The Innocents – Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw – was once described by the famous New Yorker magazine film critic Pauline Kael as “the best ghost movie I’ve ever seen”.
Miss Giddens, a brittle and idealistic young governess, is newly employed as custodian of two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, at Bly House, a remote country seat. Shortly after her arrival the governess, played with wide-eyed and tremulous vulnerability by Deborah Kerr, begins to see mysterious and perplexing figures, which she suspects are the spirits of her dead predecessor Miss Jessel and her malevolent lover Peter Quint. As the children’s behaviour deteriorates, the governess becomes convinced that the ghosts exert a diabolical influence on her young charges and resolves to protect them.
In this scene Flora, playing at the edge of the lake and watched from the boathouse by Miss Giddens, abruptly begins humming a haunting and elegiac melody. The governess, half recognising the tune, enquires after its source, but receives no reply. Flora, distracted by something off-screen, stares impassively out across the lake.
As the camera closes in on the resulting puzzlement in Miss Giddens’ face, the sounds of nature freeze portentously, and an ethereal voice is heard keeping harmony with the child. The governess flinches at the sound, uncomprehending of its source, and stares beseechingly towards Flora. In an instant, the object of her attention switches to something unseen, beyond the girl. Her mouth drops as her face hardens, and the mist of bewilderment dissolves into concrete dread.
The camera cuts to the lake where, among the reeds in the middle distance, stands the motionless black figure of a woman, staring directly towards the boathouse and Flora. Her aspect conveys an ineffable sense of yearning, though her features are undiscernable. It is the ghost of the suicide Miss Jessel; an obscene breach in the idyllic landscape of Bly and the sum of Miss Giddens’ fears made manifest.
The governess, imagining an atrocious congress between Flora and the ghost, pleads with the child to reveal its identity. The spell breaks and Flora looks back caustically. She says nothing and as the camera cuts back to the lake, the figure has disappeared.
James’ original story is famous for its abiding sense of ambiguity, arising from the author’s apparent ambivalence towards his main character. This equivocacy is not an easy quality to reproduce cinematically because of the apparent objectivity of the visual image, but in The Innocents, Clayton succeeds. In this scene, through deft switches of focus, revealing point of view shots, interrogative facial close ups and the suspenseful withholding of visual information, the director manages to preserve the psychologocial dubiety of his source material while fulfilling the formal demands of his medium by creating a stark, uncanny and chilling image which brands itself indelibly into the memory.