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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 25, No. 3. 1962.

The Turn of the Screw — Film Review

page 6

The Turn of the Screw

Film Review

Jack Clayton, director of Room at the Top, could not possibly have chosen a more different subject for his second feature than Henry James' ghost story "The Turn of the Screw." His transition from contemporary to gothic is not a particularly happy one for his treatment of James' minor classic is not only stereotyped but is stilted and predictable.

It is not that The Innocents makes any major changes in James' plot or is even unfaithful to his mood or intention. It is just that the treatment lets it down—what is believable in print becomes somewhat hard to swallow when demonstrated concretely before us. The suspension of disbelief becomes even harder when the machinery utilised to evoke it is so out-worn by repetition as to have become a cliche.

In his notebook, dated Saturday, January 12, 1895, James made the following entry:

"Note here the ghost-story told me at Addington (evening of Thursday 10th), by The Archbishop of Canterbury: The mere vague, undetailed, faint sketch of it—being all he had been told (very badly and imperfectly), by a lady who had no art of relation, and no clearness; the story of the young children (indefinite number and age) left to the care of servants in an old country-house, through the death, presumably, of parents. The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children; the children are bad, full of evil, to a sinister degree. The servants die (the story vague about the way of it) and their apparitions, figures, return to haunt the house and children, to whom they seem to beckon, whom they invite and solicit, from across dangerous places, the deep ditch of a sunk fence, etc. So that the children may destroy themselves, lose themselves, by responding, by getting in their power. So long as the children are kept from them, they are not lost; but they try and try and try, these evil presences, to get hold of them. It is a question of the children coming over to where they are! It is all obscure and imperfect, the picture, the story, but there is a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect in it. The story to be told—tolerably obviously—by an outside spectator, observer."

When he gave the story its final form, James made the apparitions the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel and the protector of the children Miles and Flora a governess, Miss Giddens.

The Power of Suggestion

The key expression in the above passage is "obscure and imperfect." Most of James' story is hints, evasions and suggestions (as indeed all the best ghost stories from Le Fanu to the latest science fiction are) and the best aid in frightening anyone is that person's own imagination. It is not the devil you know is there that frightens you but the devil that might be there. James had illuminating remarks to make on this very point with reference to The Turn of the Screw:

"Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough ... and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications."

Miss Giddens has her first premonition of something unnatural in the household when the girl, Flora, mentions that her brother, Miles, is coming home from boarding school. This incident, one which could be explained quite rationally, is blown up into something that hits the viewer between the eyes and makes him exclaim "Ah, that's significant!" The ghosts themselves are shown melodramatically with the full use of trickery and special camera effects. When Miss Giddens sees the figure of Quint on the tower, there is no air of unease in the occurrence as such, so it has to be injected into the scene artificially with the aid of a double exposure of drifting fog and soaring frightened doves, a halolike radiance appearing over the governess' features and oscillations on the sound track. Under such a mass of impedimenta the encounter falls completely flat.

In direct contrast, when she sees the figure of Miss Jessel dressed in black and standing in pouring rain across the lake, the very simplicity of the scene gives one the uneasy sensation that is so missing from the rest of the governess' encounters with the apparitions. When miss Giddens makes her long trek, candelbra in hand, through the empty house, the gimmickry again distracts—there is so much noise, special effects and musique concrete on the sound track that any suspense is soon dissipated. How much more effective to have used just silence and the odd natural sound.

Shock Cutting

This is not to say that there are not moments when one is suddenly startled—even dishonestly. Two obvious examples spring to mind, both dependent on shock cutting. The first is when a close up of Miss Giddens' face is followed abruptly by a close up of Flora splashing in the bath, and the second is that time-worn but still favourite device, the windows that crash open suddenly with an inrush of wind and rain and a billowing of the curtains. (I wonder if this shock cutting is becoming a habit of British films—there were flagrant examples in The Angry Silence and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, for example.)

There are also some dissatisfyingly loose ends in the story line also—the animal cries of pain from the garden at odd times, the dove with the broken neck, and Miles' walking in the garden late at night "to make Miss Giddens think he can be bad for a change." Are these tied in with the main story or are they simply red herrings? And what happens to Flora when she drives away with Mrs. Grose after her attack of hysteria—does the apparition of Miss Jessel allow her to go quietly after all or will she follow? (and so on).

The fault that really breaks the picture's back though is the dialogue. James' story was told in diary form, and this has meant that practically all the conversations have had to be invented. This is all very well and unavoidable, but why did the speech have to be in such a stilted and unwieldy form? Even if Miles is being coached by an apparition, some of his Latin-structured sentences are so involved and unwieldy that he has to concentrate very hard just to get them out, let alone give any expression to them. The children's acting is, taken all round, unsatisfying—not because the characters display an unnatural knowingness (they should) but because the actors playing the characters display a smug awareness of their charade behind the facade.


I don't want to appear uncharitable about Godwin, but ..."

The Performances

Michael Redgrave hams it up for his few minutes on screen at the very beginning of the film and then vanishes never to return; the best acting comes from Megs Jenkins as the housekeeper. Deborah Kerr looks the part as a governess but such a sustained performance as is needed here is beyond her power. (I did like, however, her look of startled surprise when young Miles, bidding her goodnight, kisses her fully on the lips in an adult way. A satisfying close-up here, even if predictable.)

I'm sorry that the sinking feeling engendered by the arty arty simple folk song and pretentious titles opening the film is fully justified by the disappointment that follows—it would be nice to be able to praise the film for its good intentions alone.

(Henry James' The Turn of the Screw has been interpreted as an outpouring of the children's governess narrating the story, a fantasy resulting from her neurotic repression. This is her first position, she is obviously virginal, from a country parsonage, etc., etc., but James himself treated the story as cold fact and the demonic possession as actually having taken place. Clayton has also adopted this straightforward viewpoint in the film, though in this case it might have been more rewarding if there had been a hint of more than a trifle of mental unbalance in Miss Giddens' perception).


Produced and directed by Jack Clayton.

Screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote.

Director of Photography, Freddie Francis.

Editor, James Clark.

Art Director, Wilfrid Shingleton.

Music by George Auric.

20th Century Fox, British, Cine-mascope, 100 minutes.

Coming Events

From the amount of advance publicity lavishly scattered around the city, I had hoped that Cinema Week was going to feature some outstanding and offbeat films. But to an unbiassed observer, it seems that it is just a name tacked on to a week of ordinary releases. No one could believe that Exodus, The Queen's Guard, Fanny, The Innocents, The Outsider, and The Day The Earth Caught Fire constitute outstanding entertainment. The Paramount holds out hope with Julien Duvivier's House of Lovers, an adaptation of Zola's Pot-Bouille, but I suspect the "Cinema Week" of being nothing more than an afterthought on someone's part.

In Auckland, the Arts festival showed Bergman's The Magician and The Virgin Spring. The Sanders directed Crime and Punishment, U.S.A. is due for early release and Two Women is screening. Why couldn't we have had these instead?