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 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 holed up in upper class digs. You can’t help associating with The King and I. Very quickly, despite the refinement, things go bump in the night and you sense 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 what I was watching was going way beyond the Saturday matinée antics of William Castle. Much more than mere ghost story, it’s inevitable to interpret the James work as a psychological thriller about possession, with the governess, in order for her charges to be healed, exorcising their demons, and in the process she either consciously or unwittingly helps kill one of them. The shock of the prim & proper Kerr going this far had everything to do with the dismal box office—most adult viewers didn’t want to see her respected image trashed. An unforgivable act of sabotage, the original misleading ads did indeed scare away viewers (and Oscar voters) 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 was and remains an art house attraction. On so many levels, including the daring and the argumentative, The Turn of Miss Kerr is absolutely thrilling, owing thanks not only to Kerr but also to director Clayton, and to adaptors William Archibald, John Mortimer and Truman Capote (only 36 at the time) who achieve the rare instance of an interpretation which can be said to transcend the primary source. (Film buffs believe Capote deserves much of the credit and by his very nature concurred. For those who enjoy Camille Paglia seeking deviant overtones in every nook and cranny, there’s her essay “American Decadents: Emerson, Whitman, James,” published in Sexual Personae; she gives new meaning to Ken Russell inflation.) The Innocents is proof CinemaScope in b & w can also be a surpassing experience—see The Diary of Anne Frank, Compulsion and Seven Thieves—and few are greater in providing its pleasure than Freddie Francis, having justly won an Academy Award the previous year for equally stunning work in Sons & Lovers. 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 they’re, well, what they have to be—unnerving. With Megs Jenkins and Michael Redgrave.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER (Revised 9/2014) All Rights Reserved.
see The Diary