THE TURN OF MISS KERR

Of all the movies starring Deborah Kerr, three remain top favorites of mine: An Affair to Remember, in which she plays Cary Grant’s dream girl; Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners; and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. (Following closely are From Here to Eternity, John Huston’s Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and The Night of the Iguana.) The common thread is Kerr’s refinery; even if she tried to wipe it away in Eternity or subdue it in Sundowners, the regal lady bit inescapably teems. Audiences in the 50s and early 60s came to depend on the persona, maybe because it represented qualities never achieved or were lost through coarsening urbanization; for more than two decades, she was the movies’ Miss Manners. (Having seen her on the London stage in The Day After the Fair, she was not only the embodiment of propriety, she was breathtaking in her beauty.) Out of the legacy of etiquette is a performance by Kerr that’s as good today as it was when first seen. No, not true—it’s even better now. Based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Innocents seems at first sight the ideal role for Kerr, who once more is gowned in turn-of-the-century creations and is holed up in upper class digs. You can’t help associating with The King and I. Very quickly, though, despite the refinement, things go bump in the night and you sense that Kerr’s not about to get Marni Nixoned. A freshmen in high school when I first saw the movie, and not having yet read James, there wasn’t any doubt that what I was watching was going way beyond the Saturday matinee antics of William Castle. Much more than a ghost story, it’s inevitable to interpret the James work as a psychological thriller about sexual possession, with the governess discovering that in order for her charges to be healed, they have to be exorcised of their demons, and in the process she either consciously or unwittingly helps kill one of the children. This shock of the prim & proper Kerr going that far to “protect” may have had something to do with the dismal box office—most viewers didn’t want to see her image end up like this. (And the original ads did indeed suggest a cheesy Castleness or those British Hammer Horror flicks, though the cover shot at the left is an improvement for Criterion Blu-ray release.) It’s the daringness in the performance that is her triumph; she took her own image and ran like hell with it in the least expected direction. On so many levels, The Turn of Miss Kerr is absolutely thrilling. The Innocents remains one of the most beautifully photographed of b & w CinemaScope movies—the great Freddie Francis did the lensing—and Clayton’s direction of the adaptation by William Archibald, John Mortimer and, only 36 at the time, Truman Capote is nothing less than sublime. The screenplay is one of those super rare instances when the interpretation transcends the original source. (For those who enjoy that Camille Paglia sees in every nook and cranny homosexual overtones, I recommend her essay “American Decadents: Emerson, Whitman, James,” published in Sexual Personae. She gives new meaning to Ken Russell inflation.) As the bedeviled children Pamela Franklin (Maggie Smith’s assassin in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and Martin Stephens (Kerr’s son in Count Your Blessings) are so precociously right that they’re, well, what they have to be—unnerving. With Megs Jenkins and Michael Redgrave.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 9/2014)  All Rights Reserved.