Friday, October 17, 2014

The Innocents: The Criterion Blu-ray review

[Note: Screengrabs are taken from the MGM DVD release.]

Two big budget studio ghost stories from the early sixties are cinematic siblings, a notion exacerbated by the fact that in both cases the ghosts may (or may not) be products of overactive imaginations. Those classic films are The Innocents and The Haunting. The latter seemingly steals most of the thunder from the former, but now that Criterion has stepped up to the plate, maybe The Innocents will get some long overdue kudos and love. Based on the 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Innocents borrows its title from a stage adaptation by William Archibald, who also worked on the screenplay. Director Jack Clayton wasn’t satisfied with Archibald’s work, so he turned to no less than Truman Capote, who whipped the script into shape, and created the blueprint from which Clayton eventually worked.

Deborah Kerr stars as spinster Miss Giddens, hired by a disinterested uncle (Michael Redgrave) as governess to orphans Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin, in her film debut) at his palatial but crumbling country estate, Bly. Though Bly’s grounds include a staff headed by housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), Giddens is firmly in charge of the children, and any decisions made about their welfare and well being are entirely in her hands. Giddens learns of the recent troubled history of the estate, namely the untimely deaths of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and the uncle’s valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde). Soon enough, the visions begin. First Quint and then later Jessel torment Giddens, pushing her to the brink of sanity. The more she learns of the deceased, sexually deviant coupling, the more frenzied she becomes. Soon, Giddens is convinced the pair has evil, dastardly plans for the children, and she’ll go to any lengths to save them.

As to the possible existence of these ghosts, The Innocents is played so squarely down the middle that it really can go either way, and I don’t believe I’ve ever found it as ambiguous as I did upon viewing it via this new Criterion edition. This is to the film’s credit, because in the real world, we (well, most of us) don’t immediately believe someone who says they’ve seen a ghost. Those of us who do not give a season pass on our DVR to Ghost Hunters tend to be skeptical of such claims. The key to appreciating the movie on a level different than ghost story, I believe, is in the viewer’s ability to take Mrs. Grose seriously and not just write her off as a daft old woman who could never understand the supernatural. Because she’s the only other adult playing a major role in the proceedings, and as the movie never shows her as anything other than kindly and wise, her view of events must not only count, but is also crucial. And though Mrs. Grose is far too polite to ever say anything, she clearly believes Miss Giddens to be nucking futs.

I’ve experienced The Innocents on a couple previous formats over the years – official MGM laserdisc and DVD releases - and both were above average presentations, showcasing the movie with a clean print and in its proper Cinemascope 2.35:1 aspect ratio. And yet this Criterion Blu-ray with its spotless 4K transfer remains something of a revelation. This is the sort of movie Blu-ray was made for, as every monochrome frame of The Innocents is crammed with detail that can finally be pored over and analyzed in a home setting like never before. One even wonders if the movie looked this ideal in its original theatrical release.

Blu-ray Extras: Cultural historian Christopher Frayling pulls double duty here, with a 23-minute introduction, as well as helming the commentary track. Though there is a fair amount of overlap between the two, I have to give the guy some props: He’s engaging to listen to and seems to know more than anyone else about this movie; indeed, he may even know more than the people who created it. A new 19-minute interview features cinematographer John Bailey discussing Innocents DP extraordinaire Freddie Francis and his approach to the film and working relationship with Clayton. A relatively short piece (14 minutes) on the making of the film, entitled “Between Horror, Fear, and Beauty,” briefly features Francis himself, as well as editor Jim Clark and script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis. It’s a shame that someone didn’t (or wasn’t able to) round up Pamela Franklin and/or Martin Stephens for commentary as their POVs would seem invaluable to Innocents discussion. The disc also features the film’s trailer and the inner booklet offers up an essay entitled “Forbidden Games” by Maitland McDonagh. From an extras standpoint, not one of Criterion’s strongest showings, but as is nearly always the case with this company, the exceptional film presentation is the real star.