For the past two months, I've been obsessed. In March, I saw the LA Opera production of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw. Based on the novella by Henry James, the opera is about a governess's struggle to protect her young charges from the carnal influence of two lingering ghosts.
Britten's chamber opera reminded me of another story of endangered children: The Night of the Hunter, directed by Charles Laughton, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. Mitchum, his knuckles tattooed with the words LOVE and HATE, plays a sinister preacher whose nefarious motives for marrying a fragile widow are uncovered by her terrified young children.
Both works are eerie and strange, seemingly out of place in the 1950s when they debuted. Their monsters are wolves in sheep's clothing: seductive, and therefore all the more potent. Peter Quint, the spectral valet who the opera implies was "free with everyone / with little master Miles," wears a suave black suit throughout the performance. His counterpart, Preacher Harry Powell, dressed in a distinctive black vest and hat, charms the unwitting faithful with his tale of Right Hand, Left Hand, of good and evil. These villains speak an adult language. They are artful, they can pass among the guardians of the innocent. In Turn of the Screw, even the children are drawn to the ghosts' evil; over the course of the opera, we see them less as victims than as ambiguous co-conspirators.
I want to discuss a scene from each production that really stuck me: Turn of the Screw's Act II, Scene 1/Variation 8: Colloquy and Soliloquy and the scene in Night of the Hunter where Preacher murders Willa Harper, the children's mother. Both scenes are set in the bedroom, a place of safety, the altar of our rest. In both scenes, this refuge is violated. Malevolence penetrates our innermost chamber, the sanctuary where our grown-up imaginations still run wild. Turn of the Screw's second act opens with the two ghosts poised over the children's beds. Quint and Miss Jessel speak of their dependence upon one another, and upon the children.
Quint and Miss Jessel:
Day by day the bars we break,
Break the love that laps them round,
Cheat the careful watching eyes,
'The ceremony of innocence is drowned.'
'The ceremony of innocence is drowned.'
The children cannot be protected. The wolves are already inside.
Light and shadow play a significant role in both works. Famous cinematographer Stanley Cortez shot Night of the Hunter on high-contrast Tri-X film to achieve deep blacks and pure whites. In the murder scene, Willa's a-frame bedroom looks like the nave of a church. She prepares for spiritual salvation, haloed in light, while her romantic waltz commingles with the preacher's dark chords. Preacher tilts his head, listening to the voice of his God. Then he descends on her with his knife, and now the children are truly alone.
What is the romance of so much dark? As a child, danger seems ever present. Creativity and imagination feed fear. Both Night of the Hunter and Turn of the Screw blur the lines of reality and imagination, unleashing the children's subjectivity onto the world. A subjectivity where Preacher's animal howl chases John and Pearl down the Ohio River, where Miles and Flora's governess begins to doubt her own sanity. Like a Grimm fairy tale, these stories tap our most primal fears. It's good versus evil, and innocence is at stake, innocence relentlessly hounded.
Bedroom Scene from Night of the Hunter:
Trailer for Turn of the Screw:
P.S. My media diet the past two months:
Performance: The Turn of the Screw conducted by James Conlon (William Burden as Quint)
CD: The Turn of the Screw conducted by Benjamin Britten (Peter Pears as Quint)
CD: The Turn of the Screw conducted by Steuart Bedford (Philip Langridge as Quint)
Book: The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories by Henry James
DVD: The Turn of the Screw BBC production (Mark Padmore as Quint)
DVD: The Night of the Hunter directed by Charles Laughton
DVD: Charles Laughton Directs "The Night of the Hunter" edited by Robert Gitt
Book: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb
Book: The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film by Jeffrey Couchman
Book: Heaven & Hell To Play With: The Filming of "The Night of the Hunter" by Preston Neal Jones
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