It's a long way from Helensburgh to Hawaii. When you watch Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in their celebrated clinch on the beach in From Here To Eternity ("nobody ever kissed me like you do!"), you realise just what an extraordinary metamorphosis Kerr underwent in the course of her movie career. The Scottish-born star (the subject of a retrospective at the BFI in partnership with The Independent during September and October) seemed in her early film career to be the most upstanding and "proper" of actresses. She had a shy and aloof quality.
In his autobiography, the director Michael Powell remembers being chided by Alexander Korda for casting the 20 year-old in her breakthrough (in three separate roles) in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). "Why do you play an unknown girl in such an important picture?" Powell, however, was the first to notice that the red-haired ingénue was much more than just another British would-be starlet. Beneath that reserve, she was able to convey turbulent and unruly emotions: anger, fear and sexual desire. As Powell wrote, she was "both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for ever since I had discovered that I had been born to be a teller of tales and a creator of dreams". Whether as the nun who ends up in the catfight with Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus, the married woman having the affair with Burt Lancaster or the governess confronting terror in The Innocents, Kerr has a febrile quality a long way removed from the emotional detachment of so many of her contemporaries. That was why she managed to transform herself from an ultra-prim ex-ballet dancer into one of the biggest stars of her era.
Deborah Kerr at the BFI Southbank from 1 September until 13 October. www.bfi.org.uk. 'The Innocents' is released on BFI Blu-Ray on 23 August