Saturday, July 16, 2016

BLACK NARCISSUS 1947

No I won’t be a nun
No I cannot be a nun
For I am so fond of pleasure that I cannot be a nun.
                                                                                    19th century British Music Hall song

It’s impossible for me to imagine what effect Michael Powell’s astonishing film Black Narcissus would have had on me had I been aware of it back when I was still a kid in Catholic school; back when I still found solace in religious dogma, when elaborate church ritual held me in a sense of wonder, and when nuns were still these mysterious, almost mythic, beings. But on the occasion of seeing this breathtaking, sensually overwhelming film for the very first time just last month (!), my adult self was captivated by how lyrically evocative this dramatization of the age-old conflict of passion vs. pious repression turned out to be (decades before Ken Russell’s The Devils).
Coming to this now-classic movie with considerable maturity, a hefty dose of Catholic disillusion, yet little to no foreknowledge of even the film's storyline and theme, I was left awestruck by the operatic scope of its opulent visuals and delighted by the brashness of its over-emphatic emotionalism.
British director Michael Powell (Peeping Tom - 1960) applies a rapturously lush gloss and striking visual distinction to his Oscar-nominated 1947 screen adaptation of Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel. There seems to be something overheated and audacious about the entire enterprise, which, like the harem-house turned convent perched atop the Himalayan mountainscape that serves as the film’s primary locale and chief metaphor, allows Black Narcissus to recklessly skirt along the edges of high melodrama, camp overstatement, and visual poetry. If it was Powell’s goal to submerge the audience in a barrage of sensual excess parallel to that experienced by the white-clad nuns in the film—to indeed create a film as visually heady as the fragrance of the Black Narcissus flower—then he succeeded beyond all reasonable expectation.
Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh
Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth
David Farrar as Mr. Dean
Jean Simmons as  Kanchi
Sabu as Dilip Rai, The Young General
Flora Robson as Sister Philippa

Five Anglican nuns in British-occupied India are sent by their somewhat dubious Mother Superior (Nancy Roberts) to establish a mission school and dispensary in a remote area high in the Kanchenjunga Mountains. The designated site, donated to the convent by a philanthropic peacock of a General named Toda Rai (Esmond Knight) in the interest of serving his subjects in nearby Darjeeling, is a desolate edifice perched dizzyingly atop a mountain shelf and known as The Palace of Mopu. The deserted palace, which overlooks a vast mountainscape the locals call “The Bare Goddess,” was previously known as “The House of Women” and stood as a harem residence for the General’s father to house his many concubines.
May Hallat as Angu Aya

Angu Aya, the estate’s longtime caretaker, is correct in citing that the arrival of the nuns preserves the palace’s status as a house of women, the difference in the main being that these particular women “…won’t be any fun.” 

Sister Clodagh (Kerr), a young nun of rather severe and inflexible nature with a killer side-eye, is assigned as head of the convent which is to be rechristened “The House of Saint Faith.” She’s given reluctant, cynical assist from the General’s agent, Mr. Dean (Farrar), an Englishman gone conspicuously “native” yet still capable of wielding colonial superciliousness like a champ. 
The nuns’ external struggles in adapting to the people of the village—whose exotic “otherness” they find challenging; and coping with the elements—the incessantly blowing winds, too pure water, and rarefied air produce negative health effects; are compounded (if not dwarfed) by the intensity of their inner conflicts. Mopu’s color-saturated vistas and perfumed splendors of flora and fauna conspire to distract the nuns from their sense of practical and spiritual purpose, inflaming hidden passions and bringing about the recollection of the very things a life of devout asceticism was intended to blot out.
As Mr. Dean observes: "There's something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated." 
Sister Ruth in rapt attention 

The natural elements of Mopu are at perpetual odds with the nuns’ emotional self-regulation and the control they attempt to exert over both the land and its people, resulting in the environment itself proving to have a progressively detrimental and disruptive effect on the convent as a whole. This conflict plays out in the infatuation the already agitated and unstable Sister Ruth (Byron) develops on Mr. Dean. Too, in the distracting effect the introduction of the flamboyantly-attired Young General (Sabu) has on the all-girls school, specifically Hindu hotbox, Kanchi (Simmons), an orphan girl who’s as serene in her sexuality as the nuns are restrained in theirs. 
The Prince and the Beggar-maid
The intoxicating perfume the Young General wears gives the film its name 
As repressed passions and jealousies intensify, Black Narcissus’s fevered melodramatic structure by turns takes on the shape of: a love story. a humanity vs. ecology war film, an imperialist allegory, an ecclesiastical horror movie. Sometimes all at once.

My oft-stated fondness for Le Cinema Baroque (where nothing exceeds like excess) instantly brands Black Narcissus a lifelong favorite; but I’m equally fond of any film which attempts to explore that curious need we humans have to suppress that which is most natural in us, and to so often do so by hiding behind religious dogma.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Having grown up attending Catholic schools, I have to say that the pomp and circumstance of church ritual superbly primed me for the extravagant visual onslaught that is Black Narcissus. It’s a thing of beauty the way Jack Cardiff’s (Death on the Nile) Oscar-winning, deeply-saturated, old-school Technicolor cinematography so adroitly conveys the vastly shifting moods and escalating tensions at the center of Black Narcissus; a strikingly stylized look at sexual repression and madness among a group of passion-seized nuns.
There are moments when the screen bursts with the joyful colorfulness of a musical (these hills are alive and virtually crawling with nuns, but here Julie Andrews would be in way over her head); other times, the film is gripped by the moody high-contrast shadows of German Expressionism and film noir (reinforced tremendously by the sweep of Brian Easdale’s goosebump-inducing musical score). 
Sister Philippa worries that the exotic beauty of  the mountain
distracts her from her sense of religious purpose
Perhaps because the nuns I encountered during grade school bore so little resemblance to the serene, well-meaning nuns portrayed by Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn on The Late Show (mine were strictly of the stern, prison warden variety), I derived an inordinate amount of pleasure from Black Narcissus’ then-controversial depiction of nuns as beings susceptible (perhaps more than most) to the character flaws of pride and ego, basic human desires, and crisis of faith.
In fact, the demystification of the whole nun mystique is one of my favorite things about the film. The scenes depicting Sister Clodagh lost in memory of her earlier life as a girl in Ireland are poignant and very moving. I can’t often relate to the idea of nuns “hearing the call” of religious service, but in this instance (and as played so winsomely by Deborah Kerr), it touches me to contemplate how a young woman’s heart can be so broken and pride so wounded that she would seek to bury her pain behind the emotional shelter of a cloistered existence, and try to lose her memory of herself in a life of devout service.
Sister Clodagh was once no stranger to vanity and allure of jewels and self-adornment

PERFORMANCES
Very much late to the party in this regard, but much like my late-in-life appreciation of Joan Crawford, I’ve really turned a major corner when it comes to Deborah Kerr, who is fast becoming one of my favorite classic film actresses. I had the grave misfortune of having my earliest exposure to the actress in some of what must arguably be her worst films: Marriage on the Rocks (1965) and Prudence & the Pill (1968). I’m no big fan of The King and I, either, so the larger part of my life, Kerr fell into that limbo of actresses whose work I largely avoided.
It took a reader of this blog recommending Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) to turn the tide for me. Her performance in that film is tremendous. Seriously one of the very finest examples of screen acting I’ve ever seen. Ever. She is absolutely brilliant, and on the strength of that movie alone I’ve come to reevaluate the work of this woefully underappreciated actress (by me, certainly, but her outstanding work in The Innocents got nary a nod from The Academy).  
There’s not a moment when Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh is on the screen that she doesn’t command. The dramatic arc of her character is sharply and heartbreakingly delineated, and Kerr's is precisely the kind of performance of which I’m most fond; the inner life of a character read easily through the eyes. You can actually see what her character is thinking, just as you can plainly read the emotions subtly playing across Kerr's face. I’ve said it before, but playing repressed, emotionally inhibited characters must be as challenging for an actor as comedy; for with no big, showy displays of technique, an actor must credibly fashion a dimensional, complex character of sympathy and depth.
Kerr, while embodying the “stiff-necked, obstinate” characteristics attributed to her character, also shows Sister Clodagh to be a woman who’s imperious, sensitive, funny, wise, over-proud, kind, petty, overwhelmed, and in the end…so very human. For me, nothing I have so far seen of Deborah Kerr’s work can touch her performance in The Innocents, but her movingly unforgettable and finely-realized Sister Clodagh is right up there in being one of my favorites.
Kathleen Byron is mesmerizing as the neurotic and passion-inflamed Sister Ruth. As the unfettered sexual Id to Sister Clodagh's circumspect Ego, Byron's physical resemblance to Deborah Kerr informs the film's themes dramatizing the environment's ability to affect the dual natures of the nuns.
The naked ferocity of Byron's emotionalism suits Black Narcissus' grandiloquent visual style. Plus, once she really starts to lose it, she's absolutely terrifying!


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I cite Black Narcissus as one of the most sumptuously beautiful films ever made, betraying nary a single note of overstatement. In its current digitally restored form, it’s truly something to behold. Breathtaking doesn’t even cover it.
But to a large extent the effectiveness of the film’s visual style (production designer Alfred Junge won the film’s only other Oscar) is that it isn’t pretty for the sake of being pretty; its extravagant look is in direct service to the plot.
For me, this meant that, much in the way the vistas distract the nuns from their work, Black Narcissus’s Technicolor gorgeousness helped to shroud the film’s indulgence in racial stereotypes and soften the narrative’s colonial fantasy elements (the Western infantilization and fetishizing of the exotic “other”).
Eddie Whaley Jr as Joseph Anthony
The nuns are forced to rely on the interpreting skills of a youngster
in order to communicate with the "childlike" natives
One of the more astounding things about Black Narcissus is that, while set in India, it was filmed entirely in England. Sabu is the only cast member of actual Indian descent, meanwhile, brownface and quaint cultural stereotyping abounds. The film was released the very year India won its freedom from British imperialist rule, a historical fact that goes a long way toward making the film’s, shall I say, archaic attitude towards the childlike “natives” feel more like an indictment rather than an endorsement.

As the convent’s plans to westernize the people of Mopu collapses under the inability of the nuns to either understand or adapt to the land they inhabit, it’s not difficult to project a subtheme of anti-imperialism running below Black Narcissus’ surface. 
A critic keenly noted that the peaked cowls of the nuns' gleaming white habits
echo the steep mountain peaks overlooking The House of St. Faith

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
While I'll always wonder what my younger, far more impressionable, still film-besotted self would have made of Black Narcissus, I'm glad my first exposure to this film wasn't in grainy black and white on a tiny TV-set with commercial interruptions; nor was it by way of a scratchy, faded copy at a revival theater. 
I'm still very much caught up in the daze of first discovery (I've only seen it twice); but even so, I don't hesitate in labeling it (to me, anyway) a genuine masterpiece. Not perfect, but an authentic work of stylized aesthetic beauty. It's great that when I finally got around to seeing Black Narcissus, it was by way of a pristine, full-length, digitally restored version, yet I know in my heart that this particular cinema gemstone would have fueled a million dreams and fantasies for me as a boy. But I guess we all discover the right things at the right time.



BONUS MATERIAL
Painting with Light (2007) - A fascinating documentary on the making of Black Narcissus featuring interviews with cinematographer Jack Cardiff and actress Kathleen Byron.
Available on YouTube HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson

28 comments:

  1. This is one of my favorite films and, as a longtime fan of your writing, I was so thrilled to see your thoughts on it!

    I think you are definitely right that there is a theme of anti-imperialism running under the surface here, with the condescending attitudes of the sisters ultimately doing much more harm than good. It's thematically rich as well as visually rich, and has held up well for me over many viewings even as the brownface and racial sterotype prevent it, as you say, from being perfect.

    Have you seen any other of Powell and Pressburger's collaborations? The Red Shoes and Life and Death of Colonel Blimp are their other most famous films, both masterpieces. Another special one, talked about less, is The Small Back Room, where David Farrar and Kathleen Byron play very different leading roles than they do here but do equally great work.

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    1. Hello Hannah
      The only other Michael Powell film I've seen is "Peeping Tom," which I found to be as thematically audacious as this film is visually. I enjoyed that film a great deal, but have no idea why I took so long for me to get around to seeing “Black Natcissus” (beyond my afore-stated resistance to Deborah Kerr and perhaps the hurdle I often encounter in older British films - a certain emotional reserve in the acting that that can feel a tad distancing.

      I'm not fully sure, but I think one of the very reasons "Black Narcissus" works so tremendously for me is because that very same emotional remoteness I speak of is actually used to such remarkable effect. In the hyper-stylized world Powell creates, the arch acting style I usually have a problem with seems born of the nuns’ repression. Similarly, the high-flown madness of Sister Ruth seems pitched to a everything in the film feeling heightened and exaggerated by the surroundings.

      There's a scene near the end where Sister Clodagh breaks down to Mr. Dean, confessing to him her failures. After a rather impassioned pouring out of her heart, his response is something along the lines of "There, there...you mustn't carry on so." …his under-reaction is almost jarring.
      In another context, this would be exactly the sort of emotional reserve that has kept me at a distance from a great many post-war British films, but in "Black Narcissus" it actually comes off like Mr. Dean trying very hard not to display the actual love her has come to feel for the nun.

      This film does make me curious about the other Powell/Pressburger collaborations. I settled in to watch it not expecting much, and then my jaw dropped to the floor. I found the film to be so magical (which of course meant that several scenes reduced me to misty eyes or outright tears).
      As a dancer, I've heard about "The Red Shoes" most of my professional life, but in retrospect, I guess my attitude was like Val in "A Chorus Line" on the subject ("See, I never heard about The Red Shoes, I never saw The Red Shoes, I didn't give a fuck about The Red Shoes..."). Time to change that, I think!

      I'm thrilled to learn you are a fan of Powell's work (certainly a more knowledgeable one than myself), and that this film is a favorite. I'll take your recommendations. Although I' don't think I'm ready yet to see Byron as anyone other than Sister Ruth for a while. She really cut an indelible image for me I'd like to hold onto.
      Thank you, Hannah, so much for your very kind words and for commenting! (Glad you enjoy the blog, too!)

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  2. It's a beautiful movie--all the more so when you know that not only was it filmed entirely in England but also entirely on a soundstage with all of that beautiful exotic color being produced by painted lenses and careful lighting. Amazing!

    Glad you've come round on Deborah Kerr (my namesake--I was really named after her). As you point out, the late sixties were not kind to her (poor Deb, having to bring all her class and elegance to witless trifles like Prudence and the Pill), but prior to that she turned in some marvelous performances. My favorite is her role as Hannah Jelkes in Night of the Iguana, where her natural English reserve played so well against Richard Burton's bombast and Ava Gardner's earthiness.

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    1. Hello Deb
      Very cool, I must say, to be named after such an illustrious star! Just today my partner and I were discussing if the practice of naming children after favorite film stars had gone out of practice (my sister was named after June Allyson).
      Until I saw the documentary cited above, I had no idea that so much of "Black Narcissus" was filmed on a soundstage. The exterior shots (like that glorious shot in Ireland of Kerr standing in the lake and the water shining behind her like a shimmering curtain) blend with the matte paintings and studio sets beautifully.

      And yes, I came to Deborah Kerr wrong-way-'round. Seeing those awful 60s sex comedies gave me entirely the wrong impression (although I suspect, should I ever feel like subjecting myself to them today, I'd likely find Kerr somehow rising above the material).
      I too think she's great in "Night of the Iguana." My other two main favorites are "The Chalk Garden" and "Bonjour Tristesse"

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    2. And I was born in late 1957, so perhaps it was this very movie that moved the needle away from "Janet" (my parents' earlier name choice) and toward "Deborah"! However, I think it's more likely that my mom was such a huge movie fan--she was always reading magazines like Photoplay when I was a kid. I come by my love of movies--and movie star gossip--quite honestly!

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    3. Ooops! Misread the date--although I knew the movie was from 1947 and I was not born for another decade. Perhaps some other Deborah Kerr movie--"Heaven Knows Mr. Allison" or "Separate Tables"?--was the inspiration for my parents' choice of name.

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    4. My mom was a huge movie fan, too. Always grateful for the plethora of movie books and magazines I grew up around.

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  3. Hi Ken,

    So happy you’re covering one of my all-time favorite movies—and an appreciation for a magnificent lady. You’re right. “Breathtaking” is even too weak a word. The last time I saw it I was alone (sometimes my favorite way to watch a movie) and I found my eyes welling up just at the sheer beauty of it. I got so choked up one would think I was watching a tear-jerker.

    I was fortunate to meet Michael Powell late in his life when he attended a screening of Age of Consent at a revival theater I programmed. A great opportunity but I think I came across as babbling and fawning and flustered, all because of Black Narcissus.

    And yes, come to Deborah Kerr (or any great actress especially in the precarious 60s) on the wrong side and one might be put off. Tea and Sympathy and The King and I both get on my nerves but luckily the first time I saw Kerr, one of my top-ten favorite actresses, was in The Chalk Garden. Co-starring Hayley Mills, it was rapture. I don’t know if you’ve seen Bonjour Tristesse with Kerr and Niven but it’s certainly a tonic for washing down Prudence and the Pill. In addition to Black Narcissus, I think my favorite Kerrs are The Innocents and Night of the Iguana.

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    1. Hi Max
      I so identify with your first paragraph description of watching "Black Narcissus" alone. Solitude sometimes affords a kind of immersion in film, and what better film to get lost in than this. I love when a film can move me with the force of its imagery, and in "Black Narcissus" there are so many scenes (sometimes merely a closeup of an actor's face) that set off the waterworks.
      I had to Google "Age of Consent", but how terrific that you had the opportunity to meet and speak to him! I too have a tendency to become unglued around people I really admire. I find it a very out-of-body experience to encounter people who have shaped my dreams.

      You, Deb, and I all seem to be on the same page in our appreciation of Deborah Kerr and favorite performances. You guys are fortunate that you recognized her exceptional talent earlier.
      Thanks for commenting, Max!

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  4. Ken, I am SO glad you finally saw this and I knew in my heart that when you did you would adore it! It's such a brilliant piece of movie-making in more ways than one. And I can hardly get Kathleen Byron completely out of my mind once this film pops into memory. Watching her was such an intense experience. I'm also very happy to see that you have come to appreciate Deborah Kerr. I was raised on all the R&H musical movies, so "The King and I" never bothered me and my mother and I watched and wept over "An Affair to Remember" when I was a tyke, but I also never appreciated her the way she deserved until later. I enjoy her in "Iguana" and many others, but the one that made me stand up and take notice was "From Here to Eternity" in which she stepped in for a departing Joan Crawford (!) and played against the squeaky-clean, ladylike image she'd developed so well. It was such a treat to see her play a rather hard, world-weary bitch (with a heart, of course...), salivating over a truly hunky Burt Lancaster. I think you would also appreciate her (and Robert Mitchum - and maybe even the Australian scenery) in "The Sundowners." Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed your assessment of this movie and, as usual, want to see it again soon now! Best wishes!

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      I really am late to the party with this one. Watching it was quite a "How long has this been going on?" experience. I wondered how, in all these years, someone familiar with my taste in movies hadn't just tied me to a chair and made me watch it.
      You're a good deal more familiar with Kerr's work than I. For all the times "From here to Eternity" has aired on TCM, I couldn't be persuaded to watch it. Your description makes it sound very compelling (I love actors cast against type). Also, I had no idea Crawford had been attached to the project!
      Maybe one day I'll revisit "The King and I" - I have a DVD copy...I was gifted a R & H DVD collection several years back, and outside of The Sound of Music, the rest have remained unopened.
      Thanks for some of the Deborah Kerr recommendations and for sharing your affection for this film with us.

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  5. Wow! fabuouls post. You got a lot more out of this than I did. I latched onto the Gothic atmosphere and Kathleen Byron's character. And those beefcake scenes with Farrar. I'll have to set this up for a re-watch sometime soon.

    Truly an awe-inspiring movie for me. Like you I came to this movie for the first time very late in life. I saw it for the first time about six or seven years ago. Also like you I knew nothing of the story and didn't want to find out. So I came to the film knowing only that it has been considered the most technically perfect Technicolor movie ever made (don't ask me who said that but I did read it in some book or online somewhere). I figured I was going to be in for a slow moving, quiet, gorgeously filmed and stunningly beautiful movie about nuns in Asia. Surprise! Sex, madness, humor, Gothic horror. It hit all the marks for me. The rush of this movie can be amazing. I completely understand Max' reaction to its beauty and power. For me that frightening climax with all those very Hitchcockian camera angles and that melodramatic music truly thrilled me. How can BLACK NARCISSUS not become one of my all time favorite movies -- or anyone's favorite once they witness its beauty and terror.

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    1. Hi JF
      Our initial exposure to this film sounds very similar. Although it's weird being so in the dark about such a revered film, I'm forever grateful I came to this with such a ridiculous level of ignorance (I only watched the documentary about the making of the film after, so while watching the film, I had no idea the degree to which so many of those locations were soundstages).
      I don't about you, but to settle in and watch a film I've no pre-existing curiosity about, I have to be in a certain mood. Maybe "receptive" is the word.
      Anyway, like you, i was willing to settle in and watch a old-fashioned movie about nuns...sentimental perhaps ...but nothing special beyond the cinematography. Surprise! I felt the same. I was blown away by it.
      I too have a difficulty imagining it not being a favorite. I can see some finding it camp or overstated, but it's hypnotic as hell, and I can scarcely imagine a soul resistant to its spell.
      Good to hear from another late arrival to the "Black Narcissus" party. Thank you for the kind words, and of course, always very pleased when you share your experience of a film.

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  6. Ken, my heart leapt when I saw what movie you were blogging about this week. Black Narcissus is one of my sisters and my favorite films.

    My mother was in the convent for a brief time before she met and married my dad. Her sister, her aunt and several friends of hers were all nuns, so our family already had an "insiders" view and understood fully that these women were three dimensional human beings. Any nun film was must viewing for us. And generated much discussion afterward at the kitchen table.

    I first saw this film on our black and white TV. Even there it was breathtaking. Somehow, the psychological turmoil of the characters came to the fore in a way since the gorgeous color photography didn't distract. In fact I was quite surprised to find out later that the movie was shot in color!

    The black and white experience underscored a sense of claustrophobia, despite the top of the world location. It also made distinguishing between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth harder, which kept us rapt - I had to pay such close attention to know who was who. It was truly a shock when I realized that it was Sister Ruth going mad. I had believed it was Sister Clodagh breaking under the strain.

    The ending of this film, with the struggle at that windswept bell tower literally left my sisters and I breathless. I remember my older sister holding a pillow over her face as it was almost too hard to watch.

    Like you, I was never a Deborah Kerr fan. Not that I didn't respect her, but she didn't click with me. And speaking of nuns, I hated the piece of tripe she did in Heaven Know, Mr. Allison. But in some way, in this film, the paleness of her beauty doesn't seem so luminous. Instead it is more transparent, like you can see her nerve endings underneath her skin. Her erect posture, clipped diction and reserve also heighten the impression that she is desperately trying to hold herself together and fight against her passions. It's one of those performances where I can't imagine another actress in the role.

    When I saw Black Narcissus years later in color I was amazed all over again. I literally kept repeating to myself that this movie was filmed mostly in a soundstage. In England. In truth I am glad I saw it in back and white first so I understood the story in the context of the beautiful imagery. Oddly enough, I found Sister Ruth a bit more sympathetic in color. When she puts the red lipstick on near the end it seemed like a violent cry of freedom. Guess they don't call make up "war paint" for nothing!

    It's always a tribute to a movie when it somehow gains a foothold in a family's personal culture. That it has a lasting effect - for good or bad - forever bonding parents and siblings together. Black Narcissus is such a film for us. To this day, we still talk about it, ruminate over it, and the highest praise of all, imitate it. While my teen contemporaries in the 70s were imitating a jealous Jan Brady ("Marcia, Marcia, Marcia") I was chasing my older sister around the dining room table yelling "Clodagh, Clodagh, Clodagh"!

    PS. My mother's best friend is a woman who she has known since grade school. They're both 91 now. They were in the convent together. My mother left but her friend stayed. Her name? Sister Ruth! You can bet we've teased her on more than one occasion about Black Narcissus!

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    1. Hi Roberta
      Always love how, at least for those films you love, you have such terrific family memories to associate with them.
      For all generations of Catholicism in my family, we certain can't boast having anyone who actually spent time in a convent (although, like many a Catholic school girl, at least two of my sisters had a short-lived desire to become a nun after seeing "The Song of Bernadette").
      You make an interesting case for this film being equally effective when seen in black & white. Certainly the noirish lighting and composition must have been very striking, even on TV.
      In fact, you make an interesting point about how the removal of the dazzling color might actually shift the viewer's emphasis of concentration.

      And the resemblance of Kerr and Byron is obviously still a major part of the "Black Narcissus" experience. I posted a screencap of Kerr on my FB page and a very knowledgeable film associate and longtime fan of the film thought I had misidentified an image of Byron.
      To know that Powell had once been involved with both brought to mind directors who seem to have a distinct "type": Clint Eastwood (Sondra Locke & Frances Fisher) and Bob Fosse (Gwen Verdon and Joan McCracken).

      I like that it's a film you and your sisters enjoyed together. I can well imagine how terrifying that bell tower sequence would be for a youngster.If my own reaction is any indication, I can attest that it hasn't lost any of it's power.

      Reading about the way your family responded to this film allows me to indulge in the fantasy that my sisters and I might have had a similar response, as we frequently related to movies in ways that promoted inside jokes and "only in the family" references that last even today.
      Thanks, Roberta for such a personal take on "Black Narcissus" (especially in relating the bit about your own real-life Sister Ruth!) and for your always-interesting insights and observations. It's really something to discover this film is such a favorite of so many!

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  7. So glad you came around on Deborah Kerr & that 'The Innocents' was the turning point. Like you I think it's one of the greatest film performances EVER and I've never understood why she wasn't Oscar-nominated. Clearly Hollywood liked Kerr enough to nominate her several times but not for her best work - strange!
    I was happy when Criterion added it to their Collection and people could finally see the movie in all of its wide screen gorgeousness.
    Jack Clayton never got his due for that picture or for the terrific 'Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne' which might be Maggie Smith's most daring screen performance.
    Love this post Ken!

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    1. Hi Joe
      You're actually the person I refer to as being the one who recommended I check out "The Innocents", for which I'm eternally grateful. I watched it again a few days after seeing "Black Narcissus" and it cemented my conviction that it is some of the finest screen acting I've ever seen. I wonder if it was perhaps too dark and too much of a downer for the Academy? The ending is certainly unexpected and harrowing.
      And, of course, I'm doubly glad that that film is what made my receptiveness to "Black Narcissus" possible. What I would have missed!
      Now I have to check out "Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn"- another film I know absolutely nothing about! Thanks, Joe!

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  8. I've never seen this film. It only took the first two paragraphs of your always persuasive writing to provoke me to order a copy.

    Thank the Movie Gods that Barnes & Noble is selling Criterion films at 50% off this month. It's on the way.

    I'm so very eager to see BLACK NARCISSUS and to then finish reading your thoughts on it. Logging on to your site is always an adventure, Mr. Anderson. Always an adventure.

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  9. Hi George
    I hope your enthusiasm is rewarded. I never think of my posts as recommendations for a film, so I'm always nicely surprised when anyone tells me that something they've read inspires them to seek out a film they don't know (or have avoided).
    I'm thrilled you can get the glorious Criterion DVD at a discount.
    I hope you enjoy the film and I thank you for saying visiting my site is an adventure (rather than a crap-shoot). :-)

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    1. Now I have seen BLACK NARCISSUS. It is certainly beautiful and intelligent. I'm going to have to watch a few more times to see if the fabled genius of the film comes a little closer to the surface. Jean Simmons gave a canny performance for a girl who was only about 17 years old when it was filmed. Flora Robson brought such heart and soul to her performance. I loved the richness of her characterization. All of Deborah Kerr's superb attributes as a film actress shone through, but in the end, she was just driving the bus as Sister Clodagh. One of the Blu-ray features discussed her youth, relative to the greater age of the character as portrayed in the novel BLACK NARCISSUS. I'm with the old mother superior at the beginning of the film. Kerr is too young for this job. I really wanted the story to rest on the shoulders of a more experienced woman. It was no surprise that at 26, Clodagh lacked the substance to make this convent work.

      The Technicolor work was expert, but who wants subtle Technicolor? And the matte painting is impressive, but no more so than the great work by William Cameron Menzies and his crew on Gone With the Wind. There may be achievement in BLACK NARCISSUS that I am too unsophisticated to recognize. But I always look to the drama before the technical achievement. And this drama could have been much tighter.

      But let's discuss what's really important. THE RED SHOES!!! That's the Archers' great achievement. It is unlike anything else I know, dramatically and technically. (Marius Goring plays in a style best suited to the 19th century, but we can't have everything.) The art direction and the Technicolor work are unparalleled. When you see it for the first time, see it under the absolute best conditions you can. This film is glorious.

      I can't stop dancing!!!

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    2. Thanks for the follow up of your acquisition of "Black Narcissus" and the attendant rave for "The Red Shoes" (I guess I should really take a look at it now).
      Great comments and observations, and another booster shout-out for the collaborative art of Powell/Pressburger. Seems like they were made for Blu-Ray and High def.

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    3. With all due respect, these films were made for the big screen. There are particular shots in this film that I am sure would shimmer with light, if projected onto a screen. The image linked is beautiful, but static, even on Blu-ray. With light shining through film, it would have glowed and the viewer would gasp. It really is part of how they achieved so much with Technicolor.

      http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film3/blu-ray_reviews51/black_narcissus_blu-ray_criterion/960_1_black_narcissus_blu-ray.jpg

      I noticed this same phenomenon with THE RED SHOES. It is glorious to have a restored version that comes without splices and dirt and scratches. But the media is not film and there are differences in the images, depending on how they are generated.

      Acquire a Blu-ray of THE RED SHOES and dive in. You don't want to die in an Southern California earthquake without having seen THE RED SHOES. But when it is shown on a big screen, and you have a chance of that in L.A., be sure to go.

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  10. I was another one who went all *flaily arms of fangirly squee* when I saw you had finally reviewed a Powell and Pressburger film. They are without a doubt my favorite writer-directors...and yet a mere five years ago, I had never even heard of them. Yet another example of how Tumblr friends have made my life infinitely better!

    And Black Narcissus holds a special place in my heart, as it was the film that made me realize that I love Powell and Pressburger period, not just their films starring my crushes (Conrad Veidt, Anton Walbrook, Roger Livesey--well, Roger Livesey's hair, really). This was only further proven with A Canterbury Tale, which I loved as well. After having read both volumes of Michael Powell's autobiography last year, I feel like I have so much insight into this film in particular, given the somewhat dicey situation Powell found himself in, what with having cast his former lover (Kerr) and his then-present lover (Byron). Yeah, I know, another director who fucks his leading ladies, how original... *eyeroll*

    But I can forgive him for almost anything...except the appalling colonialism and brownface casting, that is. The first time I saw this, I recognized Jean Simmons right away, and thought, "WTF?! She's Anglo as all get-out, why was she given this role?" Then my stomach turned over as I realized that even my beloved P&P were not above this kind of racist garbage in casting (which shall henceforth be known as the Nawab Bahadur Memorial Award [see: Alec Guinness in A Passage To India, if your stomach can take it]). I know such things are reflective of the times in which they were made, but that doesn't make them right.

    This film is otherwise like a sumptuous banquet of stunning visuals and richly metaphorical characters. Obviously there's Sabu symbolizing the sweet, unschooled noble savage--the less said about that, the better, though I do like his bling--but I really love Sister Ruth as an allegory of untrammeled female sexuality, even with the quaintly implied assertion that women's sexual autonomy leads to destruction and death. "This pussy has teeth," anyone? I still cheer every time I see her put on the lipstick. YOU GO GIRL!

    PS: I can't remember if I told you about this already or not, but re: being named after film stars, I am named after my Aunt Lila, who was named after silent film star Lila Lee. When I met my Official Hero Kevin Brownlow a few years ago, I told him about this and he promptly rattled off an anecdote about her, which I have absolutely no memory of now. I've met enough famosos not to give a shit about 98% of them, but my two Official Heroes are Larry Kramer and Kevin Brownlow, so I was a trifle starry-eyed at meeting him. (Come to think of it, much like I was at making the acquaintance of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence a few weeks ago!)

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    1. Hello Lila
      I'd forgotten that you're another soul named after a favorite screen star (once removed, I guess, since you were also named after your aunt).
      I love that you got to meet two of your idols! I don't think people often understand that meeting someone who has meant something to you (or inspired your life) isn't the same as just meeting a ANY famous person. It's an opportunity to say something to someone who has given you some kind of gift. I'm afraid it may look the same from the outside (like when I met Karen Black, I was so agog, I suppose I just looked like another avid geek), but it feels like you inner world and "reality" come together...the feeling can lift you right off of the ground.
      I learned from your Instagram post that you were a Powell/Pressburger fan. Your enthusiasm for their work makes want to check out those autobiographies (which I recall passing over time and time again at the local library).
      Your appreciation of his work and "Black Narcissus" specifically, comes through in the lively descriptiveness of your observations. And, like me, it seems as though you are fine with two truths existing simultaneously within this work: that it is at times embarrassingly racist / it is a sublime and beautiful film or no small degree of artistry.

      I didn’t clock in too much about the film’s depiction of women’s sexuality, but I think you summed it up colorfully!
      Thank you for sharing your knowledge of and affection for the work of Powell/Pressman. They seem to have a LOT of fans!

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    2. Actually, I only got to meet one of my two Official Heroes, and I'm not sure I really need to meet Larry Kramer, all told. I'm just so glad he exists, and has somehow managed to stay alive (probably through sheer orneriness!). Honestly, I wouldn't want to bother him, either. He's bothered by enough things already.

      I did manage to stay cool with Kevin Brownlow, and was able to speak from the heart when I thanked him for saving history (which is exactly what he has done with his silent preservation and restoration). I'm still agog at having shook the hand of a man who shook Buster Keaton's hand as well! It wasn't until I got outside of the venue that I read what he had written in my copy of The Parade's Gone By: "To Lila, someone who really understands!" I'm still as gobsmacked now as I was then. Praise from your hero. It don't get no better 'n that.

      To chime in with the praise for The Red Shoes...wow. Especially as a dancer, your reaction and insights would be particularly fascinating. You also would be introduced to Anton Walbrook, my second-favorite Teutonic sex-bomb EVAR (Conrad Veidt will always be #1). If I recall correctly from Powell's autobiography, Boris Lermontov was specifically written for Anton, and he inhabits this role as perfectly as in his other P&P films (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is another big fave of mine, because Anton AND Roger Livesey? Be still my heart! And that pairing has even inspired some of my Tumblr friends to write homoerotic Colonel Blimp fanfic, believe it or not!).

      Anyway, I concur that The Red Shoes is meant to be seen on the big screen; the Castro Theatre shows it sometimes--on a double feature with Black Narcissus!--and one of these days I'm going to attend one of those screenings. I know that the three-hour drive to SF will totally be worth it.

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    3. Yes, seeing this on a big screen would be amazing! Maybe I should hold off on seeing "The Red Shoes" until it comes to a theater locally (New Beverly perhaps)

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  11. What a lovely review, thanks Ken! I've never seen this film. I've only seen Powell's "Peeping Tom" and "The Red Shoes" and I remember that they had amazing colours and photography. "Black Narcissus" seems beautifully filmed too judging by your screen caps. Deborah Kerr looks luminous in the pictures.

    It's amazing that it was filmed in Britain and not in India! It's seems like a true classic of the golden age of the silver screen. I hope to see it one day.

    Thanks for sharing your memories of your catholic school with the "prison guard" type nuns! Their life of rituals and restraint seems mystical. This film reminds me a little of Audrey Hepburn's "A Nun's Story".
    -Wille

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    1. Aw, your too kind, Wille!
      Boy, seems everybody's seen "The Red Shoes"! because of my Catholic upbringing and newfound adoration of all things Deborah Kerr, I'm glad this film was my follow-up to "Peeping Tom", a film whose plot (at least in retrospect) engaged me more than its visual style.

      I hope you do see it sometime. I think you will be as swept away by it's beauty as I. And indeed, all those white habits reminded me of "The Nun's Story" too, but mercifully without Peter Finch. A good actor but always something of a wet sponge onscreen to me until "Network." Always a treat hearing from you, Wille! You really have been on a roll the last few days!

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