‘Marlon, you’re a great actor. I’m not a great director. Do what you like.’ This was supposedly how Michael Winner began his unlikely collaboration with the king of the method players. Brando was in the midst of a severe career slump, from which he would only escape with the double whammy of Last Tango in Paris and The Godfather the following year. The Nightcomers marks the last gasp of Brando’s wilderness years, which had stretched through pretty much the entire previous decade (fascinating though some of those films maudits are).
The idea of a prequel to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is an odd one for any studio seeking commercial success: Jack Clayton’s adaptation, The Innocents, had appeared exactly 10 years earlier, and despite being an artistic masterpiece it hadn’t done terribly well at the box office. Too subtle, too intelligent, too defiantly non-generic. Only the last quality really applies to Winner’s movie, which is even more of an odd duck than the eerie Cinemascope ghost story it both follows and foreshadows.
Giving no acknowledgement to the 1961 classic, The Nightcomers nevertheless starts with a snatch of ‘Willow Waly’, the folk song/nursery rhyme sung in spooky solo over the credits of Clayton’s film. This is promptly followed by a jarring crash zoom, neatly encapsulating the clash of temperaments that makes up the film’s style: half literate and dreamy, half leering and vulgar, rarely very successful.
It’s a shame, since Robert Paynter’s moody, muddy photography is beautiful and atmospheric, making something evocative from the mixture of dim, wintry daylight and dancing grain. It’s just that everything Winner makes him do with his camera, save the wide shots, is rather trashy. Many of the scenes might have been rescued, since Winner is at least shooting a decent range of coverage, but he insisted on cutting the film himself (using the admittedly hilarious pseudonym of Arnold Crust Jnr), and he has absolutely no sense of rhythm, mood, drama, character, or any form of continuity beyond the most basic – making sure the actors are standing in the right places. It’s not that the props or costumes jump around when you’re not looking, it’s that none of the shots build to a total effect, and the actors often seem to be staring into space rather than at their off-screen co-stars (which is probably the case, given Brando’s tendency to take off whenever not required for a close-up).
Brando himself is… sort of good? It’s quite an extreme version of an Irish accent he’s doing, but it’s at least less goofy than Orson Welles’s in The Lady from Shanghai, still the gold standard in rogue brogues. Trying to suggest an alluring, poetic psychopath, Brando is slightly hampered by his excess years and pounds, though Winner, whose eye was usually unflattering in the extreme, protects both his star and his audience by framing out the Brando bare belly (which was back under control, briefly, in time for his sexual exploits of 72).
The script by Michael Hastings riffs off the clues provided in James’s novella, but actually rewrites fictional history to create a more (melo)dramatic story, in which Brando’s lusty gardener corrupts both nanny Miss Jessel (luscious, warm Stephanie Beacham) and the two children under her charge. Touching on the themes of Forbidden Games and Lord of the Flies, the movie slowly turns its emotionally damaged children into horror movie monsters, complete with an ending that strongly implies that classic horror movie trope, ‘It’s all going to happen again!’ In fact, readers of James and viewers of Clayton will be aware that things are not as simple as that, and certainly neither artist intended for their uncanny children to be seen as deranged killers.
Hastings’s dialogue is often smart, strange and literate, suggesting the alien mindset of the Victorian era with its odd, stilted formality. This gets pushed further into the realms of the bizarre by the kids’ line readings, and the very particular acting style of Thora Hird as the housekeeper (it’s a style a less charitable critic might call ‘reading it out’, but I love Thora and would never put her down like that). Brando seems genuinely amused by his unlikely co-star.
What will likely interest viewers most in this age of shifty grades of fey, is the sex, which includes all the unsafe bondage techniques and dubious consent issues people seem to want nowadays. The kinky stuff gets dealt with pretty quickly, but is fairly strong for the time. Winner’s melting it together in those lap dissolves reserved for tasteful sex scenes back in the day gives it a safely old-fashioned quality, though, which explains why this wasn’t seen as taboo-busting in the same way as Last Tango. Though in both films Brando degrades his partner by making her repeat lines after him and makes reference to pigs, so I guess we can be fairly sure that’s what he was genuinely into. Future biographers take note.
Watch the original trailer: