With just seven features over three decades, British helmer Jack Clayton’s once considerable rep never had the chance to recover from the drubbing he took when his over-hyped try at THE GREAT GATSBY/’74 underwhelmed. (The real blame likely belonged to a Mia Farrow unworthy of all the bother. Or would that be Zelda?) Still, it’s easy to see what all the fuss on Clayton was about even in this flawed project, a odd-duck item about a gaggle of just-orphaned kids who hide Mom’s death, afraid of the world outside and of what might happen next. There’s a LORD OF THE FLIES/’63 (kiddie fascist microcosm) meets WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND/’61 (kiddie religious hysteria) vibe to this cloistered tale, but lacking the isolated locales of those stories, it’s tougher to buy into the set up. Fortunately, halfway in, Dirk Bogarde shows up, in a marvelously appalling turn (and an equally appalling bowl haircut) as the kids’ putative long-lost father. But is he there to help the little dears keep up appearances or to fleece them? The change in tone doesn’t exactly make you swallow the concept, but it sure shakes things up! Clayton gets a series of spectacular perfs from the kids, and with strikingly particularized behavior. Watch for Mark Lester & Pamela Franklin shortly before they made their marks in OLIVER!/’68 and PRIME OF JEAN BRODIE/’69. As well as Phoebe Nicholls as the tot who gets her hair cropped off as punishment, looking precisely as she would playing the devout sister in BRIDESHEAD REVISTED/’81 and over the decades in many BBC imports. Plus a surprise writing credit from Haya Harareet (the love interest from BEN-HUR/’59) who otherwise had retired to be director Clayton’s wife.
DOUBLE-BILL: As mentioned above, FLIES and WHISTLE, but for even better creepy kids from Jack Clayton, try THE INNOCENTS/’61, his unbeatable adaptation of Henry James’s TURN OF THE SCREW.