Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” is a classic tale and received an equally strong adaptation in 1961’s The Innocents. A decade later director Michael Winner (Death Wish, 1974; The Sentinel, 1977) delivered an original prequel starring Marlon Brando as the ill-fated gardener referenced and glimpsed in the previous tale. It’s messy, mean, and borderline fascinating, but the best thing to come out of it is the commentary track by the film’s director. He’s never been one to mince words, and he’s “old-school” in beliefs that leave him something of a relic in more enlightened times — to be clear, that’s not a positive trait necessarily, but it does make for an entertaining listen.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
The Nightcomers (1971)
Commentator: Michael Winner (director)
1. He received the script from playwright Michael Hastings and thought it was brilliant. “It really doesn’t mean much as someone else has to not only think it’s brilliant but also put up the money, and nobody wanted to put up the money for this film.”
2. While looking for funding a producing partner asked if if he thought Marlon Brando could play the Irish gardener Peter Quint, and he replied “Marlon could play the two children, the dog, the cat, the neighbor from the Caribbean, he can do anything.”
3. Brando called Winner and asked him to come to California to discuss the script, but as the legendary actor preferred not to make specific dates he said to just “go to California, check in at the hotel, and I’ll call you.”
4. Winner loves Brando. “He took acting, which was basically stage oriented… and he turned it into behavior.” He adds that Brando’s been imitated since by the likes of Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman.
5. While he was warned that Brando was prone to being argumentative on film sets he found the opposite to be true. “I’ve never known an easier man in my life.”
6. Brando was set up with a small cottage to live in during the production, “and he had at the time a white girlfriend called Jill.” That didn’t stop visitors from coming to visit, though, including “an endless flow of slightly aging, Eurasian or slightly colored girls who were obviously old flames.” He asked Brando how he got away with it all, and Brando replied “well it all depends how you smile.”
7. Winner recalls Brando trying to eat lunch in the tent with the cast and crew rather than in a private dining area, and he had to tell Brando that they don’t want either of them in there as it’s hard to relax when the bosses are nearby. Brando had his agent and assistant with him, and he tried to get a supporting player to join his table but they kept passing him by.
8. The role of Miss Jessel was originally intended for Vanessa Redgrave, and she was locked in for the production. She had to drop out, though, when another film ran over schedule. Winner recalled Stephanie Beacham — she had a single line in his film The Games (1970) — and offered her the role.
9. Beacham initially objected to the nudity but eventually “she caved in.” She also consented to publicity stills and went topless despite the photographer not asking her to. “She had incredible bosoms I might add.” He says she grew “frightened, as English actors often do” while promoting the film and ended up withdrawing in on herself instead of becoming a bigger star.
10. They initially had trouble insuring Brando for the film as he had grown somewhat unreliable and prone to wandering off previous films, but Winner told Brando “you’re not that well off now” and that he had to be on time for his medical appointment to show he was serious. Brando complied, he got the insurance, and later he was quoted as saying that Winner “is the only person who doesn’t talk to me in the way he thinks I wish to be talked to.”
11. Flora is meant to be twelve years-old but is played by nineteen year old Verna Harvey as the role gets weird. On the last day of filming Brando told him that “she’s got a very nice ass, I wish I’d noticed it earlier.”
12. Brando was surprised to learn that Winner was making the film nearly free of charge, and when he asked why Winner replied “for the honor of working with you.”
13. Brando was a Laurel & Hardy fan.
14. He made a bet with Brando while the actor was in London filming Superman (1978) over the pronunciation of the word “integral,” with the wager being that the loser “has to sell French ticklers, that is a male condom with bubbles on it, in Piccadilly for an hour.” Winner lost the bet, and he discovered when Brando died in 2004 that he had kept the photos of Winner selling the condoms in Piccadilly Circus.
15. While Beacham went nude for Jessel’s S&M-themed sex scene with Quint, Brando of course refused to do the same. “He wore underpants, and for some extraordinary reason Wellington boots.”
16. “He really threw himself into these sex scenes,” says Winner. “I mean Stephanie Beacham didn’t stand a chance. He was pulling her all over the place and doing things to her, uhg.” It’s unclear just what “things” refers to, but none of this should surprise anyone familiar with Brando.
17. Brando refused to have stills taken during the sex scenes as he felt he was “too fat.” His agent convinced him otherwise with the compromise that Winner himself would take the photos.
18. Winner was concerned about potential censorship in the UK and asked the main censor at the time to go easy on them. The man suggested that it would be fantastic to meet Brando — wink wink — so Winner organized a get together at his apartment only for the censor to retire before the film went up for certification anyway.
19. The scene at 41:00 sees a drunk Quint telling stories to the children Flora and Miles (Christopher Ellis), and Brando told Winner he wanted to actually be drunk for the performance — “so please shoot it at the end of the movie.” Winner complied, Brando was intoxicated, and he nailed the scene.
20. Winner mentions owning a Ferrari and then adds “you should never buy a Ferrari, they’re terrible cars.”
21. Brando had initially been turned down for The Godfather (1972), but he landed the role while this film was being edited. Winner tried to convince the U.S. distributor to hold this film’s release until after The Godfather opened as he suspected it would put Brando on top again, but the distributor declined.
22. They went to a pub in search of an Irishman to help teach Brando the accent, “and he said to me ‘is that an Irishman over there?’ and I said ‘no Marlon that’s a Pakistani.'”
23. Brando had a South American housekeeper who he eventually sired children with, and Winner asked him when the romance blossomed. Brando told him that he once dropped a screw on his bedroom floor, and when she got down on all fours to look for it “that’s when the relationship changed.”
24. Winner recalls Brando becoming upset that the BBC was covering the Olympics and referring to male Chinese athletes as “Chinamen,” but when he would call to complain they would hang up thinking it was a prank call. He enlisted Winner’s help in getting through to them, and the next day the coverage started referring to them as Chinese athletes.
25. He’s seen The Innocents (1961) — Jack Clayton’s acclaimed adaptation of James’ “The Turn of the Screw” — and thinks it’s alright.
26. Jessel’s death scene required Beacham to be in the water which was extremely cold, but while she was advised to wear the thickest wet-suit available she instead went with the thinnest as it kept her figure the best. “She went totally rigid, her face went blue, and we all really thought she was dead. She was carried ashore and some fellow gave her mouth to mouth, and eventually she survived. That’s actresses, bless ’em.”
27. “Look how handsome he is, look at that profile.” Winner’s compliments for Brando are endless here extending even to the scene where Quint pulls a dead Jessel from the lake. Beacham’s playing a corpse in rigor mortis with her arms locked in position and a pallor across her face, but it’s Brando he praises — “quite extraordinary, quite extraordinary. I mean just the way he walks, the movement, to see a consummate screen actor, he’s really beyond belief. This is where he’s picking Stephanie Beacham out of the lake, this is where she was half dead anyway. He could have left her in there quite honestly. Most marvelous man.”
28. Winner says the claims that Brando would have index cards with his dialogue hidden just out of the camera’s view are false. “He knew every bloody line. But he had scripts buried all over the set.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“I did a lot of things on The Nightcomers, and for me it’s one of the most memorable films I ever made.”
“Anyone who cares or is interested in cinema knows that Marlon Brando is the greatest screen actor in the history of the world.”
“Everyone says ‘oh Marlon lives in Haiti,’ no he lives in Beverly Hills like everyone else.”
“Marlon loves a laugh.”
“It’s a very powerful film.”
“I’m actually recording this in my enormous bedroom.”
The Nightcomers isn’t a great film and obviously pales beside the The Innocents — sorry Mr. Winner — but there’s an appeal to its tawdry, sticky atmosphere if you’re in the right mood. Brando is, well, Brando, and the build to its end is suitably icky. The commentary, though, is a fantastic listen as Winner’s blend of giving no shits while simultaneously lathering Brando with blind praise is highly entertaining. Winner was a fascinating filmmaker who delivered both great films and not-so great ones, but he’s never less than an engaging and revealing speaker.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.