Suspense: the silence of the “innocents” in the horror masterpiece with Deborah Kerr

Both play, or are forced to play by someone, a monstrous game. I don’t pretend to understand what the purpose is, I just know that something is happening: something ambiguous, murky … and unclean.

Suspense: a close-up of Deborah Kerr

In a scene from Suspense, the governess Miss Giddens asks little Flora a question, but the little girl’s attention is totally absorbed by the spectacle of a butterfly which, beating its wings, tries in vain to free itself from the grip of a spider. In another moment of the film, Miss Giddens has a sudden surge of disgust at the sight of an insect coming out of the mouth of a statue in the garden of the mansion. These apparently random fragments contain a component of the charm of Jack Clayton’s film: opening a glimpse into the violence, the grotesque, the horror that lurk under the veil of order and composure. Suspense, moreover, is built on implications, on the “unspoken”, on the different levels of interpretation of an enigmatic reality that goes far beyond the barrier of the visible.

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From Henry James to the cinema: Jack Clayton’s “innocents”

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Suspense: Deborah Kerr e Pamela Franklin

Suspense, Italian title of the original The Innocents, made its debut on November 24, 1961 in Great Britain, to arrive three weeks later in the United States and in May 1962 in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. At the base of the work there are The turn of the screw, short novel published in 1898 by Henry James has become a cornerstone of Gothic fiction, and a theatrical transposition signed in 1950 by the playwright William Archibald, entitled precisely The Innocents. Archibald’s text will form the pivot of the screenplay for Jack Clayton’s film, fresh from his highly acclaimed debut in 1959 with The Street of Uptown, a social drama starring Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret. For the English director, it is now a question of grappling with a completely different subject: a ghost story that, after having made school in the literary field, would have given life to one of the most influential horror films in the history of cinema.

Suspense Film

Suspense: an image by Deborah Kerr

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Suspense: Deborah Kerr, Pamela Franklin e Martin Stephens

Recipient, since then, of boundless admiration both from critics and academics, as well as from famous filmmakers (from François Truffaut to Martin Scorsese to Guillermo del Toro), Suspense has established itself as a milestone for the way it is managed to decline the horror through a purely psychological mechanism, breaking free from the conventions of Hammer films and other titles related to the vein of ghosts and demonic possessions. The whole story is filtered from a single point of view: that of Miss Giddens (Scottish actress Deborah Kerr), hired for her first job as a governess in the country mansion of Bly Manor, in order to take care of a couple. of children, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), on behalf of their uncle (Michael Redgrave, who appears in a brief cameo). The initial enthusiasm of Miss Giddens, however, will clash with the suspicion that Bly Manor is haunted by dark presences, linked in some way to the two little “innocents”.

The Haunting of Bly Manor and The Turn of the Screw: the novel by Henry James that inspired the series

The mystery of Bly Manor


Suspense: Pamela Franklin e Deborah Kerr

Suspense recovers from the novel by Henry James the setting in the County of Essex in the full Victorian age, and the character of Miss Giddens (to whom The turn of the screw no name was given) derives directly from that historical and cultural context: the repression of any drive considered unbecoming, social respectability as an essential requirement and a sexophobia highlighted by the conversations between the woman and the housekeeper of Bly Manor, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins). “There was too much whispering in this house“, is the gloss of the latter as it alludes to the unspeakable actions that would have taken place between those walls and, perhaps, even before the eyes of Miles and Flora, corrupting their innocence. The scandalized gravity of Mrs. Grose’s words feeds the mischief of Miss Giddens, increasingly convinced that something diabolical has happened at Bly Manor and still represents a threat to the two children.

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Suspense: a close-up of Deborah Kerr

Deborah Kerr Innocents

Suspense: Megs Jenkins, Pamela Franklin e Deborah Kerr

It’s Truman Capote, hired by Jack Clayton while he was writing In cold blood, to receive the task of reworking William Archibald’s script, to give a greater level of ambiguity to the story. Here, then, that in the hands of Capote Suspense it is configured, even before a ghost story, as a chilling thriller about paranoia, about an anguish arising from the very idea of ​​Evil to transform, day after day, into a devouring obsession: that obsession beautifully expressed by Deborah Kerr’s face, by a look in which the affection and concern for her students give way to a severity and restlessness that will end up bordering on madness. And it is in this perspective that Deborah Kerr, at the time on the threshold of forty years (and therefore more adult and less ‘naive’ than the character created by Henry James), proves to be a perfect casting choice, conveying in this role her image of a diva with refined elegance and maternal and reassuring sweetness.

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Deborah Kerr and the look on horror

Innocents Kerr

Suspense: a close-up of Deborah Kerr

An image stitched for a decade on Deborah Kerr from films such as The King and I and Tea and Sympathy, but which here is cracked in parallel with the progression of events: it is no coincidence that Suspense will stand out as the best performance in the actress’s career, the one in which Kerr immerses herself most at background in the dark side of your character. The impeccable demeanor in the gestures and phrases of Miss Giddens betrays a sense of disturbance that at times leads to a silent neurosis or moments of authentic panic: as in the dream sequences or during the apparitions of Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), when the direction Clayton’s and Freddie Franis’s photography take on an almost expressionist slant, drawing a sinister intertwining of light and shadow in the corridors of Bly Manor and around the figure of Miss Giddens. But it is not only the supernatural element that offers itself as a source of tension in Suspense: the primary conflict of the protagonist is fought in her psyche, in the dichotomy between attraction and repulsion painted in Kerr’s wide eyes.

The Innocents

Suspense: Martin Stephens e Deborah Kerr

Infant Kiss

Suspense: Martin Stephens e Deborah Kerr

A dichotomy that takes shape in the scene in which Miles reaches out to Miss Giddens and for a few seconds rests his lips on the woman’s mouth, who reacts with mute dismay, but surrenders to that kiss. “What is this? An infant kiss/ That sends my body tingling?“, say the verses of the song The Infant Kiss, composed by Kate Bush inspired by Suspense and identifying herself in the part of Miss Giddens. Here, the thrill of which Kate Bush speaks is the spark of desire that lights up on the face of the governess, just before, in the epilogue, that face turns into a mask of frenzy and ferocity. And in very rare cases, in the annals of cinema, a face has been able to embody horror with the inextricable complexity and disruptive force that Deborah Kerr has shown in Suspense: if after sixty years the film is still considered a masterpiece, the credit is largely due to this extraordinary actress.

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