Freddie Francis and The Innocents

Freddie Francis and a Mitchell BNC
Freddie Francis with a Mitchell BNC.

On the evening of March 26, 1990, cinematographer/director Freddie Francis made a brief but noteworthy speech on accepting his Academy Award for Glory. After a quick mention of producer Freddie Fields and director Ed Zwick, he said, “I'm only going to pick out one guy to thank, and that's my wonderful operator, Gordon Hayman.” (Hayman’s name had been left off the film’s credits. He operated for Francis frequently from The French Lieutenant’s Woman to The Straight Story, Francis’ last assignment.)

From left: Francis, director Jack Clayton and camera operator Gordon Hayman on set for THE INNOCENTS.
The Innocents. From left: Director Jack Clayton, camera operator Ronnie Taylor and Freddie Francis.

The 72-year-old cinematographer concluded with, “And we’re available from September.” Both sentences were typical of the generous and indefatigable man who, though widely known as one of the greatest English cinematographers, also directed nearly two dozen features (plus television) between 1962 and 1989.

Freddie Francis’ first cinematography Oscar was for his classic black-and-white work on friend and fellow cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s Sons and Lovers (1960), an adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel. As stunning as his Cinemascope photography is on the film, Francis considered the cinematography on Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), an adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, to be his best work. It has been burnished to perfection and remastered in 4K for The Criterion Collection’s recently released Blu-ray.

Miss Giddens' (Deborah Kerr) entry into Bly
Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) enters Bly.

Clayton and Francis had planned to photograph the horror tale in the classic Academy aspect ratio of 1:37 or in the English spherical “widescreen” ratio of 1:66.

Jack Clayton and Freddie Francis.
Jack Clayton and Freddie Francis.

However, Spyros Skouras, president of 20th Century Fox, had mandated that most Fox films be shot in the studio’s patented anamorphic Cinemascope process, which Fox had acquired in the early 1950s from French inventor Henri Chrétien. (Chrétien developed it in 1926 and named it Anamorphoscope.)

This first generation of Cinemascope employed two lenses; the primary one was spherical, and in front of it was a separate “hypergonar” lens that created a 2-1 squeeze. Each lens had to be focused separately, requiring two focus pullers. In 1954, Bausch & Lomb won an Academy Award for its development of an integrated anamorphic lens. There was a flaw, however: the squeeze was less effective as the subject got closer to the lens. When unsqueezed in theatrical projection, faces became slightly distorted, giving the actors a case of “anamorphic mumps.” This defect is evident in many of the close-ups in The Innocents, though Francis often uses it to great dramatic effect.

Miss Giddens and Flora in the garden.
Miss Giddens and Flora (Pamela Franklin) in the garden.

Clayton and Francis argued for a 1:37 aspect ratio, as they wanted the narrower confines of the ratio to enhance the sense of Gothic density and Miss Giddens’ claustrophobic entrapment. The drama is closely observed and intimate. It follows only a few characters, several of whom are specters briefly glimpsed. The old house is itself a looming force, with its narrow halls and steep stairs.

Director and cinematographer lost their battle to the studio mandate of Cinemascope, the same system and aspect ratio Francis and Cardiff had used on Sons and Lovers. In the staging of The Innocents, Clayton and Francis did attempt to maintain intimacy, having the camera dolly closely, following Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) as she moves through the rooms and up the central staircase. These intricate, lengthy camera moves and longer takes keep the viewer bound to her, inside her growing apprehension for her and her wards’ safety. The children seem to be stalked by unseen evil forces. In the night scenes, Francis was able to create an even more haunted space by using dark, hand-painted filters of varying density and proportion to vignette the frame (as in silent films), eliminating areas that he wanted to fall into darkness. An intricate array of multiple lights and dimmers to control the single nominal candelabrum source Miss Giddens carries through the hallways is another element Francis uses to build dramatic tension. A stunning example of his use of dimmer effects along with camera movement (not to mention the rich tapestry of sound effects) is the sequence that begins with Miss Giddens sitting at the downstairs fireplace reading her Bible, then rising with a four-taper candelabrum when she hears strange music and noises. The camera follows her in a dialogue-free, five-minute search through the upstairs hallways as she looks for the source of the sounds.

How Clayton and Francis employed camera and lighting to subvert Skouras’ dictate to exploit the wide screen has been the stuff of critics’ analyses. What is surprising, however, is the way Francis and camera operator Ronnie Taylor (later a cinematographer on Francis’ directorial debut, Two and Two Make Six) actually embraced the anamorphic aspect ratio, especially in daylight interior and exterior scenes, stretching the sideline compositions in a choice much at odds with the usually conservative custom of the time.

Deep focus in the folly.
Flora and Miss Giddens in the folly.
Miss Giddens and Miles in the tea room.
Miss Giddens and Miles (Martin Stephens) in the tea room.

Criterion Collection producer Jason Altman contacted me last spring, when I was in Atlanta photographing A Walk in the Woods, to ask if I’d be interested in being interviewed for an “extra” for Criterion's upcoming release of The Innocents. I had seen the film on its initial release, but not since; when I saw it at that time I was just another moviegoer, not even a wannabe film student, and the horror genre was not one that claimed my interest. I remembered the film as an elegant rendering of the James novella (adapted for the stage by William Archibald), but it was not of much interest after I discovered the existential traumas of Bergman, Antonioni and Godard. I (inaccurately) recalled The Innocents as a hothouse drama of fustian dimensions, but I figured if Jason wanted me to talk about the cinematography for the DVD, it must be noteworthy. And was he ever on the mark! When he sent me the newly mastered DVD, I watched The Innocents three times in rapid succession over a weekend. Jason included excerpts from several books discussing Clayton’s and Francis’ collaboration, as well as Freddie Francis: The Straight Story from 'Moby Dick' to 'Glory,' the memoir Francis wrote with Tony Dalton.

A few weeks later, Jason flew to Atlanta to shoot our discussion of Francis’ cinematography. The richness of techniques and ideas in Francis’ work resulted in a 22-minute supplement for the Blu-ray. Here is a very brief excerpt that examines Miss Giddens’ first entry into the country estate of Bly, where she is to become governess to the two children, Flora and Miles.

On Criterion’s website, the page for The Innocents includes a chapter from Francis’ memoir in which he discusses many of the visual design elements, including the battle with Fox over the format. The cinematographer also describes one of his favorite scenes — ironically, one photographed in broad daylight:

There is one particular sequence in the film of which I am very fond, and indeed proud. It is the appearance in among the bulrushes of the dead governess (played by Clytie Jessop, who would become one of my regulars when I became a director). The scene is one of the most effective and chilling in the film, and it all happens in bright daylight. The figure, or ghost, is seen across the lake, giving the whole scene a stark contrast between the dead and the living. The shots of Clytie were photographed from the lake itself, on a platform or boat, which were both somewhat precarious. During the filming of the scene, Jack acquired the nickname ‘Skulls’ Clayton (I think the credit goes to Ronnie Maasz, who was the camera assistant), not because the film was a ghost story, but because Jack was extremely adept at rowing back and forth across the lake.

The specter at the lake.
The specter at the lake.

You can read Francis’ full reflections on the film here. This material is indicative of the rich supplements on Criterion’s site for many of its releases; it’s an online destination that many call the best non-campus film school in the country.

A year after The Innocents, Francis directed Two and Two Make Six. He photographed one more feature, Night Must Fall (1964) for director Karel Reisz, before fully committing to a directing career for the next 15 years. He returned to cinematography with David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). Many of Francis’ directing ventures during the ’60s and ’70s were low-budget horror films for Hammer Studios, and then for Amicus. Several of the Hammer films starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee became cult classics and were instrumental in Martin Scorsese’s decision to ask Francis to photograph his 1991 remake of Cape Fear.

In the late 1990s, I met Freddie Francis in the Windows on the World restaurant atop the World Trade Center, where he was sitting with David Lynch at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. I asked a friend to introduce me. Francis told me that he and Lynch were planning to do a film on the mysterious last days of poet Edgar Allan Poe, a script adapted from Stephen Marlowe’s bio-novel Lighthouse at the End of the World. Lynch and Jonathan Sanger were to produce, and Francis was to direct. Being a huge Poe fan, I had read the novel, and Francis and I fell into an impassioned discussion about the enigmatic Poe, who was believed to have died in a Baltimore gutter in a drunken stupor, but may in fact have been murdered. Some time later, I met with Lynch in his Hollywood Hills home. I harbored the fantasy that if the film were ever made, I might be asked to photograph it. Of course, the film has never been realized; my only chance to work with Freddie Francis remains a febrile black-and-white fantasy.

When Francis died in 2007, Sheila Whitaker highlighted his preference for black-and-white cinematography in the obituary she wrote for The Guardian:

As a photographer, Francis considered he had three mentors — the great cameraman Freddie Young, John Huston and Michael Powell. His career involved a relatively high degree of black-and-white filming; to some extent, his reputation was founded on it, and he once said he really didn't know anything about color. "I still photograph things in black and white, but the fact that it's color stock means they come out in color. I know that sounds rather facetious … but I prefer to think in terms of light and shade than in color."

8. martin stephens

It is, in fact, the luminous black-and-white cinematography for Sons and Lovers, The Innocents and The Elephant Man that will remain Freddie Francis’ greatest contribution.

9. LUMINOUS

There is a brief scene in The Innocents that includes multiple light changes, with rapidly moving camera and dynamic compositions: the game of hide-and-seek between Miss Giddens and Flora and Miles that leads to a startling revelation about the valet, Quint.

Not long ago, at the height of the frenzy surrounding Dogme 95, low-rez camcorders and available-light shakycam cinematography, the restrained, even, to some, overwrought lighting and compositions in films like The Innocents evoked little interest among cinema students. But, in cinema as in life, out of chaos rises a need for order, and there is now a renewed interest in classic cinematography. Further, there is something about the broad horizontal line of anamorphic cinematography that almost cries out for controlled movement, bold compositions and longer takes. As lens manufacturers roll out new anamorphic lenses for an evolving generation of HD cameras, we are all looking anew at the work of this early generation of anamorphic cinematographers. Two places to start: Philip Lathrop in Point Blank, and Conrad Hall in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.

From left: Freddie Francis, Deborah Kerr and Pamela Franklin.
From left: Freddie Francis, Deborah Kerr and Pamela Franklin.
Freddie Francis
Freddie Francis

UP NEXT: Lech Majewski meets Bruegel on the Way to Calvary.

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