The Spectre of Peter Quint in The Innocents (1961)

*contains spoilers

The name of Peter Quint strikes fear into some who hear it. The name is that of some kind of monster… Or it is just that of a course and perhaps highly sexualised man of lowly station who is just a corrupter of virtue and innocence…

When I hear the name of Peter Quint I think of my grandfather as I was reading about Peter Quint in the original source material The Turn of the Screw (1899-1900) written by Henry James (1843-1916) the night my grandfather died…. I never finished that novella and was spooked by what was essentially a ghost story. Peter Quint for boys is the male adult of who leaves an impression on them either good or bad as a part of their childhood. I wondered if my grandfather had pulled the pin deliberately and staged his death that night to leave maximum impression…

The Innocents (1961) poster
A racy paperback cover for Henry James’ story
Henry James with his pen

I was and still am a gullible sort open to the questionable lies of others and I wondered if it was his ghost that came to visit me in my Hindley Street flat as a red dust storm engulfed the city of Adelaide between the time he died and his funeral. Fortunately, or unfortunately, despite all the positive influences my grandfather had on me, this was a disturbing end to our relationship. It sent me over the precipice.

There is the character of Quint played by Robert Shaw in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) who is of the ilk of the Peter Quint character in The Turn of the Screw… The original novel is set in Victorian England and was printed in weekly portions before being published in book form. Most people these days say it deals with sexual repression, while others say it’s all about ghosts and it could be too – but, really, it’s about the corruption of the young and even the madness of not giving into corruption – for some.

There are some interesting versions of the novel which have been transformed onscreen. The best being director Jack Clayton’s (1921-95 heart attack) The Innocents (1961) starring Deborah Kerr (1921-2007 Parkinson’s disease) as the repressed governess to two young children named Miles and Flora on a large countryside estate owned by their uncle. It was there the previous governess had died under mysterious circumstances along with another manservant on the grounds Peter Quint. Kerr becomes obsessed with these two dead servants, so much so that she begins seeing them around the house and gardens.

Kerr with candles in The Innocents (1961)
Deborah Kerr, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin in The Innocents
Director Jack Clayton

This dead pair seem to have left and impression on the children in terms of bad language and also ape their sexual behaviour to a certain degree.

The story, as told in The Innocents, has a great performance by Kerr as the governess who may really be seeing ghosts, or are they just hallucinations conjured by her own Victorian repressed sexuality. She knows these two had a sex life and even the children may have one among themselves as in one version of the story they dress up and apply lipstick and fondle each other.

Filmed in Cinemascope The Innocents opens with the praying hands of Kerr’s governess, possibly in a madhouse as she weeps. She is trying to save the souls of the children with prayer. The film also ends with the clasped hands as a kind of bookend. Sometime director Freddie Francis (1917-2007 after stroke) photographed the movie and a whole article could be written about his use of the widescreen and the black and white film stock.

“I want to save the children not destroy them,” Kerr tells herself about her worries that the souls of the children are possibly lost.

The truth being that once the innocence of a child has been erased to a certain degree, there is no going back, except if the child is perhaps only aping the behaviour of the corrupt adult – say of the name of Peter Quint… there is still a kind of innocence in that case if the child does not fully understand what is happening… As Kerr becomes involved with the household and knows of its past, she possibly, as a Christian, grows hysterical when the extent of Quint’s reputation starts to manifest itself as he hardly led people down the path of righteousness including children… As a result, it has her groaning sexually in her sleep while the children watch. Her latent sexuality is near awoken but she will not allow it.

Jack Clayton also directed Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Photographer Freddie Francis
Jack Clayton on the set

Kerr’s sexual innocence is one that has remained intact or ‘pure’ since childhood we assume and also through adolescence. She thinks the same should be for Miles and Flora, but the children have already seen things. We suspect Quint and his woman even made love in front of the fireplace, but it is all ghostly and unproveable. They are impressions in the minds of the children.

Flora knows foul language and Miles kisses Kerr full on the lips like a lover despite being barely eight or ten years old. This is shown in close-up in the movie just to underline the point. The photography as I mentioned is fantastic with dark corridors in the house enclosing the characters from either side almost like death or an otherworldly realm.

“Thank heaven for children,” says the head maid played by Megs Jenkins (1917-98). This actress would appear again as the maid in another version entitled The Turn of the Screw (1974) which starred Lynn Redgrave as the governess. Shot on video tape, this is a solid adaptation by American director Dan Curtis.

Peter Wyngarde as the evil Peter Quint
Redgrave version of Turn of the Screw
Megs Jenkins in The Innocents. Mandatory Credit: Photo by 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

And also from the maid: “He really had the devil’s own eyes” she says of no one in particular except Quint himself and she swallows her words when Kerr almost gasps. He is a character who we only see briefly in this movie but Peter Wyngarde (1927-2018 unspecified) makes a great impression in the role. It is an evil countenance.

“Would the Lord just leave me here to walk around? Doesn’t that happen to some people?,” asks Flora of Kerr after saying her prayers and doubting their efficacy. Flora innocently believes in ghosts at this point in the movie.

And so, we have the set up as we will wonder if the house is haunted by the spectre of Peter Quint, or is it only the minds of those in his former living realm that are disturbed by his spirit as it was in life and the troubles it has left behind in those who know him and those infected by his legend through word of mouth.

Meanwhile the boy Miles may have the power “to contaminate, to corrupt” says Kerr to the maid and herself with a spooked look on her face… It is said that the author of the novel Henry James had his own Peter Quint in the form of his father who chose for his son not to be educated in the classics but had him opened up to many influences, both scientific and philosophical, which one biographer described as “haphazard and promiscuous”. It should also be added that James admired the morally ambiguous and totally human work of the French writer Honore de Balzac (1700-1850).

A worldly looking Henry James with his father
Freddie Francis directed many movies as well
A young Truman Capote… He gave The Innocents depth and quality.

The excellent script for The Innocents is based on the 1950 play by William Archibald (1917-70 hepatitis) with the help of legend Truman Capote (1924-84 liver disease and drug overdose) while there are extra scenes by John Mortimer (1923-2009 stroke) of Rumpole of the Bailey fame.

Archibald’s original play said the ghosts in James’ novel were real but one could imagine Capote injecting the repressed sexuality scenario into the new screenplay. It was director Clayton who decided to go with the psychological aspect of the script right through to the ending and he asked Kerr to try and balance her performance between reality and unreality, something she found to be difficult and intense. Archibald was upset about the doubts cast about the ghosts and argued with Clayton… The director won out and a classic was forged with the children watching Kerr moan in her sleep and Miles later strangling Kerr in fun and games like some sado-masochistic lover getting carried away.

It is then Kerr ‘sees’ Quint and the beginning of her spiritual disturbance has begun and quickly turns to the hysteria in one scene of being like a caged bird to the sound of canaries or cheeping birds trapped in an airless place. We even get the idea that Miles has learnt cruel behaviour such as breaking the wings and necks of doves from Quint. The spectre of Quint is disturbing in many ways even if he wanders and appears nary at all: “You didn’t know Quint… such power he had over people” says the maid as she tells Kerr about how Miles followed the man around like a dog.

Just a word on the screenplay once more and it is said that Capote was brought in to do rewrites and it turned out that 90 percent of the screenplay was his… Thus, the American Southern Gothic feeling to it all while Mortimer was brought in to polish the dialogue and give it a Victorian feel which he succeeded in doing.

Playwright William Archibald argued with the director
The book of the play
Miles keeps a bird with a broken neck warm in his bed

Part of the blurring of reality and the ghosts Kerr sees in the children themselves as well as a part of her disturbed personality is suggested when she says: “They’re playing some monstrous game” with the words monstrous and game brought together to show corruption and innocence as well as reality and unreality and perhaps also the evil supernatural and the rules of the psychological: “Unless they’re deceiving us, unless they’re both deceiving us… the innocents!”

Kerr says the title of the movie with irony and yet there is no conviction to this irony as if she herself can’t even imagine how the kids could deceive her. It’s as if Kerr has forgotten what it’s like to be a child, or else she was raised in a convent and has a childish adult perspective of an uninitiated adolescent.

The strange thing about the effect of Peter Quint, once his spirit or legend takes hold of Kerr, is that it’s effect on Miles is twofold just as the spirit of Quint’s governess girlfriend Miss Jessell affects Flora…. So massively when Kerr tells her the ghost is present.

Not only does Quint and Miss Jessell’s contact with the children before their deaths remain intact in the minds of Miles and Flora but Kerr’s stirring of the memories of these dead personalities from Resting in Peace again into the monsters they once were, makes them seem they ‘once are’ once more. So, the children are The Innocents as Kerr overestimates how corrupt they really are.

The Innocents (1961) trailer
The ‘lover’s’ kiss between Miles and Kerr
French poster
Another French poster

“They lure, they know, they share this hell,” says Kerr about “casting out these devil’s forever” as she sees the ghosts as a manifestation of the children and still can’t see how it is herself which is responsible for these so-called manifestations in the first place. It is like she has a neurosis as she projects it upon the children themselves.

Let me just mention that Kerr was around forty when she made this movie and the role in the original novel had the governess aged only around twenty. It’s an amazing performance.

Further, the sound design for the movie is pure genius at moments especially when matched with Clayton and Francis’ work… Let’s not go into that as you must study the movie yourself.

The ending of the movie has Kerr reducing Flora into a screaming hysterical mess while a bit later Miles dies of heart failure after imagining he sees or can sense the presence of Peter Quint after Kerr prompts him that he is watching from the darkness. Such is the essence of ghost stories. Quint in Miles mind may have returned from the grave as the boy succumbs with no REAL presence. Or was there? The power of suggestion can kill. So, the legend of Peter Quint has imprinted himself in his lifetime on the boy and in the boy’s death as well. Such is the experience of some children who suffer or learn at the hands of adults. Kerr as a teacher hoped her Christian learning would also rub off on the children while Quint’s lessons in life are on the other far end of the scale. It is sometimes not the fault of the children that they learn such behaviour in certain communities or in a society… the Quint affect continues… even Kerr’s Christian ‘cruelty’ in the end against Miles and Flora is comparable to Quint, or even worse, once she is too is affected by this man. Triggered late in life after a lifetime of prayer, something she returns to at the very end as she doesn’t take responsibility of the reality of the ending but instead directs it with her belief in Christ and the New Testament. It possibly saves her but not the children as she wished and she prays with an almost detached delusion.

The Turn of the Screw (1999) trailer
The Nightcomers (1971) poster
The Nightcomers (1971) starred Marlon Brando as Peter Quint

Kerr has seen two worlds collide in terms of her own Christianity and those who live without it… Unfortunately, ghosts, whether they are in the mind on a part of the supernatural can destroy lives and that goes for the man that was Peter Quint who was obviously not a Christian at all.

There was a prequel to The Turn of the Screw directed by Michael Winner (1935-2013) entitled The Nightcomers (1971). It starred Marlon Brando (1924-2004 respiratory failure) as Peter Quint and it showed some of his boorish behaviour as well as his intelligence laziness and lust. The most interesting part of this movie is perhaps the ending where the children murder Miss Jessell and Peter Quint, which is probably the ultimate set up for the original novel The Turn of the Screw. The children are older in The Nightcomers and so the sexual themes could be explored further.

As you know, Winner isn’t known for being a great director and the script is by Michael Hastings (1938-2011). I found the movie forgettable otherwise.

The trailer proclaimed: “Marlon Brando as Peter Quint who took two children and taught them everything” while it also mentioned Brando’s “Inventive film acting.”

Jodhi May looked fetching in The Last of the Mohicans (1993)
DVD cover for the 1999 version with Jodhi May
VHS cover for Rusty Lemorande’s version from 1992

Another remake of the original stars one of my favourite underused actresses from the 1990s… Her name is Jodhi May (1975-) and she stars in the 1999 version of the movie which keeps the original title. May, some will remember, was the younger sister in The Last of the Mohicans (1993). She does a good job here. Whereas the uncle, who gives the governess the job at the beginning of The Innocents, was played by Michael Redgrave (1908-85 Parkinson’s disease), here it is played by Colin Firth (1960-). It’s a good movie and the ending, rather than having Miles die of heart failure, instead has May seem to smother him to death at her breast. Certainly, another way to express repressed sexuality.

Then there’s director Rusty Lemorande’s version made in 1992 which doesn’t quite have the polish or the previous films and it has languished in obscurity thanks to its reputation. It is however a different take on the tale. This one has Patsy Kensit (1968-) as the governess and the movie this time is set during the 1960s with Julian Sands (1958-) as the uncle and French actress Stephane Audran (1932-2018) as the maid or housekeeper. There is even a performance which bookends the movie by Marianne Faithfull (1946-) who tells the tale from a diary and who may be Flora now one of the inmates of a ‘home’. It’s a version which, like the Dan Curtis version starring Lynn Redgrave, is agreeable without being particularly special.

Presence of Mind (2001) is yet another
Kensit in the 1960s set Lemorande version of The Turn of the Screw
Nilo Mur strips off tastefully in Presence of Mind (1999)

And I will visit another version from a couple of decades back which was a Spanish-American production which starred Sadie Frost (1965-) as the governess, Harvey Keitel (1939-) as the uncle and Lauren Bacall (1924-2014 stroke) as the governess. It is called Presence of Mind (1999). Set in Catholic Spain at the turn of the 20th Century, it has the courage to use an adolescent child in the form of NIlo Zimmerman (Nilo Mur) (1986-) and more or less have a scene of sensuality of the child changing his clothes in front of Frost and baring his backside. The film is not a great one otherwise but here’s some dialogue to wrap up the article.

“The dead are dead Miss… There’s nothing else they can do to harm the living anymore,” says Lauren Bacall in an ironic twist for later on. And meanwhile Miles later in the classroom looks up the word ‘ghost’ in the dictionary… “Because sometimes things have more than one meaning. Ghost. One, the spirit or soul. Two, or haunting memory. And three, the supposed spirit of a dead person, appearing to the living as a shadowy apparition…. If ghosts don’t exist. Then why are they in the lexicon.”

Presence of Mind (1999) trailer
Is there no choice for the boy but to become this man?

Well, I guess they are not banned and Kerr reads about the Holy Ghost in her Bible… Why is it that many of us are fascinated by ghost stories? Why do we like being scared by them? Or why do we become scared in the first place? There must remain some doubt as to their existence for us to let them into our mind and scare us… for some, deeply.

And so, I am back to the spirit of my grandfather as the dusty winds blew through the window of my second-floor apartment with the curtains blowing and I imagined this man who had shown me Treasure Island through to Tennessee Williams from Jaws (Quint! Quint! Quint!) through to Jacques Tati had returned to admonish me for being a failure… It was at that midnight hour when I could not sleep that my mind began to disintegrate to a point where I would be almost classically mad…

James wrote many ghost stories
Another classic ghost tale featuring sexual repression
This one features Pamela Franklin who was the original Flora
Kerr prays

He had once warned me with a laugh of Dame Judith Anderson’s character in Rebecca (1940) as she madly and almost queerly believed that there could be such a thing as a ghost in the first place. I see now in that dusty midnight hour that I need not have been scared and I need not believe he had returned to torture me: “He was dead” and like in Old Marley in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “as a doornail”!

And like Kerr, I pray over this keyboard with a sense I don’t really believe this at all and yet I try to believe in the good in people… and try to forget the Peter Quints of the world who may haunt me either living or dead for the rest of my mortal existence.

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