"We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow.
But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree.
Singing "Oh willow waly" by the tree that weeps with me.
Singing "Oh willow waly" till my lover return to me.
We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow.
A broken heart have I.
Oh willow I die�
Oh willow I die..."
These creepy words by Paul Dehn and Georges Auric are sung over a black screen for nearly three quarters of a minute before the 20th Century Fox logo and Cinemascope trademark appear prior to the main credits sequence, effectively setting up the viewer for an off-kilter, chilling experience. In some engagements the black screen opening was mistakenly seen as unusually long black leader by the projectionists, and was subsequently edited out so that the 20th Century Fox logo immediately appeared and the musical tune was heard abruptly coming out of nowhere in mid-tune (I personally witnessed one instance at a Halloween 2000 screening of the film at the Film Forum in New York City). This is very unfortunate as this understandable mistake ruined one of the most effective openings of any thriller.
The silence segues into the sound of birds chirping and a woman sobbing. The image of Deborah Kerr's hands in a praying position becomes more and more disturbing as her hands almost begin waging a war with one another, as they twist and contort. We see Deborah Kerr's face in close-up, her voice in an echo, stating that she needs to save the children, all the while with birds chirping in the background. The film dissolves to Miss Giddens (Kerr) in a rather ornate house, being interviewed by the owner, a middle-aged bachelor who finds himself in the unenviable position of being saddled with his recently orphaned niece and nephew, Flora and Miles, respectively. He claims that he has no room in his heart for them, and wishes to be relieved of the responsibility of caring for them. He asks Ms. Giddens to become their new governess. Their previous governess, Ms. Jessel, suddenly and unexpectedly died. Flora, apparently, was very attached to this woman, and the mere mention of her death is troubling to her.
Ms. Giddens accepts this position and rides to the home in Bly, England. She enters the gate and walks the rest of the distance, hearing the name "Flora!" being called, accompanied by birds chirping. Suddenly, Ms. Giddens sees Flora just next to a small gazebo. Like most English charges, Flora is polite, tactful and well-spoken. She introduces herself to Ms. Giddens, as well as her pet turtle, Rupert, whom she withdraws from her pocket.
Off they go to the manor house where Mrs. Grose, the woman who has taken care of Flora in the interim, lives. Ms. Giddens is overcome by the size and beauty of the house. Ms. Giddens asks in passing what the previous governess, Ms. Jessel was like. Mrs. Grose states that she was young but not nearly as pretty as Ms. Giddens. Ms. Giddens shows relief as what appears to be a very nice situation. She remarks at how persuasive the uncle was at getting her to take the job. Mrs. Grose slips up, mentioning that he had the devil's eye (referring to another man), and giving us the first indication that all is not well here�
Ms. Giddens and Mrs. Grose playfully bathe Flora, who repeats, "Miles is coming!" a reference to her brother who is away at school. After her bath, Flora takes Ms. Giddens on a tour of the house, and it is here that Flora's perspicacity becomes troubling. Flora poses the question of wishing she could sleep in several rooms at once, then ponders if she died during her sleep, would the Lord take her to heaven, or just let her walk around aimlessly�
During the night, Flora awakens and looks out the window overlooking the garden, and hums "Oh willow waly". The next day Flora receives the mail and gives it to Ms. Giddens who is shocked to learn that Miles has been expelled from school. Even more shocking to her is Flora's ability to know this the night before. A more realistic explanation would be that the letter arrived a day or two early, and Flora commandeered it from the post, read it and learned of Miles' expulsion, and put the letter back in the envelope and resealed it, giving it to the governess a day or two later (although Ms. Giddens makes a point to mention that the letter was not opened before she herself tore it open).
Flora and Ms. Giddens meet Miles at the train station and take him back to the house. He seems very happy to be back. When Ms. Giddens broches the subject of being expelled, Miles sheds a tear and refuses to talk about it. The next day Ms. Giddens is out cutting flowers and hears birds chirping and the singing of "Oh willow waly". She looks up and sees a man walking along the roof of the house. Distressed, she rushes inside and up to the top of the tower where Miles is playing with some doves. She asks him where the man went. Miles claims there was no man, and suggests that she imagined it.
Flora brings Ms. Giddens out to see Miles ride his horse. Ms. Giddens suddenly hears birds squawking and cawing although there really aren't any to be found. She finds this troubling.
Later that evening Flora and Miles engage Ms. Giddens in a game of hide and seek. As Ms. Giddens hides, she's suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by the man she saw walking along the tower. His apparition appears and fades. Later, Mrs. Grose tells her she saw Peter Quint, the valet, but that he's now dead. The children laugh and the music box plays "Oh willow waly".
Flora screeches her pencil on the board, and is scolded by Ms. Giddens. Miles yells at Flora for looking for attention, and Flora starts crying. Ms. Giddens foolishly becomes subservient to them both, foolishly scolding herself for being mean and grumpy, and suggests that they pretend that it's Flora's birthday. This immediately changes the children's mood and they play dress up.
As they run off, Mrs. Grose tells Ms Giddens of how Quint died while returning home on an icy cold winter's night, full of booze, and slipped on the steps. Miles found him.
On a beautiful afternoon, Ms. Giddens sits in the gazebo while Miles goes out in a rowboat. As Flora hums to herself, Ms. Giddens sees a woman about 200 feet away. She asks Flora if she sees her � she doesn't.
Ms Giddens then believes they are conspiring to drive her mad by playing some monstrous game. Mrs. Grose later confides to her that Quint and Ms. Jessel were sexually involved and made no maneuvers to hide their feelings for each other.
Ms. Giddens then engages in a bit of self-condemnation, believing that the children are talking about and conspiring against her.
She then makes the mistake of planning to visit their uncle and tell him of her troubles with the children, dispite his instructions forbidding her not to bother him.
Ms. Giddens sees Ms. Jessle crying in the tower and becomes convinced that the children are possessed.
In the dark hours of the night, she carries a candelabrum throughout the house to make sure that it is secure. She hears the voices of Quint and Ms. Jessel, then catches Flora looking outside in the garden, where Miles is walking about. She puts him to bed, and he contends that he went outside to be a bad boy � he thought he was becoming boring. She retrieves a dead dove with a broken neck from under his pillow. He sits up and kisses her full on the lips, which no doubt raised some eyebrows at its release.
Ms Giddens looks for Flora, and discovers that she has rowed the boat out to the gazebo, whereby she sees Ms Jessel and forces flora to admit that she sees her when, in fact, she cannot, nor can Mrs. Grose who comes to Flora's aid.
Flora screams that she hates Ms. Giddens, and the latter is convinced that spending the following day alone with Miles will get him to confess his evil. She instructs Mrs. Grose to take Flora to her uncle so she can be alone with miles.
It is during this confrontation that the real reason Miles was expelled becomes evident. As Miles tells her, Qunits face appears. Miles throws the turtle through a window and runs off. When Ms. Giddens catches up with him, she pleads with him to name the man who taught him to be mean. When he says Quint's name, Miles drops at Ms. Gidden's feet, dead, and we arrive once again at the beginning of the film.
The most unnerving thing in Jack Clayton's THE INNOCENTS isn't a ghost, the dark, rain, or even a bump in the night. It's the screeching sound that Flora's pencil makes as she writes on her chalkboard. We all have sounds and thoughts that unnerve and bother us: fingernails on a chalkboard, an incorrigible child's screams, birds cawing and squawking, and the film plays on those fears. Until 1961, the barometer by which all other Hollywood supernatural films were measured was possibly THE UNINVITED (1944), a film that has not survived the test of time. Whereas THE UNINVITED was the schlocky equivalent of a director dressing up in a sheet and saying "Boo!", THE INNOCENTS presents a visual ambiguity that leaves it up to the viewer as to whether or not there really are ghosts, or if all is happening in the mind of the protagonist.
THE INNOCENTS has an unforgettable musical theme like the music box in BURNT OFFERINGS and the piano themes in CURTAINS, THE CHANGELING and THE GIRL IN A SWING.
Ultimately, THE INNOCENTS represents filmmaking of a bygone era, THE OTHERS being the one contemporary exception. The highly literate production, both visually and verbally, is one of cinema's greatest accomplishments. Georges Auric, who scored DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) and LA BELLE ET LA BETE (1946), provides a wonderfully understated score for this film.
Out of the few DVD incarnations that exist of this film, the new PAL Region 2 disc issued by the British Film Institute is hands-down the one to get. This is a great reason to get a region-free player as there is a wealth of extras on the disc, unlike the movie-only edition that Fox Video issued in NTSC Region 1 in 2005. The features consist of:
� Anamorphic (16:9) Widescreen (2.35:1) Version
� English audio
� Filmed introduction with Professor Christopher Frayling (25 minutes)
� Audio commentary with Professor Christopher Frayling (entire film)
� Original US trailer
� The Bespoke Overcoat (Jack Clayton, 1955, 33 mins) - Jack Clayton's first film as director - an Oscar and BAFTA award-winning short starring Alfie Bass and David Kossoff
� Stills gallery including original costume designs, publicity posters, press books and production pictures
� Beautiful, 21-page illustrated booklet including film notes by Jeremy Dyson (The League of Gentlemen)
Professor Christopher Frayling provides a wonderful introduction and commentary with a wealth of information about the production, and thankfully he never comes off as stuffy or pedantic. There are some interesting tidbits about how the film was promoted in Great Britain as a mystery for adults, yet in the United States it was promoted along the same lines as the schlocky William Castle films.
The booklet that is included with the DVD contains some nice notes, anecdotes, and behind-the-scenes images of the production, as well as pre-production conceptual drawings.
THE INNOCENTS makes a perfect double feature with Robert Wise's THE HAUNTING.
If you live in the States, this disc can be ordered from Xploited Cinema out of Cleveland, OH. Ask for Tony, and tell him that Horror Express sent you!