Why this might not seem so easy 

Despite a career that lasted almost 60 years, British filmmaker Jack Clayton directed just seven features and a TV film. If that seems like a paucity of choice, there’s certainly no paucity of talent – the quality of Clayton’s achievements shouldn’t be in doubt. He’s one of Britain’s finest filmmakers, beginning in the industry as a tea boy, aged 14, before rising through the ranks, earning notable credits as assistant director and associate producer along the way.

Jack Clayton with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow on the set of The Great Gatsby (1974)

The fact that all of his films as director are adaptations has saddled Clayton with the dubious label of “literary”, a notion that has perhaps clouded recognition of his directorial prowess, and disguised the consistency with which he pursued his vision. 

Clayton was particular and exacting, turning down any project that fell outside his parameters – including many that became hits for other directors, such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969) and, most tantalising of all, Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979). He had a reputation for being a difficult, temperamental perfectionist, and a number of his unreleased projects fell foul of studio politics. There was even an attempt, in 1983, to film Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity.

Today, Clayton is best remembered for his first two films – the groundbreaking Room at the Top (1959) and the gothic chiller The Innocents (1961) – but, looking beyond these, it’s clear that his work is more consistent, both in its themes and in its quality, than he is often given credit for.

The best place to start – The Innocents

Adapted from Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents tells the story of Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), the repressed daughter of a country parson. Giddens takes a position as governess, and sole guardian, to two young orphans in a large rural estate. Whispers soon swirl about her deceased predecessor’s illicit relationship with the late valet, and Giddens becomes obsessed by the corrupting influence that their actions may have had on the children – an influence she believes is continuing from beyond the grave. 

The Innocents (1961)

Clayton plays the story as a psychological drama, investing the slow-burn narrative with icy chills that send shivers down the spine. Taking his cue from the ambiguity of James’s text, Clayton shrouds the film in uncanny uncertainty: are we really witnessing ghostly visitations, or merely the unravelling of a human mind? Freudian hallucinations merge with eerie eroticism to highlight Giddens’ sexual repression. Her religious background points to a puritanical explanation, while imbuing the material with an inherent critique of religious dogma (Clayton is said to have considered himself an “ex-Catholic”). 

Featuring superb performances, stunning cinematography and truly haunting sound design, the film remains a masterclass of cinematic horror. 

What to watch next

Room at the Top (1959)

On release, The Innocents was considered a change of pace for the director. Clayton’s first film, Room at the Top, focused on a social climber and former prisoner-of-war who pursues the wealthy daughter of a local businessman while having an affair with an older, married Frenchwoman. With its unbridled examination of social class and sexual mores, the film was seen as ushering a new ‘frankness’ into British cinema, and helped to launch the British New Wave. But as different as it sounds from The Innocents, the films share an emotional honesty in their portrayal of women’s psychology – something also found in The Pumpkin Eater (1964) and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987). 

In the latter, the devout, eponymous heroine feels like an echo of Miss Giddens; Judith is a lonely, repressed and impoverished spinster whose barren life is momentarily cheered when she meets a hustler who believes her to be a woman of wealth – but when his intentions become clear, her silent God offers scant solace. The Pumpkin Eater, meanwhile, offers a blistering study of a troubled housewife and her philandering husband – another heroine trapped by the social structures that surround her. 

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987)

The difficulties of marriage and infidelity feature, too, in Clayton’s undervalued adaptation of The Great Gatsby (1974). Likewise suffused in loneliness and longing, the story concerns the romance between a mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford), and a married socialite, Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow). Patiently paced and lushly photographed, Clayton’s film filters the jazz age through the prism of class, highlighting the clash of rich and poor in a way that harks back to Room at the Top. Given that Gatsby and Daisy first met when the former was an officer during the First World War, the two films also share a concern with the postwar life of military men. 

In Our Mother’s House (1967), Clayton returned to themes he explored with The Innocents, namely the effects on children of wayward adults and dogmatic religion. A gothic-tinged psychodrama, Our Mother’s House tells the unnerving tale of seven siblings who bury their dead mother in their garden and, opting not to tell anyone else what has happened, continue to communicate with her via séances. 

Speaking with the dead also features in Clayton’s early, Oscar-winning short, The Bespoke Overcoat (1955). The story of a tailor who converses with the ghost of a departed friend who froze to death before his new coat could be finished, the short shows that Clayton’s interest in class structure and ambiguous psychological phantasms was there from the very beginning.

Where not to start 

If The Innocents and Our Mother’s House form something of a pair, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) completes the set, telling the story of two young friends who find themselves battling the sinister, demonic Mr Dark. Intended for younger audiences, the movie was produced by Disney, who baulked at the darkness of Clayton’s vision. The studio took over post-production and conducted re-shoots, replacing the score and re-editing the film. If the end result is undoubtedly compromised, it nevertheless remains an exciting and engrossing tale of good vs evil, and retains a surprisingly morbid fascination with death – a fascination also found in Clayton’s final work, Memento Mori (1992).

Made for television, Memento Mori features a cast of luminaires as a group of aging friends who start receiving mysterious phone calls reminding them that “you must die”. It was Clayton’s first comedy, full of quick-witted, broad humour, which gives it an air of frivolity not found in his previous work, even if the underlying events lend it a certain pathos. Quietly effective as an investigation into aging, it’s best taken for what it is – the swansong of a master filmmaker. 

A centenary season of Jack Clayton’s films plays at BFI Southbank in December 2021.

Further reading

The third Gatsby

By Carolyne Bevan

The third Gatsby

The gothic glamour of The Innocents

By Claire Smith

The gothic glamour of The Innocents

The Innocents and the power of suggestion

By Geoff Andrew

The Innocents and the power of suggestion