Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Black Narcissus: Technicolor Masterpiece

What would you say to a movie about a small group of nuns who start a convent in the Himalayas. "No thanks, I'll pass." Alright, well what would you say if the convent was in a former royal brothel, the nuns both sexually and emotionally repressed and they're constantly in the company of a handsome, half-naked, amoral Englishman. Perks things up a bit. Add to these elements, breathtaking scenery, shot in the most vivid Technicolor, a magnificent score, a lusty young native wench on the make for a flamboyant but good hearted Indian aristocrat and you've got Black Narcissus (1947).

Developed by British film craftsmen, the director/writer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Black Narcissus is a masterpiece of both style and substance. Based on the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, it tells the story of a small group of Anglican nuns who go to a remote Himalayan village to establish a school and hospital for the simple peasant citizenry. There journey is an unconventional one from the get-go, as they set up shop in what was once a "house of women" or a harem residence for the concubines of a former royal general. It is called the Palace of Mopu and it is both exotic and mystical, very Shangri-La-esque. Leading the pack is the Sister Superior, Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), a young but rigid and self important character who finds her new domain unmanageable and laden with temptations of all variety. In her charge are Sister Briony (Judith Furse), a stout and no-nonsense prioress; Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson), who is devout but troubled and anxious; Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), popular and tender hearted; and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), the black sheep of the cloister.

Given the unwanted task of aiding the habit wearing menagerie, is Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the British agent for the area. Sister Clodagh (pronounced Clo' da) finds him roguishly attractive, though she dares not let even her eyes suggest it, as he struts around the abbey wearing walking shorts and no shirt. Sister Ruth on the other hand, looks as if she could tear into his man flesh like yesterday's roast beef. Dean becomes a necessary evil for the sisters. Necessary because he is their only link to the civilized world of their past, as well as the only one with knowledge of plumbing and general maintenance, which they desperately need in their disintegrating residence. Evil because his raw masculinity, in such isolation as they find themselves, leads to dangerously sinful thoughts in the minds of Clodagh and Ruth, while creating a rivalry between these two, the seeds of which had long been established. Their conflict only festers the longer they are around Dean.

Sharing a starring role with the actors is Jack Cardiff's sumptuous cinematography, a visual feast in Technicolor. Color plays an important part in differentiating Sister Clodagh's present and the scenes depicting her past life in Ireland. Her pale, unmade face, the only semblance of skin we see among her many layers of white robes and habit, is a sharp contrast to the rouged lips and long auburn hair of a young, fresh and pretty Clodagh we see in flashback. As well, the deep green emerald necklace presented to her by her grandmother, again in flashback, as a wedding gift she'll never receive, illustrates the luster and rich color of her former life while her current station affords no such glamour. These flashback scenes were actually banned in the United States, as too daring a comparison. Along with color, close-ups are also used to outstanding effect. In the scene where Sister Clodagh confronts Sister Ruth about her impure thoughts for Mr. Dean, the quick cut close-ups of both actresses read volumes in dialogue. Likewise, when Ruth snaps mentally and rebuffs her vows to go search out Dean and his red blooded manliness, in a mail order dress and make-up, Clodagh tries to stop her by staying with her in her room. Both the camerawork and acting in this scene are superb. Cardiff won an Academy Award for his cinematography, as did Alfred Junge for Best Art Direction.

Also on hand in a sub plot is Indian actor Sabu, in the role of the Young General, a royal descendant who comes to the nunnery to expand his education. He is a young peacock in his fine clothes and scented handkerchiefs (his cologne, Black Narcissus, is where the book/film get their title). One scene shows him bedecked with jewels, wearing a satin turban and floor length fur coat. He looks like Lana Turner on a night at the Mocambo Club! While at the convent he meets up with Kanshi ( young Jean Simmons), a native servant girl whose hormones are in overdrive. Simmons, who has a substantial role, doesn't speak a word of dialogue in the entire film. Though Kerr, Farrar, et al do a fine job in their parts, acting honors go completely to Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth. Her descent into lust driven madness is a sight to behold and her final scenes atop the palace bell tower are some of the most chilling and powerful on film (she also bears a striking resemblance to Anne Heche). Powerful is a good word to associate with Black Narcissus. Powerful images, performances, music and themes combine to form a fascinating cinema experience.


  1. With an opening paragraph like that, you've got me hooked (yet again), Rupert. Will definitely have to check this one out. (How could I have missed!!??)

  2. wow ok Rupert. I have heard of this film but no one really said much about it until someone the other day on tcm.com picked it as one of their movies that no one as ever heard of but you must watch. They didn't say anything about the movie though and now you write this. Oh my. I have to see this film. The colors jump at you and their feelings are in full focus how you describe the movie and the acting. I am ready to see this one and I am sure I won't be disappointed.

  3. I was a bit shock by this movie when I saw it but now I can't remember which part that shocked me, when I saw it, I thought the colors were so vivid and has so much contrast, strangely enough I don't recall Kerr playing the nun at all, guess I didn't know her then, I'll probably try to see this again

  4. I have passed this several times at the library. I will definitely pick this up the next time and watch it!

  5. Once again you've brought enlightment to the teeming masses of moviegoers who have skipped over this classic. You described it so tantalizingly well without ruining the many nuggets inside. It shows that a movie can be ahead of its time and never go out of style.

  6. Beautiful to look at and beautifully acted. A little slow, but Jean Simmons and Deborah Kerr make it worthwhile. And one of the best early prints to enjoy from British film makers....

  7. Excellent review. This is one that I have to admit I have not yet seen, but with my Year's Best Countdown, it's one that I have on the way so that I can make sure I've seen it before I make a selection for 1947 (although if it tops my current choice for 1947, it'll be among the best 4-5 films I've ever seen!). This was a great read that definitely made me look forward to see the movie.

  8. It is a beautiful film from the period when Powell and Pressburge ruled the cinema. The way they transform Kathleen Byron into an almost supernatural force of malevolence is amazing. The visuals are so astounding that the music often doesn't get the credit it's due. Rupert, thanks for spreading the word.

  9. Thank you, Rupert!

    You KNOW this is one of my absolute favorite films. I had actively avoided it for years for the very reasons you enumerate at the top. Nuns? The Himalayas? I thought it was going to be like Bells of Saint Mary's in the Peshwar. Not even close!

    I could not agree more with your assessment; technicolor is like another character or - at the very least - an amplifier that telegraphs the characters' emotional status (Red for Ruth, Green for Clodagh). And Kathleen Byron is the most beautiful and convincing monster in any film from this decade.

    Kathleen never got bigger parts - if you want to see her in another Archers production, rent "The Small Back Room" about wartime bomb disposal, also with David Farrar - both are totally different than in Narcissus. She has worked constantly since then - but never got a part this meaty again. Powell understood her (they were lovers during this period on a side note), but no one else gave her quite the chances she deserved. She has a small cameo as Private Ryan's wife in Spielberg's film from a few years ago - what a pleasant surprise to see the over 80-year-old tearing into a part. :)

    Thanks again, Rupert - lovely piece.

  10. Beautiful post, thank you very much for this. Black Narcissus is, in my opinion, Powell and Pressburger's best (yes, even moreso than The Red Shoes) and you've certainly done this exquisite film justice. Cardiff's work is definitely a "visual feast" in every possible way!

  11. Rupert, a very nicely written post on a great film by one of the greatest directors of all time. (I've written posts on four of Powell's films myself.) When I saw this one on TCM a year or so ago, Robert Osborne mentioned that an executive of the Technicolor Corporation picked this movie as the greatest use of Technicolor on film. I liked the way you wrote about the flashbacks to Kerr's life before becoming a nun. That part was completely different in all ways from the rest of the movie and a total surprise to me. Few directors but Powell could have so successfully achieved such a complete change of tone. Kerr got a well-deserved N.Y. Film Critics Award for best actress for this movie (also two others she made that year, but certainly largely for "Black Narcissus"). She was a great actress, and this is my favorite performance by her after "The Innocents." Most reviews of this movie don't mention those enigmatic scenes of the ancient Indian guru just who is shown every once in a while, just sitting in those majestic mountains meditating like a timeless, otherworldly observer watching with detachment while these people play their little games and take it all so seriously. Otherwise he has no involvement in the plot. It adds a mystical element to the movie that I find most interesting and suggests how out of place the nuns are here.

  12. Excellent Review,Rupert!thank you so much for covering this film.Truly,one Pressberger & Powell's best,(along with my personal favorite A Matter of Life and Death). Naturally,and foremost,among the many elements of this film,is the Breathtaking Cinematography of Jack Cardiff.So striking at first glance,it threatens to distract the viewer from the impending storyline. A visual Masterpiece, to compliment a strong cast,intriguing plot,and brilliant performances.
    I especially look forward to what
    Kathryn Byron brings to these films. Is it any wonder,she would become a return favorite for Pressberger & Powell's films, along with Roger Livesey.(Who,By the way, I could listen to read the phonebook,and love it). David Farrar,is very easy on the eyes, and presents a striking to figure the nuns of the convent. A viral distraction to their mission,and moral ideals.
    And the Criterion restoration gives the royal treatment,with a beautiful restoration. not that it needed much help to begin with. but Defintely,a plus nonetheless.

  13. Another well written post Rupert. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Well done. I have always had a great fondness of Powell and Pressberger films. They have a quality all of their own which seems unlike anything out of Hollywood. And the acting in their films is always first rate.
    Richard Munro

  15. Love your posts , as always this one is wonderful to read.

  16. Wonderful riview, Rupert!
    I had the chance to watch only a few final scenes recently, but that's enough to realize that this was a very powerful film in all respects.
    By the way, I think Black Narcissus actually was a Lanvin perfume in the 50's.

  17. I could not agree more! Seeing this film for the first time was a revelation! It introduced me to The Archers.

    The sumptuous use of colour is breathtaking.....the flowers and prisms of water droplets are more palpably sexual than anything I ever saw in porn!

    I think the principal reason those scenes were banned is because a Catholic Nun is basically admitting to having lost her virginity; ".....and since I had SHOWN my love!"

    One can only imagine the feelings of having a peak artistic experience anyone involved in making this movie must have felt!

    Thanks for the article, Sir!!

  18. Terrific review. Bryon is amazing in the office scene. One moment she's begging to go, the next; she's an animal...and takes that further stil when Kerr shows her strength...then Bryon is an unsure animal. Great. Greatness in any endeavor takes courage



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