Francis is the famed photographer. The film is in black and white Cinemascope. The wide-angle photography is relentless. The detail is sharp all the way into the distance but Francis uses lighting and composition to confuse the viewer. We search the abundant and precise detail to try and resolve our doubts. Timing of the images is important, and The Innocents is how star editor Jim Clark became famous, inserting cuts while the audience is still seeking confirmation. The soundtrack is complicated and mysterious. The wind makes the natural world restless, and pigeons mumble secrets and taunt and nag.


The technicians are important but it is the restrained performance of Deborah Kerr that dominates the film. She controls any hysteria but we have no doubts about the extent of her turmoil. Vulnerable to surprise and events her voice and appearance change in the film. At the beginning she is prim and light, a British equivalent of Ingrid Bergman. Compelled to walk candlelit corridors in pursuit of her suspicions and desires, and wearing nothing but a nightdress and her long hair, she is almost as sexy as Catherine Deneuve. Her moods change her voice from light to dark. Her anxiety and needs make her look both young and old.

‘Sometimes people imagine things,’ says Miss Giddens.  The look of confusion on the face of Kerr lasts no longer than an instant but it draws both our sympathy and suspicion. This is how we often respond to victims. Her kisses of Miles could be sexual or they may be innocent. Miss Giddens is an attractive prudish woman who we do not trust. The sexual secrets of the inhibited attract males but hostile prudery makes men alert to their own misgivings. Miss Giddens is either honest or deceitful. Thanks to the performance of Deborah Kerr we never know. Somehow she mixes responsibility, deference, compulsion and danger.


Henry James provides the excellent source but he is not a master of elliptical dialogue. The script by Truman Capote allows not just sharp exposition but also conversations that end, like the images, as mystery. Miles, the possibly possessed boy, is the first person in the film to give direct answers to the questions of Miss Giddens. Truman Capote also added southern gothic and sly sexual innuendo. Four years later he wrote In Cold Blood, as if drawn to an American blue-collar alternative to two wilful destructive innocents.

The scene in the film when Miss Giddens tells Mrs Grose that the children are possessed by evil spirits is important. Although Deborah Kerr thinks she has seen the ghosts she has no reason to assume that the two children are possessed. Ghosts may exist but there is nothing in the film to indicate that the children are possessed. The children are no more than upper class monsters who have been allowed to give orders to servants from an early age.   The young Miles is how David Cameron must have been before he became a Bullingdon bully.

The same scene requires an exceptional performance by Kerr because we need to doubt Miss Giddens and not suspect weak narrative. We watch her hasty assumptions and support the common sense pleas of Mrs Grose.   The inconsistent narrative is disconcerting but Kerr prevails. We also know that Henry James has no loyalty to ideas.   When she arrives at the stately home of the master, Miss Giddens hears a strange voice cry ‘Flora, Flora.’   This happens before the neurosis of Giddens has had time to develop or be provoked. In the final confrontation we look over the shoulder of the ghost of Peter Quint. This aspect has nothing to do with Miss Giddens and it appears to confirm the presence of the ghost. But the film ends, and we realise that it is only a moment in a complex film that contains moments that challenge any single opinion. Our doubt remains.


Sir Christopher Frayling, the exceptional writer and critic and a British institution, insists that the film is based on the play by William Archibald rather than the novella. The film keeps the title of the play but the genius of James should not be denied. The film is more loyal to the novella than most film adaptations. But, where James focuses on the characters and their experience, the film emphasises innocence. The notion of naïve innocence is even acknowledged by Twentieth Century Fox. We hear the mysterious song before their logo appears, as if the mystery is not confined to their film but already spreading through the cinema and beyond. All in the film are innocent of something. Miss Giddens has a name that implies she is giddy and is someone sidestepped by the world. The name Mrs Grose sounds like gross. She has worth but, as the unthinking servant, she defines innocence as ignorance. Perhaps Mrs Grose is the darkest metaphor of all. She is the competent person who, because of deference and uncritical indulgence, lets the tragedy happen. Power and privilege give the children silly appetites but their childishness prevents them from assuming and understanding responsibility. Flora is an over-protected girl whose name evokes a frail flower. Miles has a name that implies mystery in his character beyond him. And the ghosts, who are unable to communicate, are unaware of the effect that they are having on the minds of the living. Everyone is out of reach of everyone and therefore innocent. When Miss Giddens misunderstands this reality of Victorian Britain and attempts to reach the children, she is destructive. The master, who has some guilt for abandoning the children to the governess, is so shallow that he is compelled to lose himself in the pursuit of popularity and diversion. The only explanation available to him of what has happened in his home will be a letter from a governess who may or may not be deranged. His guilt will condemn him to innocence. Miss Giddens cannot be trusted like virtuous Jane Eyre. This governess becomes the woman in the attic that Bronte was prepared to sacrifice.

Jack Clayton had different politics to Henry James. Two years before The Innocents, Clayton made the kitchen-sink drama Room At The Top. Both films heralded a change in attitudes to the ruling class and authority in Britain. Joe Lampton in Room At The Top not only loses the integrity of his working class parents; he forgets how a decent cup of tea tastes. A daughter of a vicar, the expectation of Miss Giddens cannot cope with the cynicism of decadent and indulged children. Two years later, and August Strindberg, in the form of Harold Pinter, arrived to create a British manservant that controlled his master. The Servant was made in 1963, and the sixties had arrived.



Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.