Scores On Screen. Electronica Victoriana: The Soundtrack of "The Innocents"

A soundtrack mixing George Auric's folkloric melodies with electronic composer Daphne Oram's sound design disorientates and terrifies.
Clare Nina Norelli
The Innocents
Even 56 years after its original release, Jack Clayton’s 1961 gothic horror film The Innocents has lost none of its ability to disturb. Based on Henry James’ Victorian novella The Turn of the Screw, the film is shot in black and white in CinemaScope (a rare pairing of the two), its wide aspect ratio manipulated through the use of eerie lighting by cinematographer Freddie Francis. The film’s striking imagery is visceral, unsettling and hard to forget, but isn’t the only determinant in the tense atmosphere established within the film. The Innocents innovative soundtrack and sound design is responsible for much of the film’s creepy mood and it is showcased from the film’s very first frame.
The Innocents opens with a completely blackened screen, a canvas of nothingness from which the sweet singing of a disembodied little girl suddenly emerges. Her gentle voice is heavily reverbed and amplified in order to completely pervade the acousmatic space, and these effects emphasize her breath and the strained delivery of her ghostly lament. Despite the apparent hesitation of her vocal attack (her voice wavers slightly on the high notes as if pained), it is the only thing in existence within this cinematic vacuum and thus commands our attention completely.
We lay my love and I,
Beneath the weeping willow.
But now alone I lie,
And weep beside the tree.
Singing ‘o Willow Waly’,
By the tree that weeps with me.
Singing ‘o Willow Waly’,
Till my lover returns to me.
As she begins the second verse the 20th Century Fox logo appears to deliver us from the darkness and remind us that hey, it’s only a movie. But it’s too late. The song’s spell has been cast, the girl’s haunting incantation has already enacted its magic upon us.
We lay my love and I,
Beneath the weeping willow.
But now alone I lie,
Oh, Willow I die.
Oh, Willow I die.
The Innocents’ opening credits
“O Willow Waly,” the title given to the song, features lyrics by screenwriter Paul Dehn and music by French composer Georges Auric, who also contributed the film’s score. The song recalls the British folk songs of the 19th century through its use of the willow tree as representative of both lost love and sorrow (a common metaphor in both British and American folk traditions) and lilting waltz rhythm. So convincing is the songwriters’ imitation of the style that one could be forgiven for assuming that it is a genuine example of a song that would have been popular during the Victorian era in which the film is set.
We later learn that the song is being sung by Flora1 (Pamela Franklin) who, along with her brother Miles (Martin Stephens), are orphans under the care of their new governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr). Throughout the film “O Willow Waly” reappears as a motivic device to suggest both the supernatural possession of Flora and Miles by their previous governess Miss Jessel and driver Mr. Quint respectively, as well as the gradual fragmentation of Miss Giddens’ psyche. It is Flora, however, whom the song most enchants; she is delighted by a music box which plays its melody and is regularly heard humming the tune in her day-to-day wanderings around her home’s large estate. Later in the film, it is implied that the song was taught to Flora by the late Miss Jessel, herself plagued by a violent love affair with Mr. Quint that proved fatal. Though the song is primarily centered around Flora, Miles and Miss Giddens are not immune to its charms either: they both play fragments of the song on the gloomy mansion’s grand piano and the song manifests itself in Miss Giddens’ dreams and hallucinations.
Structurally, “O Willow Waly” is a cyclical song, ending on an unresolved note which results in it feeling as though it could be performed ad infinitum (fitting given the film itself starts and finishes at the same point in the narrative). Its melodic repetition also gives it an “earworm” quality, an infectiousness that is not lost on us either—it continues to haunt our minds long after the end title card declares “The End.”
Aside from “O Willow Waly,” Georges Auric’s music within the film takes more of a traditional role. Dramatic stingers are employed to enact shock, for example, when the housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) lets slip to Miss Giddens that the children’s Uncle and sole guardian had the “devil’s own eye” when it came to women, the string-driven stinger emphasizing the incredibly naive Miss Giddens’ horror over such a revelation. Elsewhere, orchestral, occasionally romantic cues underscore the more mundane onscreen action or relative “normality” that precedes a scare. During moments in which the supernatural forces materialize however, or Miss Gidden’s mind begins to crumble, disorientating electronic tones are utilized to heighten the impact of the visuals.
These sounds were not the work of Auric but, in fact, the uncredited Daphne Oram, a pioneer of “radiophonic” music composed in the experimental music concrète tradition. An incredibly innovative composer of early electronic music, Oram was responsible for setting up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958 and is now considered a pioneer of the genre. In The Innocents, her electronic cues and effects appear both alone and in tandem with Auric’s music, their otherworldliness playing off Auric’s more conventional acoustic scoring.2
Daphne Oram’s electronic tonalities heard alongside Flora humming “O Willow Waly” when the ghost of Miss Jessel appears to Miss Giddens.
Oram’s electronic sounds also merge with other sound effects to create inspired audio soundscapes, such as that which is heard during a montage sequence when Miss Giddens endures a nightmare about half-way through The Innocents. The superbly edited sequence is comprised of both auditory and visual material depicting instances that have disturbed Giddens since her arrival at the house, allowing the viewer a window into her troubled subconscious. The sound of children’s hallowed whispers and twisted laughter, the howling of wind and the fluttering of bird wings (all frequently used auditory motifs within the film) meet the distorted melody of “O Willow Waly” on Flora’s music box, and are rendered unearthly through the destabilizing filter of Oram’s electronic wizardly. And when combined with the ghostly dissolves between images onscreen, the overall effect is chilling. In The Innocents, sound effects are as vital to the film’s soundtrack as Auric’s string section or Flora singing “O Willow Waly”, merging deftly to disorientate and terrify.

1. “O Willow Waly” is actually performed by folk singer and actress Isla Cameron in place of the voice of Pamela Franklin. She was directed to sing in a “childlike” way and appears briefly in the film as the servant girl Anna. Owing to the popularity of the song after the release of The Innocents, a single was released as “Oh Willow Waly (Theme from The Innocents)” in 1962 with Isla Cameron joined by the Raymonde Singers.
2. It is worth remembering that cinemagoers of 1961 would not have been as familiar with electronic sonorities as we are today and would have found them to be most unusual!
Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.


Scores On ScreenSoundtracksJack ClaytonGeorges AuricAudioDaphne OramColumns
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.