Review: The Nightcomers (1972)

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Review: The Nightcomers (1972)

Author: coming soon
ISBN: coming soon
Published: coming soon
Format: coming soon
Pages: coming soon

Product Description

The Nightcomers (1972)
Momentum DVD (region 2)

By the early 1970s, director Michael Winner was beginning to develop a reputation for bad taste sensationalism.  Over the course of the decade he would alienate himself from those who admired his early comedies.  The turning point in this descent was Winner’s ambitious film of The Nightcomers.  The original novel was a curiosity, a prequel to Henry James’ much celebrated story The Turn of the Screw (which had been filmed by Jack Clayton as the classic The Innocents).  Speculating on the events that led up to the commencement of the James text, the script adaptation offered to Winner a unique opportunity to explore the ambiguous nature of sexual socialization.  At the time, star Marlon Brando was recovering from a run of box-office disappointments and had yet to film Last Tango in Paris for Bertolucci.  The actor thus took to the sexually domineering role, improvising accordingly, but even with his name attached to the project, Winner – who set it up himself – had some difficulty attracting financial backers and distributors.  Finally, Joseph E. Levine stepped in and agreed to back it.  As the script called for an examination of children’s sexual behaviour as well as that of adults, the director went through a determined casting process to secure the proper child actors.  Even so, Winner had difficult aesthetic choices when one of the scenes as scripted called for the explicit sex play between children.

Towards the end of the 19th century, two children (Verna Harvey and Christopher Nolan) whose parents have died in India are being looked after at a large country estate in England.  They are attended to by a stuffy housekeeper (Thora Hird), a lustful governess (Stephanie Beacham) and the property looked after by a rough gardener (Marlon Brando).  Brando and Beacham have been having a sado-masochistic affair and the two children have not only been watching its progress, but are in turn beginning to imitate it.  They adore Brando, who in turn likes to play with them and give them his own view of life and adult relations.  Brando, though a nuisance to the housekeeper, is allowed by the estate owner (Harry Andrews) to keep his job.  Perhaps out of resentment, he tells the children of their parents’ death.  With Brando as their main contact and teacher, they begin to question what he does in private with Beacham.  Nolan peers in on a particularly rough power play between the two adults and returns to his sister, intent to incestuously play in the manner he has been witness to.  He thus ties his sister up.  The housekeeper is very distressed at changes in attitude and warns Brando not to come into the house.  Brando defies her, intent to continue his sex games with Beacham, and using Nolan as a go-between.  When Beacham intends to leave, the children hatch a terrible plot to keep her and Brando with them forever.

The Nightcomers is a film about the process of abnormal sexual socialization as slowly turning the innocent into the malevolent.  Hence, the incestuous sex games between the children are their efforts to assess their own gender roles in reference to the adult sexuality they are exposed to.  The more they rely on the Brando / Beacham dynamic so too their adolescence is warped in favour of impulses they long to comprehend.  In this way, Winner essays the developmental failure of the bridge between innocence and experience.  Thus, Brando’s influence may obsess and even corrupt the children but their own actions begin as warped mirrors and progress slowly into unknowing malevolence: hence, patriarchal sexual drives are the bridging factor and without a proper sociological frame of reference with which to process them, children will turn to an idealized aberration.  Yet, although this is a prominent theme, Winner renders it decidedly ambiguous with his suggestion that the sexual power play between Brando and Beacham is potentially representative of all adult contact.  In this way, Winner straddles the issues of developmental psychology and the innate perversion of sexual socialization in gender role play.  Here is found Winner’s justification for subsequently turning to explicitly sensational material – to expose the systematic erosion of a social compact by its underlying malfunction in sexual socialization.

The perversity of sexual socialization Winner essays is here confounded by the recently orphaned children’s desire to understand the Fate that has taken their parents from them.  As they latch on to Brando and Beacham thus, Brando in particular as representative patriarch becomes the idealized and sexualized authority – an authority that the children can only relate to in terms of the sexual behaviour they see.  Their sexual awakening is thus, for Winner, the same as the application of their malevolence, even if they can rationalize it and finally fail to understand the moral implications of their actions.  Developmental psychology, once deprived of a proper sexual socialization, will thus spring the paradox of benevolent malevolence – the rationalization that can justify aberration in terms of a greater but selfish love.  In controlling the destiny of Brando and Beacham, the children cease to be passive in their relation to the adults they consider the determinates of fate and so seek that function themselves.  In their inability to distinguish between sex and death, the little and big deaths as it were, they in the end conflate the two: to kill is to preserve the essence of what once was.  However, the sad quality here, and what interests Winner the most, is the degree to which these children realize the very evil inherent in this course of action.  As the children appropriate the adult mastery of fate through sexuality so do they lose their souls.

The anamorphic widescreen transfer preserves the lush autumnal quality of a marvellously realized film.  Although Winner’s characteristic zooms may draw attention to themselves, The Nightcomers uses the colours of the fall and encroaching coldness to perfectly complement the waning innocence and coolly perverted experience that obsesses the director.  Costume is used for a telling representation of class expectation, resentment and obsession.  Winner constantly draws attention to behavioural details, particularly those which ambiguously span intentional and unintentional cruelty and genuine action and the processed imitation of said action.  There is a sly humour to many scenes, indicative of Winner’s jokey attitude to moral provocation and Brando’s characterization and sex scenes offer a fascinating prelude to the more celebrated study of sexuality in Last Tango in Paris, the release of which tended to far overshadow the unjustly neglected The Nightcomers.  A shock cut from sexual play to coffins acts as a prelude to the inevitable linking of sex and death that will soon consume the children although such shock edits and abrupt point of view shots reveal the incipient sensationalism dominating Winner’s eye.  Winner nicely uses composition to reveal Brando as less powerful as the children become more active.  Likewise, the landscape and film itself is slowly drained of colour until melancholia becomes mordant.

The sound transfer is available in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo.  The children’s voices calling Brando’s character from the outset establishes his grip over them as Winner thus visualizes Brando as these children see him and effectively define him for the viewer.  Jerry Fielding’s superb score captures both the period and the melancholic perversity undercutting its ornate prettiness.  The score is nearly constant and provides an emotional impetus where Winner’s sense of pace otherwise sags.  Diegetic details are always crisp, from the footsteps on varied surfaces to coaches and insect sound and to the moribund stillness within the house.  Voices and isolated key moments are always precise, enhancing the coldness of the enterprise in contrast to the passionate heat of sexual behaviour.  Changes in behaviour and manner of speech neatly chart the children’s slowly transforming psychology.  Accent and tone of voice likewise make for a sly allusion to mannered English classes, within which the roguish Brando is an unpredictable element that finally warps the established process of socialization that so fails these children.  The dialogue between Brando and the children and then between the children themselves neatly suggests how they project themselves onto him and then so seek through his behaviour and talk with them a way of structuring their own suppressed feelings of fate and of human intercourse.

In the way of special features are a theatrical trailer and a teaser trailer only.

 

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