Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Michael Winner's The Nightcomers was soundly trounced by critics that claimed it confirmed his decline into utter incompetence as a director. It also added to the deteriorating reputation of Marlon Brando, just before his career bounced back in Last Tango in Paris and The Godfather. Screenwriter Michael Hastings takes on the difficult task of imagining a prequel to Henry James' famous story The Turn of the Screw, successfully adapted ten years earlier as Jack Clayton's The Innocents. Everything left indefinite or undefined in Henry James' back story becomes explicit in Winner's unpleasant and exploitative film.
At Bly House, a massive country estate in Cambridge, 'the Master' (Harry Andrews) hastily settles the affairs of his relatives who have died in a road accident in France. The housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Thora Hird of The Quatermass Xperiment), the governess Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) and the valet Peter Quint (Marlon Brando) will remain to take care of the orphaned Flora and Miles (Verna Harvey & Christopher Ellis). Quint has already established a rough sexual relationship with Miss Jessel, and he's soon filling the children's head with dark ideas about sexuality and death. Flora and Miles find Quint very entertaining, and believe his talk about death being neither heaven nor hell but a place where lovers can find one another again. Emotions get out of hand and Mrs. Grose is at a loss to intimidate Quint, chastize Miss Jessel or control the childrens' wanton behavior.
Three writers including Truman Capote tried to adapt The Turn of the Screw for Jack Clayton, and were saved mostly by excellent acting, careful direction and especially atmospheric cinematography courtesy of Freddie Francis. The original story is an artful exercise in suggestion, leaving us wondering if the children supernaturally possession of by their previous caretakers Quint and Jessel, or if everything the governess Miss Giddens experiences is a figment of her sex-obsessed imagination. Director Jack Clayton walked a fine line, but the literal nature of movie images removes most of the ambiguity anyway. Ghosts or no ghosts, Deborah Kerr's Miss Giddins definitely has 'unresolved psychosexual issues'.
The post-1968 ratings system finally allowed frank adult themes and nudity onto the screen but The Nightcomers exemplifies the abuse of the new freedom. The inferred debauchery of Quint and Jessel and the copycat behavior of the children becomes the central subject matter. The children react to the early introduction to 'sordid' matters by becoming conscienceless monsters capable of wicked deeds.
Marlon Brando's Quint is an insolent Irish lout, formerly employed as the dead father's valet, although one wouldn't think him couth enough to be trusted with the dogs. Director Winner basically hands the movie over to the actor, and Brando fleshes out the role with a good accent, good bits of business and a charming storytelling style. He never seems wicked enough to be doing nasty things like making a toad smoke a cigarette until it puffs up and explodes. However, Quint is convincingly brutal in his nightly visits to Miss Jessel, who is apparently under his spell and ambivalent about the bondage and other sexual abuse he heaps upon her. Miss Jessel is a lost soul from the beginning. Psychologically crushed by Quint at night, her only daytime signs of abuse is a bruise or two and a one-time morning raid on the brandy snifter.
The only responsible person present is the housekeeper Mrs. Grose (I assume that most of Bly's rooms are closed up, because Mrs. Grose is doing all the cooking, too). She plays along with the sordid happenings for a ridiculously long period, when any proper Victorian would immediately object to Quint and Jessel's immoral activities. Left free and unsupervised, Quint has no specific duties except to 'take care' of the others.
The Nightcomers' children Flora and Miles are also unbelievable. Although actress Verna Harvey looks much younger than her 18 or 19 years, the kids look more like 14 than 8 and 10, and they seem to have no business being so naïve. Miles' eagerness to imitate Quint makes sense but his character doesn't develop. Depending on the needs of the script, he's by turns genuinely innocent, snidely two-faced, and robotically heartless. He's not a disturbed young man but an undigested characterization. It's not just the kids: everything in the film is shortchanged to favor Marlon Brando with more time to develop his character. At one point Quint accidentally endangers Miles' life, and expresses a deep concern evident nowhere else in the movie.
Most reviewers of Michael Winner films post-1968 are savage with their abuse. Winner takes no point of view toward his material; with the exception of Brando, the characters are marooned in undefined characters. Winner is eager to exploit Ms. Beacham's body but insensitive to anything else about her; he expects the script to do all the work. Interesting questions, like how Miss Jessel has allowed herself to be dominated by Quint, are ignored. When Quint is asked to explain his cruelty, we hear existential parables about life and pain that should be way outside his experience and are obviously inserted to motivate the ending. Miss Giddens telegraphs her inability to swim just as crudely.
I've seen Winner's The Jokers and The Girl-Getters; they had fun qualities (and Oliver Reed). The Nightcomers is lax and sloppy, over-using zoom lenses and arbitrary in its camera angles. The big manor house looks like what it is, a rented property that can only be seen from a couple of angles; dull day and night exterior establishing shots are Winner's only method for showing the passage of time. The film's priority seems to be first to please Brando and second to have fun with the sex scenes and nudity. Even these are shoddy: poor Stephanie Beacham is manhandled and mauled in a way that would please dirty old men. Ashamed of his extra weight, Brando remains modestly covered.
The film putters to a stop with a boring attempt to arrive at the beginning of The Turn of the Screw. The problem is that in James' story Miles is supposed to be newly expelled from a boarding school and Mrs. Grose is meant to be mostly ignorant of what transpired between the previous governess and groundskeeper. Quint and Miss Jessel meet grotesque ends reminiscent of an incident in Ken Russell's Women in Love; Brando's demise looks ridiculous in stills but is more convincing on film. The movie is strictly for Brando worshippers -- it's pretentious, pointless and laughably 'wicked.'
Lionsgate presents The Nightcomers in a very good enhanced transfer with fine color. Jerry Fielding's excellent music score is a definite plus as well. The big extra is a commentary by Michael Winner, who uses his track to tell ninety minutes' worth of tales about Marlon Brando. The actor's support got the film made and Winner describes the shoot as one big party. Winner lost a bet with Marlon and had to sell French Ticklers for an hour in a London park; Brando did his sex scenes wearing both underwear and Wellington boots. Producer Alan Ladd Jr., appears to have suggested Stephanie Beacham, as she appeared in his Tam Lin (The Devil's Widow) from a year or two before. We hear almost nothing about any of the other actors, or the rumored actresses that might have played Miss Jessel -- Britt Ekland, Jennie Linden.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Nightcomers rates:
Movie: Fair +++
Supplements: Commentary and Introduction by Michael Winner
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 12, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Return to Top of Page