Saturday Night Cinema: Black Narcissus (1947)

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “curiously fascinating psychological study,” Black Narcissus. This is the last of the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger films that I can find online. I hope that The Red Shoes and I Know Where I’m Going are eventually made available online. I would love to share those with you.

Post World War II British Cinema was one of the richest periods in film history. Finally free from budget and stylistic constraints saddled during wartime, some of the greatest filmmaking talent the filmdom had arisen. John and Roy Boulting, David Lean, Laurence Olivier, and Carol Reed were just a few of the notables whose directorial prowess had struck the scene. But a pair which was the period’s most prolific was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; The Archers.

Their imprint on British Cinema is almost without peer, and their influence on filmmakers around the world is felt even today, inspiring such directors as George Romero, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. Though both Powell and Pressburger were credited with the direction of their films, it was Powell who was truly at the helm. In his later years, he and Scorsese became quite close, with Scorsese becoming his most ardent enthusiast and eventual protégé (It was Powell who advised Scorsese why “Raging Bull” ought to be in Black & White).

Powell and Pressburger made some of the best and most successful films of the 1940s and ’50s, including “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” with Roger Livesey’s great performance spanning three wars; “The Red Shoes,” with Moira Shearer as a ballet dancer; “Black Narcissus,” with Deborah Kerr as a nun in the Himalayas, and “Stairway To Heaven (A Matter Of Life And Death),” with David Niven as a dead airman. Then came their dark masterpiece,  “Peeping Tom.”

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In this unusual, visually stunning, and dramatically compelling film, Anglican nuns attempt to establish a school and hospital in the Himalayas in buildings that formerly housed a harem. But the sisters find the sensual atmosphere unsettling, and eventually sexual attraction to the ruling general’s ruggedly handsome agent leads to tragedy.

“BLACK NARCISSUS,”
By Thomas M. Pryor, NY Times,
Published: August 14, 1947

A curiously fascinating psychological study of the physical and spiritual tribulations that overwhelm five Protestant missionary nuns in the remote fastness of the Himalayas is unfolded with considerable dramatic emphasis in Black Narcissus. This English-made picture, presented yesterday by J. Arthur Rank and Universal-International at the Fulton Theatre in West Forty-sixth Street, is a work of rare pictorial beauty.

black-narcissus

The awesome grandeur of the setting, a fantastic old palace perched on a mountainside 8,000 feet above the floor of India but still dwarfed by the snow-capped peaks of Kanchenjunga, is stunningly reflected in Technicolor. Indeed, the whole chromatic scheme of the picture is marvelous to behold, and the russet hues of sunset streaking through the dilapidated Palace of Mopu, where once wine flowed and harem ladies cavorted, is a brilliant achievement in color composition.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have come so close to executing a perfect fusion of all the elements of cinematic art—story, direction, performances, and photography—that one wishes they had hit upon a theme at once less controversial and more appealing than that of Black Narcissus. Not being familiar with Rumer Godden’s novel, we don’t know how closely the film adheres to its source. But that is of small consequence after all. What matters is that which they have imaged on celluloid, and that is an engrossing, provocative contemplation of the age-old conflict between the soul and the flesh.

Black Narcissus is a coldly intellectual morality drama tinged with a cynicism which has the effect of casting, as it were, a gratuitous reflection upon those who, regardless of sect, have forsaken worldly pleasures out of sheer religious devotion. This is so because the two dominant characters are basically frustrated women who seek solace in religion after unhappy romances.

One eventually is overcome by her desire for an agnostic Englishman who spurns her after she resigns from the Order of the Servants of Mary, a voluntary community of the Anglican Church. The triumph of the Sister Superior, who is known as Sister Clodagh, over worldly temptation is mitigated to a large extent by the ignoble failure of the mission at Mopu and the almost complete spiritual debilitation of the nuns as they journey back to the mother house in Calcutta.

If, as it appears, the intention of Black Narcissus is to demonstrate that religious zeal is dependent on suitable climatic and social surroundings, then history has already provided the answer to this thesis. All of the uncertainties that beset the nuns, who were invited by a beneficent potentate to establish a convent-school and hospital for his primitive people, are attributed to the barbaric magnificence of the country which, coupled with the high altitude and the constant, unnerving singing of the wind, produces deleterious physical and mental effects.

Black Narcissus is so brilliantly performed and expertly executed in the telling, however, that it holds one completely in its spell. Deborah Kerr is excellent as the overconfident, young Sister Superior who is humbled by adversities and eventually learns to serve the Order with her heart as well as her head, and Kathleen Byron plays the unfortunate Sister Ruth with a careful shading of emotion that bespeaks a talented artist. Hers is truly a magnificent performance. As Mr. Dean, the cynical British agent of the potentate, David Farrar combines a natural aptitude for acting with sturdy masculine features and the kind of physique that no doubt will send Hollywood agents scurrying after him.

While Messrs. Powell and Pressburger may have a picture that will disturb and antagonize some, they also have in Black Narcissus an artistic accomplishment of no small proportions.

BLACK NARCISSUS (MOVIE)

Written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger; based on the novel by Rumer Godden; cinematographer, Jack Cardiff; edited by Reginald Mills; music by Brian Easdale; released by Universal-International Pictures. Running time: 100 minutes.

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