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 reluctantly associating with The King and I. Very quickly, 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 (double featured with Breakfast at Tiffany’s), 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 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 kids. This shock of the prim & proper Kerr going that far had something to do with the dismal box office—most viewers didn’t want to see her image end up like this. The early misleading ads did indeed scare away viewers by suggesting a cheesy Castleness or those British Hammer horror flicks, though the cover shot at the left for the Criterion Blu-ray release is a vast improvement, confirming the movie is for the art house crowd. On so many levels, including the daring and the argumentative, The Turn of Miss Kerr is absolutely thrilling. The Innocents is one of the few resplendently b & w-photograghed CinemaScope movies—the great Freddie Francis did the lensing—and isn’t likely to be duplicated. Clayton’s direction is equally sublime in controlling the turns. The adaptation by William Archibald, John Mortimer and Truman Capote (only 36 at the time) remains one of those rare instances when the interpretation can be said to transcend the original source. (For those who enjoy that Camille Paglia sees deviant overtones in every nook and cranny, 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.