|cast: Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham, Thora Hird, and Harry Andrews
director: Michael Winner
95 minutes (18) 1972
Conceived as a prequel to The Turn Of The Screw, Winner’s film is a curious vehicle for Marlon Brando, as well as a example of a failed attempt to film gothic, period drama satisfactorily. Brando plays Peter Quint, the sexually aggressive former valet, now locum gardener at Bly House, an English county estate. Bly is run jointly by housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Thora Hird), and a governess, the repressed Miss Jessell (Stephanie Beacham), and the only other inhabitants of this curious domicile are two children, Miles (Christopher Ellis) and Flora (Verna Harvey), nominally the wards of the absent Master of the House (a splendid Harry Andrews), obliged with their care after the death of their parents in an overseas automobile accident. The children regard Quint as something of a surrogate father, and feel that they can ingratiate themselves by manipulating his private life, notably his intense relationship with Miss Jessell.
Jack Claytons The Innocents (1962) is the closest point of reference for Winner’s pseudo-historical mishmash, as the earlier film is the definitive telling of the Henry James tale, the events of which spring from this. Presumably the appointment, and despatch to Bly of the (unnamed) new governess at the film’s end is that of Miss Giddings, the character played by Deborah Kerr. But where Clayton’s film was completely successful in transmitting a feeling of supernatural unease and psychological dread, Winner’s ham fisted approach to his material comes across as a crass and obvious exercise, a treatment almost entirely without atmosphere or charm. James’ characters may act out their parts in The Nightcomers, but its presentation of situation and personality veers uncertainly between the childhood gormlessness of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the compulsions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, as much as evoking any atmosphere of psychic foreboding.
Brando of course regularly exudes magnetism, even in his less successful films, and the animal sexuality of the gardener towards to governess is one of the most dynamic things about Winner’s film. UK TV viewers, used to seeing Beacham as the staple of such programmes as Tenko and Dynasty, will raise eyebrows as she gamely submits her buxom charms to Quint’s hands – at one point hogtied and squirming in an impromptu Edwardian bondage session. Jessell despises herself, and yet craves what Quint brings to her during his nocturnal visits. These scenes, although verging on the embarrassing for viewer and participants alike, at least provide vivid entertainment sadly missing elsewhere. But such adult titillation severely disrupts the progress of a film, which requires the screw turned of increasing tension and menace; it also proves a distraction from the growing relationship between Miles and Flora, the children at the centre of the film, who initiate the final catastrophe.
As rounded dramatic characters, the youngsters have a hard job convincing the audience. Alternating between school children’s pranks, nascent sexuality, naïve hero-worship and psychosis, it is difficult to discover an internal consistency in their actions. The gauche imitations by Miles and Flora of Quint’s sexual performance, including a ‘bondage’ session of their own, and Miles’ announcement to the shocked interrogation of Mrs Grose afterwards (“I’ll tell you exactly what we have been doing. We have been doing sex!”) are an amusing diversion. And this imitation of the adult affair they have witnessed serves as an ironic parody of their elders, but hardly prepares the viewer for their final, violent, actions. Accordingly our interest is reduced, and dramatic curiosity falls readily upon the relationship between Quint and Jessell, rather than the peculiar wards they shepherd. Winner clearly thought so too, for his camera dwells too much on those headline adult liaisons for the film’s good. This ‘false’ emphasis (no matter how good sex is for the box office) means that, when the children ultimately take matters into their own hands, events seem rather lame, their motivation too unconvincing and bald. The paramount influence of Quint of course goes some way to explaining the kids’ increasingly odd behaviour, notably his announcement, taken on faith, that “if you love someone, sometimes you really want to kill them.” But there is a world of difference between his power games with Miss Jessell and the children’s attempts to retain them both in their service, as “the dead have nowhere to go.” A handful more scenes of the children, talking through their convictions together, would have gone a long way.
Outside of problems with characterisation, many of the film’s faults can be place at the door of Winner. Never the subtlest of directors, he was an odd choice to helm a project of this sort which required emotional tact and physical suggestion. Although the location filming at ‘Bly’ is effective enough, Winner’s weakness for jerky zooms, for exploitation, his stiff direction of actors (only the method-trained Brando seems at ease, even with a faintly ludicrous Irish accent), as well as an over-insistent score, provided by the normally excellent Jerry Fielding, are distracting. Beecham and Hird perhaps saw the film as a stepping-stone to better things and do their best. Fresh from Last Tango In Paris, Brando carries over some of the appetites of Paul, his character in the previous production. The blunt Quint, however, is miles away from the sophisticates who inhabited Bertolucci’s classic.
Perhaps in the hands of a flamboyant Ken Russell, or even a cool Terence Fisher, The Nightcomers would have congealed more into a worthwhile experience. As it is the film remains an uneven oddity: explicitly sexual between consenting adults, and confused and coy when it comes to those far more interesting shadows of psychology.