Dec. 6, 2011
The Innocents (1961)
Grade: 89/100

Director: Jack Clayton
Stars: Deborah Kerr

What it's about. This Victorian-era ghost story takes place at a luxurious English country mansion. Wealthy hedonist Michael Redgrave would rather play the field in London, so he hires governess Deborah Kerr to look after two adorable pre-teenaged orphans at his isolated estate. They are Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens).

All is peaceful at first, but soon Kerr sees two different apparitions, a man and a woman. Through tales coaxed from housekeeper Megs Jenkins, Kerr comes to believe the ghosts are those of Mr. Quint and Miss Jessel. Quint, a property manager, was charismatic but abusive. He engaged in a torrid affair with Miss Jessel, the prior governess. Kerr theorizes that their unexpected and ungodly deaths have led to their taking possession of the souls of the two children. Kerr is determined to free their spirits.

The screenplay was based on two sources, Henry James' short story "The Turn of the Screw" and William Archibald's Broadway play adaptation. One of the screenwriters was Truman Capote, among the few noted authors to also achieve pop culture celebrity.

How others will see it. Unfortunately, The Innocents stiffed at the box office, perhaps because of its unhappy ending and a weird extended close-up kiss between Kerr and the then 12-year-old Stephens.

However, the movie was well received by critics. The Oscars ignored it, but BAFTA nominated it for Best Film, and the U.S. National Board of Review named Jack Clayton as best director. Today at, the user ratings are very high and consistent, and the vote total is respectable for a half-century-old black and white movie.

How I felt about it. Any movie can be criticized, even one as mesmerizing as The Innocents. There appear to be only five servants at the estate, two of whom (the cook and the gardener) are never shown. A well-maintained estate such as that would require a much greater staff. And we must wonder why Redgrave keeps the estate at all, since he doesn't live there, and could sell it and spend the money on his undisclosed pleasures.

But neither of those two flaws noticeably affect the quality. The story isn't about the size of the estate. It could take place in a more modest haunted house. It is a ghost story and also a mystery. Kerr has to learn that there are two ghosts and that their presence is not in her imagination. She must find out who the ghosts are and why they haunt the estate. Finally, she learns that they seek the children as hosts. It is up to Kerr to save the children.

Is the devout and saintly Kerr a match for the Satanic power of the late Peter Quint? Remember, the children don't want to be saved. They like things as they are. Kerr has no playbook to go by. Her task seems hopeless, and thankless as well, since who would believe her version of events? Only the housekeeper is on her side, and she doesn't seem too sure either. She knows that Quint and Jessel were sinners, but that doesn't mean the children need an exorcist.

The Innocents, then, is the usual drama of good versus evil, but in an unusual setting. Good and evil battle through two conduits, the innocent but possessed children. The inexperienced governess is out of her league, which suggests that part of the blame falls on wealthy playboy Redgrave. He is unaware of the extent of the problems at his childhood home, but that ignorance is purposeful.