Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is a standard-bearer in Gothic suspense which didn’t initially get its due in 1961, though in recent years has found itself elevated from the ranks of cult chiller to bona fide classic, thanks to a fine BFI Blu-ray and a theatrical re-release — though nothing quite confirms canonical status like getting your own spine number in the Criterion Collection, which is putting out its own Blu-ray this September.
Perhaps this had something to do with Olive Films electing to release Martin Gabel’s The Lost Moment (1947) now. Its similarities to The Innocents begin with the source material, based like that film was, on a Henry James novella. While The Aspern Papers is far less known than Turn of the Screw, it still provides ample opportunity for creeping dread atmospherics and troubled psychology, which comes through remarkably well for a more straight-laced studio picture, not nearly so defined by artistic conjurations of the uncanny as The Innocents was. While the character ambiguities aren’t quite so complex, and the schizoid interactions of living and dead more than a little confused, the evocation of decadently decaying people residing in a villa styled like a castle Count Dracula would approve of is enough to prickle the neck hairs on more than one occasion.
Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings) is devoted to retrieving what would surely be the publishing triumph of the decade – the legendary lost love letters of renowned American poet Jeffrey Ashton (the Aspern of James’ novella) to his love of many years ago, Juliana Bordereau. Now living in seclusion in Venice and seen only by her niece and servants, Lewis has been granted an audience with the one hundred and five year-old Juliana under the pretense of his being a writer wanting to rent a room in her villa for inspiration. In a state of ruin and the family being desperately broke, Lewis’ substantial down payment buys him the most realistic chance of verifying the letters’ existence, though this doesn’t stop Tina Bordereau (an impeccably icy Susan Hayward) being immediately wary of his true intentions.
Cummings plays Lewis with none of the single-minded ruthlessness of the novella. A man who willingly admits he’s prepared to do anything, pay any price, even sleep with Juliana’s niece to get those letters, is a more virtuous sort on screen, in it for the importance of historical literary preservation. Nevertheless, Cummings pitches himself perfectly as an audience proxy, barely able to contain his amazement, at the shimmering Venetian waterways and slick cobblestones leading up to a haunted house (terrifically photographed by Hal Mohr) and the potential prize he has sought for so long. There’s something of a Lovcraftian narrator about this person, who shortly after introducing himself to us as someone who always feels at home in the past utters the line, “The door to the present shut behind me” with a mix of cautious wonder and awestruck horror upon first entering the Bordereau home.
Cold, forbidding and fogged in cobwebs, Alexander Golitzen’s art direction effectively builds towards the memorable introduction of Agnes Moorehead as Juliana, beneath skin-crawling old age make-up and a veil, a vision that seems to have inspired one of the most indelible jolts from Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others. An ancient hooded skull in a rocking chair, Gabel’s most canny bit of direction is in the way he slowly tracks round this formidable and frightening figure’s high-backed seat, identifying her first by her gnarled, Nosferatu-like claw and her brilliant ring, an icon which becomes the film’s Rosebud or Malteese Falcon.
If something seems amiss when Tina signs her invalid aunt’s signature on Lewis’ tenancy agreement, it’s a detail that takes on a more subconscious sinister quality when Lewis discovers Tina playing piano one night, her appearance and manner much changed. Believing herself to be her aunt at a much younger age and Lewis’ interruption, the arrival of her lover Jeffrey Ashton, things take a sub-textually kinkier turn when Lewis (himself so in love with the life and work of Ashton) indulges Tina’s body swap fantasy without blinking an eye.
Given the time in which this was made, the madness in Tina’s mind, so ripe for sensory, cinematic exploration doesn’t live up to its potential, and yet the shoehorning of a more traditional love story where it doesn’t really belong works when you consider both parties as people who inhabit illusions of the past, rather than realities of the present. The earnest conviction with which these two fall for one another makes the romantic coupling work in the way the filmmakers intended and creepy in ways they didn’t.
Both of its time and ahead of it, for the first forty minutes, the style and atmosphere is on par with Clayton’s classic from fifteen years later, and really, there could not be a more perfect Halloween double bill. Seldom talked about with any great reverence, thanks to Olive Films, The Lost Moment can be found once more.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on July 12, 2014