An eerie masterpiece: Jack Clayton’s ‘The Innocents’

As I’ve said before, I don’t consider myself a horror movie aficionado. However, over the last few years, I’ve found that my real issue is with the definition of horror itself. When I hear the word, my mind automatically jumps to slasher films and gross out humor. But, those assumptions are unfair to the horror genre which encapsulates so many others. There are fantastic classic horror films and Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents is one of them.

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Creeped out yet?

I was first introduced to this film at a movie night for a production company I read scripts for. I had never heard of it before and was amazed at the artistry behind the film. It was so detailed and oh-so creepy. I was reminded of it when I recently attended a screening of the upcoming film A Monster Calls at the Cinefamily theater. After the film, J.A. Bayona (the director) talked about the debt he owed to Jack Clayton, how much he was inspired by Clayton’s stylistic choices in The Innocents.

If you’re not familiar, The Innocents takes place in Victorian England and follows Miss Gibbons (Deborah Kerr), a governess who takes a post taking care of two little children in the country. She’s told by the orphans’ uncle (Michael Redgrave) not to bother him with any problems. In her first days with the children, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), appear angelic. However, Miss Gibbons starts seeing people who, to everyone else, aren’t there and we start to wonder: is everyone else crazy or is Miss Gibbons? Of course, drama and creepiness ensues…

Here are just a few reasons The Innocents needs to be added to your Halloween movie marathon:

The Cast

Deborah Kerr is most associated with her roles in the movie-musical, The King and I as well as the classic war drama, From Here To Eternity. She had made by both those films by the time The Innocents came along and it was an entirely different role for her. Kerr said of her her role:

“I played it as if she were perfectly sane – whatever Jack wanted was fine; in my own mind, and following Henry James’ writing in the original story, she was completely sane, but, because in my case the woman was younger and physically attractive – Flora Robson had played her wonderfully on the stage – it was quite possible that she was deeply frustrated, and it added another dimension that the whole thing could have been nurtured in her own imagination.” – Kerr, TCM Article

Kerr carries the film with grace, purity and determination which is exactly why it’s so terrifying. We believe in her so completely.

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Just watch her eyes! The subtlety in her performance is EVERYTHING.

The children are incredible but honestly, my big thought is what parent would let their child make this film?? I mean really – this is dealing with some pretty mature themes, to say the least.

Martin Stephens was just twelve years old, but had already been in quite a few films, including another horror classic, The Village of the Damned. He had also already been in a film with Deborah Kerr a few years earlier, Count Your Blessings. His performance as Miles is chilling and quite disturbing. He gave up acting in 1966 and ended up becoming an architect, but in the cult film community, he’s still beloved!

Pamela Franklin was eleven (and she could easily have played Eleven in Stranger Things). Unlike Stephens, The Innocents marked Franklin’s feature film debut. She went on to star in other films, most notably The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and another Jack Clayton film, Our Mother’s House. Her glee is what’s most unsettling in The Innocents. While weird shit goes down, she’s jovial! Like Stephens, Franklin ended up retiring from acting in the early 1980’s to have a family.

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Angels? Eh…

Megs Jenkins, a fantastic character actress, is also wonderful as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper who sort of, maybe believes Miss Gibbons.

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She wears this confused expression for much of the film…

Also a funny cameo: Michael Redgrave of The Lady Vanishes makes an appearance as the children’s cold uncle. Redgrave only has one scene but he makes an impression and let me just say, he’s a far cry from the charming romantic Gilbert.

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To be fair, he’s a few years older than he was in The Lady Vanishes…

The Script

The Innocents was based on an 1898 novella by Henry James called The Turn of the Screw. It’s been adapted several times over the years. It was adapted for the stage in 1950 by William Archibald and Truman Capote wrote the screenplay for The Innocents. Of the project, Capote said:

“When it was offered to me to do it as a film, I said yes instantly, without rereading it…Then I let several weeks go by before I reread it and then I got the shock of my life. Because Henry James had pulled a fantastic trick in this book: it doesn’t stand up anywhere. It has no plot! He’s just pretending this and this and that. It was like the little Dutch boy with his fingers trying to keep the water from flooding out – I kept building up more plot, more characters, more scenes. In the entire book there were only two scenes performable.” – Capote, TCM Article

I think it’s fascinating that a good portion of the plot was made up by Capote. To me, what makes the story so compelling is the ambiguity. By the end of the film, you’re still not sure what’s true and I love that! It’s really, at its heart, a psychological thriller. Story wise, it actually reminded me of films like The Lady Vanishes and So Long at the Fair. Both have our protagonists facing a situation that makes them question their reality and this one, being supernatural, is even more troublesome…

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This shot haunts me.

The Direction

At the time Jack Clayton made The Innocents, he had only just made his feature directorial debut, Room at the Top. So much of what makes this film a masterpiece is due to Clayton’s direction because the true stars of this film are the performances. The strength of Franklin and Stephens performances had to be the product of great direction.

Additionally, Clayton’s use of sound in this film is worth marveling at! The sounds, at times, seem more important than the visuals – a door slamming shut, the awful cries of a ghost, the children’s laughs…these are the things that kept my heart racing.

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That icy stare though…

The Cinematography

The visuals cannot be understated in this film. Freddie Francis served as the film’s DP. If you don’t know his name, you’ve certainly seen his work in films like The Elephant Man, Cape Fear and The Man in the Moon. Francis had already worked with Clayton on Room at the Top. Francis said of his work in the film:

“…I had quite a lot of freedom, and I was able to influence the style of The Innocents. We worked out all sorts of things before the picture started, including special filters. I still think it was the best photography I’ve ever done – as much as I like Sons and Lovers [1960] I think The Innocents was better, but you rarely get an Academy Award for a film that isn’t successful no matter how good your work on it.” – Francis, TCM Article

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These hallways are terrifying!

The Music

Georges Auric wrote the score of the film, including the original song “O Willow Waly” and it is a huge reason why the film works. Auric also wrote the scores for Roman Holiday, the French version of Beauty and the Beast and The Wages of Fear. It’s fantastically creepy!

It’s unsettling, thought-provoking, and filled with artistry!

This film was not very well received by critics when it was released in 1961. But, as with a lot of films, time has proved it a classic. When you look at the time this film was made and the themes it explored, it’s quite scandalous. Even now, the whole kissing scene between Kerr and Stephens is out there!

What I love about this film is that it keeps you on the edge of your seat and doesn’t give you all the answers. The Innocents is very much left up to the imagination. It engenders discussion and makes you feel something. In the end, what else is cinema’s purpose?

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Seems like she’s experiencing some genuine terror…

Vintage trailer below:

Feature photo and gifs property of Twentieth Century Fox.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I now appreciate John Badham’s WarGames

I remember being terrified the first time I saw WarGames. Mind you, I’m pretty sure I was under the age of ten, but still, this light thriller gave me nightmares. Once I got a little older, I saw the film again and began to see it in a different light. I could finally appreciate the film, although I will say parts of it still make me feel uneasy.

Recently, I watched a special feature about the making of the film which turned everything I thought I knew on its head. I love hearing behind-the-scenes stories which make you feel awe that the film got finished, was successful, and was actually a good movie. WarGames is one such case of this.

But before we get to all that, here’s a little synopsis for those of you who are WarGames virgins. Made in 1983, the film follows David (Matthew Broderick), a teenager too smart for his own good. Obsessed with computers (which now look positively ANCIENT), he accidentally hacks into the military’s central computer and realizes the computer cannot tell the difference between game-playing and reality. There is, of course, a girl played by a young Ally Sheedy who goes on the roller coaster journey with David while also falling in love with him. Let’s just say…DRAMA ENSUES.

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The computers seriously look ANCIENT. #DidIMentionImAMillennial?

Here are just a few reasons you should check out WarGames:

The Cast

This is the type of film that relies heavily upon the charm of its actors. If its leads were boring and/or annoying, I think we would have more trouble buying into its fantastical story.

Matthew Broderick had only done one film before this, a Neil Simon comedy, Max Dugan Returns. Unable to come in for a callback for WarGames, he suggested that then-director, Martin Brest, watch his dailies from the film. At only twenty years old, he had a charisma that was undeniable. He was likable and effortlessly funny. He carried the film with his convincing technological know-how and charm.

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Look how young! #ALittleFerrisBuellerNo?

Ally Sheedy was about the same age as Matthew and was completely green, having only been in one film before WarGames. She was playing the “girl next door.” I’m sure her natural and appealing performance in this played a part in getting her the The Breakfast Club a few years later.

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SASS #ThatEyeRoll

John Wood is also wonderful as Professor Falken. Apparently, the character was originally based on scientist Stephen Hawking. Barry Corbin and Dabney Coleman also have standout roles as McKittrick and General Berringer, respectively.

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Aw, John Wood…#WordsToLiveBy

The Script

This is really one of the most interesting pieces. The story was conceived and written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes. They were very involved in early development and did a lot of research. This script was their baby. When Martin Brest came on to direct, he decided to tonally go in a different direction and the writing team was essentially fired from the film.

A little while later, Martin Brest was fired from the film and John Badham was brought on to direct. The writers were then hired back and became apart of the process again. Their script, in addition to being fun and super entertaining, posed questions that were ahead of their time. Computers were not in wide use when the film was released and so, the idea of hacking, wasn’t as widespread and commonplace as it is today. When they were shopping the script around, apparently studio execs were confused by it.

The thing Lasker and Parkes understood so well was that the characters come first. So, even though there were these underlying science fiction themes and big questions that were being posed, the film was also accessible on a pure entertainment level.

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Great concept. #TheKidsAreAlwaysSmarter

The Direction

I was surprised to learn that the film originally was going to be directed by Martin Brest. Brest, in his own right, made some great films including The Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black. The studio, however, felt that the film Brest was making was not the film they wanted. They sought out someone new to direct even though they were a few weeks already into filming.

They decided to approach John Badham (brother to Mary Badham, aka Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird) who had already directed Saturday Night Fever and Dracula. He brought out the lighter side of the script, helping to develop the chemistry between Ally Sheedy and Matthew Broderick. According to Sheedy, she thinks the film Brest was trying to make had validity as well, but that it wasn’t going to be a popcorn flick the same way it turned out to be in Badham’s hands.

The movie was really a crowd pleaser and that’s because Badham knew the film needed balance. It had adventure, romance, and fun. He even had a writer come in to add a scene between David and Jennifer and I daresay, it’s one of the best scenes in the film.

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#RealTalk 

The Music

Music, for me, is a key reason to like any movie. WarGames is very much of the time period containing a lot of synthesizer and “techy” sounds. But, there’s one piece of music that this film is famous for. Arthur Rubinstein composed it and it’s called “Edge of the World.” Rubinstein, in the special feature included with the Blu-Ray, said that whenever he tells people he composed the film, they always bring up the harmonica. Although he gets kind of annoyed with it since he composed several other pieces of music for the film, this is what stuck and it’s for good reason. It is brilliant and gives you all the #feels.

The Romance

The film cannot be categorized as a romance as really it only has a few scenes that are really about that. However, I remember totally having a crush on Matthew Broderick after this film. He was adorkable long before Zooey Deschanel made that a thing. There is something about Jennifer and David’s relationship that just seems so sincere. Possibly because they were both so green, they seemed to have a natural and easy chemistry.

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Changing a girl’s grade is the secret way to her heart. #OBVI
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Almost seems like too personal a moment to watch…or is that just me? #BUELLER?

Because it’s smart, thought-provoking, and SO MUCH FUN. 

Hitchcock always said the audience comes first. Films should be life with all the boring parts cut out. This film was way ahead of its time. Technology was not a way of life the way it is now. The film actually inspired real changes in the world beyond my dad telling me he bought a computer because of it.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I love films that make you think and I believe it is possible to produce a film that is both entertaining and about something. The film has a message that is important and still relevant today. Badham summed it up quite nicely, saying, “…The more powerful and the more authority we delegate to computers, the more things we are abdicating. And that’s where it gets to be dangerous. Suddenly the roles are reversed and then, in a true Harold Pinter situation, we don’t know who’s the servant and who’s the master”(Badham, TCM Article).

More than anything, I came out of watching the film’s special feature admiring both the writers of this film and the film’s producer, Leonard Goldberg. It was through his bits that I understood that the real job of a producer is to have enough passion for a project to handle all the bumps that come with getting it made and this film had its bumps for sure.

All in all, it’s a very entertaining film that makes you laugh, cry, and cheer. And really, what else can you ask for?

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For the record, this is where you’re CHEERING…

Vintage trailer below:

 

 

Forgotten Gems: Max Ophuls’ ‘Caught’

Throughout my life, I’ve been told that it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor man. No doubt an adage from a different time, I’m fairly sure it’s my mom’s ambition in life to marry me off to a rich man. Okay, so maybe I’m being a bit extreme. She also wants him to be nice and have good values and stuff. But, rich is up there…

Over this labor day weekend, I was introduced to a film that attempts to answer the question, “Does marrying rich equal happiness?” The film is Caught. Made in 1949, Caught marked the first film that James Mason made in America. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t want to see it when my dad first pitched it to me – I said “Another film noir?” I tend to get annoyed because the only thing my dad wants to watch is film noir, but this one is different and well worth the watch.

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Every girl’s dream…apparently. #FANTASY

If you’re unfamiliar, Caught follows Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), a young, idealistic, poor girl. She wants to move up in life and so, decides to go to charm school where she’ll be given the tools she need to not just have the job she wants, but the husband she wants too. She gets lucky, marrying Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), but she quickly finds out wealth is not enough alone to make her happy. Ohlrig, who treats her like his employee, tells her to take a trip. Instead, she decides to get a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. It’s there that she meets Dr. Larry Quinada (James Mason) who she develops an attraction to. Only one problem – she’s still married! Let’s just say DRAMA ENSUES.

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RICH!!! #MoneyFixesEverythingRight?

Here are just a few reasons you need to check out Caught ASAP:

The Cast

The cast is everything in Caught. Although the film was marketed using James Mason, its star was really Barbara Bel Geddes. Though most know her from the long running TV soap Dallas or her small role in Vertigo, Bel Geddes had quite an impressive early career. She starred in films made by George Stevens and Elia Kazan and played opposite stars like Henry Fonda and Irene Dunne. But, this film is really her shining moment. In watching her, it’s easy to see how naturally talented she was. As my dad put it, she was not a drop-dead gorgeous beauty like Ava Gardner; instead, she was a softer beauty, the “girl next door.” In essence, she looked like someone you could actually know.

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I’m sorry…why did everyone want mink coats again? #HAIRGOALS

As I already said, Caught was James Mason’s first film in America. At the time, he was already known across the pond in England. I had, of course, seen James Mason in many films before this, but I’d never thought of him as a romantic lead. This film changed my mind. He was around forty at the time he made Caught and probably at his most handsome. But, really what was so attractive about him in this film is the intelligence he exudes. He’s attractive, yes. But, he also seems like a real person. He’s believable and genuine and I’m gonna say it, sexy.

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Look at those dimples. #SWOON

Robert Ryan is also wonderful as Smith Ohlrig, the Howard Hughes-inspired millionaire Leonora marries. So easily this character could have been one note – the evil villain. But there are moments when he seems human too and that, I think, is thanks Ryan’s nuanced performance.

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What a “silly girl!” #DatingIsFun

The Script

The script was written by Arthur Laurents, who also wrote West Side Story, Rope and The Way We Were. Though the film was adapted from Libbie Block’s book Wild Calendar, much inspiration was taken from director Ophuls experience working for Howard Hughes.

I was surprised at how frank the film was, not just in regards to marriage but also in its recognition of a woman’s position in the late 1940’s. This is from a female point of view and it recognizes that a woman’s options during that time were limited. I love that Mason’s character tells her not to make decisions because of social conventions, i.e. how it’s going to look.

I was particularly fascinated by the lack of options Leonora had. She couldn’t just get divorced from her husband. Beyond how her reputation would have been ruined (which IMHO is bullshit), there was unequal power. Her husband had immense resources at his disposal and she had none. He could ruin her and would ruin her if she crossed him.

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James Mason doesn’t mess around. #RealTalk

The Romance

If you’ve read any of my other posts, you know I’m obsessed with romance and Caught is no exception. Even though there are only a few romantic scenes in the film, I couldn’t help but ship James Mason and Barbara Bel Geddes’ affair. Their chemistry is real and understated. It kind of reminded me of the romance in Waitress or Suspicion. Get ready to swoon!

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My heart drops.
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That smile when he says OK….#ThoseSuspendersTHOUGH
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First comes love, then comes marriage…
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Something about black&white, amiright?

The Direction 

Max Ophuls, also known as Max Oppenheimer, made most of his films in France. He was only in the U.S. from 1941 to 1950. Most of the films he made were period romances. Max had been fired from Vendetta, a film which was produced by Howard Hughes. Caught is an amalgam of genres. It’s a melodrama and a thriller, but also, based on the stylistic choices and subject matter, a film noir. A famous, talented filmmaker in his own right, Jean Luc Godard called Caught,“Max’s best American film (Godard, TCM Article).”

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Uh oh….#WomanInPeril

The Cinematography

Though this was not an A-film, the production values were high. This is especially true in regards to the cinematography. Lee Garmes, who was famous for films like Scarface (the original 30’s film) and Duel in the Sun, shot the film with subtlety, letting moments unfold organically. He worked for producer David O. Selznick quite a bit and it is rumored that shot a large portion of Gone With the Wind.

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Those angles THOUGH.

It’s a thrilling, thought-provoking melodrama with incredible performances

The world has changed quite a bit since the late 1940’s, especially in regards to the way we define traditional male and female roles in society. However, this film is still relevant. It comments on society’s expectations and also criticizes them. It’s true that with wealth comes security, but that’s only in regards to financial matters. True security comes with accepting and loving both yourself and your partner. One without the other does not equal fulfillment.

It’s always a joy when I see a wonderful film which is not as well known as the major classics. It’s like uncovering treasure. Imagine this: this film was made almost seventy years ago and yet, there’s a lot to say.

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#REALTALK

I would put a link to the trailer below, but the whole movie happens to be on Youtube. So, happy watching!

 

Whoops…I think that lady just vanished…

Okay, let’s get real. Hitchcock is legendary. But, if I were to ask an average person on the street to name a Hitchcock film, my guess is that most people would probably say Psycho which, although a great movie, makes me sad because Hitchcock has so much more to offer than a skeleton turning around in a chair.

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Before we get to The Lady Vanishes, let’s do a little Hitchcock recap. Hitchcock started in the early 20th century, directing silent films in England. There, he learned how to tell a story visually, without sound. He made several films during that time and some of his British movies are actually my favorites.

Alright. Let’s get to The Lady Vanishes.

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This film was made in 1938 and was Hitchcock’s last British film. Hitchcock (because he was a genius!) chose leads that were about to become huge British stars: Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgraves. The premise is simple. Margaret Lockwood is taking the train, on her way to get married. An old woman sits next to her on the train. And when Margaret Lockwood wakes up, the old woman is gone and everyone insists that she was never there to begin with. With the help of Michael Redgraves, Margaret tries to figure out what’s really going on.

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This movie is one of my favorites for many reasons. One, it takes place on a train. I know it sounds weird, but a lot of my favorite movies have taken place on trains. I’ve never been on a plane so maybe I just have some weird attachment to trains. I don’t know. But, regardless, the train is a great stage for the drama to unfold – maybe because it’s an enclosed space.

Also, I would be lying to you if I said the romance wasn’t a huge selling point. I love the dynamic between the two leads – the witty banter and the fact that they hate each other for most of the film. Well, she hates him.

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The other great thing is the humor. Now, it’s British humor so it can be a little dry – not really a problem for me, but I know some people who can’t take it. Hitchcock knew that the suspenseful moments hit harder if there was light and the movie has some very humorous moments.

I’ve shown this movie to maybe 10 people and it’s never once disappointed. Even my friends who are not into classic film appreciated it. Hopefully, you’ll fall in love with it like I did. Just don’t be surprised if you have a dream that night about it. I had the strangest dream right after I watched..I was on a train and there was an old man next to me..and you know what, never mind. You don’t care. Just watch the movie.

Vintage trailer below.