A sensually dazzling, and unforgettable masterpiece about grappling with humanity
“Black Narcissus” is quite simply one of the most dazzling films ever made. Its mind-blowing use of color, sets, and lighting transform what could have been just another entertaining melodrama into a work of art. This British gem, which follows a working order of nuns in the Himalayas, stands among the top achievements by the incomparable filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and remains one of the most stunning in all of cinema. The way the film fuses visuals, performances, and storyline creates a hypnotizing experience bound to leave a visual stamp in the mind of anyone who watches it. It’s easy to see why this stunning piece of work was named the 44th Greatest British Film of All-Time by the British Film Institute, rates 100% on Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, and was even nominated for two Academy Awards, winning both. I was awestruck the first saw it, and have continued to marvel at its beauty and ingenuity ever since.
Just a quick word: "Black Narcissus" is a film in which the beauty of the surroundings effects the minds of the people who live there. While I won't be revealing any major plot spoilers, I will be talking a great deal about how the visuals were accomplished and their effects on the characters. Unlike most of my other entries, if you haven't seen this film, I'd recommend watching it before reading on any further. Since this film is a visual spectacle, I do think it would be more exciting to watch it first and read about it afterwards. That said, here I go…
Every frame in “Black Narcissus” smolders with sensuality, which may seem peculiar given that it is a film about a working order of nuns. But that is actually the point. It takes place in the old Palace of Mopu which sits on an 8,000 foot high windy mountain shelf in the middle of the Himalayas, surrounded only by mountains almost as high as Mount Everest (the highest peak of which the locals have named “The Bare Goddess”).
“General Toda Rai” has offered Mopu to an order of nuns for them to turn into a school and dispensary for the natives. Mopu was built by the general’s father to house his concubines and has remained empty for years except for its caretaker "Angu Ayah" who is a bit crazy and lives there alone. Just above the palace sits the people’s “Holy Man”, who meditates there day and night in all weather. No one has ever heard him speak and the locals bring him food and offerings. In the valley below live the content, independent peasants who are oblivious to Western ways. Also living in the valley is the general’s agent, a handsome, sexually charged Englishman named "Mr. Dean”, who is to act as a handyman and help the nuns with anything they need.
Headed by the young and inexperienced “Sister Clodagh”, five nuns come to Mopu and its overwhelming beauty, strange atmosphere, clear air, ceaseless wind, and new people begin to cause the nuns to recall their pre-nun, human longings. As "Sister Philippa” works tirelessly in the garden and is suddenly haunted by things she wanted to forget before joining their order, she says to "Sister Clodagh” about Mopu, “I think you can see too far”, and later contends, "I think there are only two ways of living in this place. Either you must live like 'Mr. Dean' or like the 'Holy Man'. Either ignore it or give yourself up to it”. While the film is loaded with drama, humor, eroticism, and even a touch of horror, “Black Narcissus” is first and foremost a psychological character study, as each of the nuns battles with her past.
In particular are the struggles of “Sister Clodagh”, who finds herself yearning with sexual desire, and “Sister Ruth” who is burning with it, each aroused by “Dean”. As “Dean” says to “Sister Clodagh” while looking over an erotic drawing hanging on the wall, “Do you know what the people call this place? The House of Women”. To which she responds, “From now on it will be known as the House of Saint Faith”. And therein lies the film’s major conflict –passion versus faith. “Black Narcissus" is more entertainment than any kind of moral tale, though it does foster questions about spirit and flesh, repression, human nature, religion, and trying to rewrite life even if it goes against nature. The film was based on a 1939 novel “Black Narcissus” by Rumer Godden, and remains pretty faithful to it.
What separates this film from all others is its artistry. The aesthetics and flow are so magically presented that it comes off looking like an adult fairytale complete with villain. It’s all thanks to a superlative team of filmmakers headed by co-directors/producers/writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. A completely in sync creative team, they formed their own production company, The Archers, to ensure complete creative control over their films. "Black Narcissus" was their seventh under the The Archers banner, and their first film based on a novel. Pressburger's wife had read the book and told her husband it would make a great film. He read it, optioned the film rights, and presented it to Powell. As a team, Pressburger would create the original stories for their films (other than “Black Narcissus") and write the first draft of each script, and Powell did most of the directing. But both had input with everything except editing and music (which only Pressburger had a heavy hand in), and promotion (which Powell took over). They repeatedly hired the same cast and crew, and Powell would encourage the crew to offer their own input. Powell and Pressburger were a unique and ultra innovative team. I wrote more about them in my post on their other masterwork, "The Red Shoes". Just click on that title for more.
In order to control the look of “Black Narcissus” (the sets, lighting, wind, atmosphere, and colors), Powell decided the entire film would be shot at Pinewood Studios in England. Two of the key crew members who had worked with the duo before were German Set Designer/Art Director Alfred Junge (this was his eighth and final film with them) and cinematographer Jack Cardiff (this was his second of three films with them). Powell sat them both down from the beginning and had them all work together to make sure the cinematography and sets worked in unison, and were designed and built to accommodate the lighting and camerawork needed. The planning worked, for these remarkably lit sets create the kind of beauty that takes one’s breath away. They reek with authentic atmosphere and presence, and it’s shocking to know they were sets. For their work, Alfred Junge won a Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Academy Award, and Jack Cariff won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
“Black Narcissus” became famous for its extraordinary use of matte paintings (backgrounds painted on glass placed between the camera and action, that seamlessly combine with the live action). Mountain ranges and cliffs look like real places, and even those that look a bit painterly take on a magical realism. There is something to be said for a five-star matte painting! They emit an organic quality that rivals any digital special effect. The bulk of the action in “Black Narcissus” takes place inside Mopu, and its rooms are filled with hand carved objects, ornate woodwork, hand painted walls and murals that contain a weary, exotic mystery, and feel as if they’ve witnessed decades of drama. It is one of the most vivid and expressive sets I can think of in any film. About two days of filming took place outside the studio at the nearby Leonardslee Gardens in West Sussex. Its tropical garden served as the valley below Mopu and the setting for the closing scene.
Jack Cardiff's cinematography is remarkable, helping the sets look as if they are high on a cliff in the mountains, and that the palace is filled with energy – whether the wind blowing through the hallways, nuns scurrying about in the shadows, or a feeling that perhaps there’s the presence of lingering ghosts from the past. His use of color and lighting is nothing short of stupendous. He loved paintings, and indeed, every frame of this film looks as if it were painted by an Old Master. You can see the influence of Dutch painters such as Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer sprinkled throughout. A true artist of his own, Cardiff uses Technicolor and light as if he were a painter, achieving a look like no one else ever has. You can pick any scene as an example, whether it is the opening shot of the “Reverend Mother” in her off-white robes in an off-white room, dwarfed by a giant window with white shutters, or the ominous light from a candle held by “Sister Clodagh” while searching the palace halls for “Sister Ruth”. Red is used as a sign of giving in to passion, as when bathed in the reddish light of a sunset, wearing a red dress, or applying red lipstick, and there's even a fade to red when someone faints while overcome by desire. This film clearly shows why Cardiff was known as the greatest color cinematographer in cinema history, and you can read more about him in my posts on “The Red Shoes” and “The African Queen”.
“Black Narcissus” is one of the only films I can think of where the sets, color, and lighting elevate and drive the film without overpowering it. Notice how seeing Mopu from above on the edge of a cliff with its sheer drop induces a sense of danger and intrigue. Or how the constant nun's habits blowing in the breeze (even down hallways) help engender a feeling that they are being affected by the place no matter where they go. Or how the vibrant colors keep a sensually exotic feeling alive. These powerful elements work alongside the equally important costumes by Hein Heckroth (mentioned in my "The Red Shoes" post), and makeup by George Blacker, making for one truly unique and astounding artistic achievement.
Everything, including the film's performances, were supervised by the guiding hands of Powell and Pressburger. Their direction elevates all the elements, highlighting the sensuality and repression of the characters. They use close-ups in all the right places, focusing our attention on emotions and thoughts. I love how we don't see the face of “Sister Clodagh” in the first few shots of her, and then, bam, a close-up. Lush Indian-flavored music, the sound of drums, and ingenious use of dissolves and edits also help induce a dreamy exotic wonder. It's inspired direction.
Powell and Pressburger had a knack for evoking the sense of a dream world in their films, “Black Narcissus” included. There’s a spectacular moment when “Sister Clodagh” remembers going on a date with the man she loved. Excited about her future, she opens the door to complete blackness, runs out and disappears into it. So unexpected and such an exquisite touch. These are directors less interested in mirroring reality, more set on having their audience’s senses heightened. As the film continues and emotions rise, things get even more wonderfully expressionistic.
The pictorial beauty in “Black Narcissus” is supported by topnotch performances, headed by its talented star Deborah Kerr who plays “Sister Clodagh”. The youngest “Sister Superior” in the Order of the Servants of Mary, she tries her best to keep things in order at Mopu, but as things around her begin to crumble, she begins to fantasize about the life she wanted before joining the convent. And her attraction to “Dean” doesn’t help. Kerr brilliantly uses an economy of acting to show the hidden emotions brewing inside and you can see the struggles going on in her eyes as she’s torn between her chosen profession and her deep-rooted longings. All the other characters revolve her, and Kerr holds them all together with the utmost skill. Her magnificent performance earned her a New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress Award, and after this film she was whisked away to Hollywood, where she continued her stellar career.
Scottish-born Deborah Kerr began briefly in ballet before turning to acting, making her first stage appearance at the age of fifteen. Her first film was the 1940 Powell directed "Contraband", written by Pressburger, but her bit part as a cigarette girl was ultimately cut from the final film. Hungarian film producer/director Gabriel Pascal spotted her in a restaurant and cast her in his 1942 film "Major Barbara”, and she was a sensation. Pascal put her under contract and Kerr’s illustrious film career began. Leading roles followed, along with three roles in the Powell/Pressburger film "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" in 1943 (during which she had an affair with Powell). That film had Hollywood take notice of her. Three films later came "Black Narcissus", after which Pascal sold her contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Her Hollywood career began opposite Clark Gable in "The Hucksters", also in 1947. Two films later came 1949's "Edward, My Son", earning her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. Nicknamed Hollywood's "English Rose”, she found herself typecast as a prim and proper English lady. So in 1953 she left MGM and landed a breakthrough role in the Oscar-winning “From Here to Eternity”, playing an adulterous wife against type. It earned her a second Best Actress Oscar nomination and awareness of just how a versatile actress she was. Her career never waned and she continued to appear in film after film. In 1969, she did her first nude scene in “The Gypsy Moths”, and that same year appeared in “The Arrangement” before retiring from movies due to the types of parts she was being offered and the explicit sex and nudity in films. She did continue to work on television (earning one Emmy Award nomination) and in theater, and made one more film appearance in 1985's "The Assam Garden".
One of cinema’s most acclaimed actresses, Kerr appeared in 45 films, many of which are classics, and others include "An Affair to Remember", "The Innocents", "Separate Tables", "The Sundowners", "Julius Caesar", "Quo Vadis", "The Night of the Iguana", "King Solomon's Mines", "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison", and the Oscar-winning Rogers and Hammerstein movie musical, "The King and I". Between 1950 and 1961, Kerr earned six Best Actress Oscar nominations, never taking home the statue. In 1994, she was awarded an honorary Academy Award for being “An artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance”. She earned four BAFTA Best British Actress Award nominations between 1956 and 1965, never taking home that award, but in 1991, was awarded a BAFTA Special Award for her long and impressive career. In 1998 she was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Early in her career, to promote her and let audiences know how to correctly pronounce her last name, they billed her as “Kerr, rhymes with Star!”, and a star she was. Offscreen she was said to be very kind and shy, with a salty humor. She was married twice. Deborah Kerr died in 2007 at the age of 86. I actually got to see her closeup one year at the Oscars as we were all leaving the theater. I didn’t speak to her but, boy what a thrill!
Sabu plays “The Young General” who comes to Mopu to learn about Western culture. Sabu is filled with charm and innocence while managing to retain a royal air and dignity. Always decked out in opulent furs, coats, and jewels, “The Young General” is in stark contrast to the nuns, yet he is gentle, kind, and has a thirst for knowledge. It is one of his scarves scented with Black Narcissus, a cologne he picked-up at the Army Navy story in London, that gives the film its title.
Indian born Sabu was the son of an elephant rider (mahout) who served the Maharaja of Mysore. Sabu’s father died when he was a boy and he became a ward of the king. By chance, he was spotted by American filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who cast him in the title role of his 1937 British film "Elephant Boy" at thirteen years old. It was a hit, and so was Sabu. The film was produced by legendary film producer/director Alexander Korda, who put him under contract and brought him and his brother to England to be schooled and taught English. Korda then cast Sabu in 1938's"The Drum", which was another hit. His third film was the 1940 Korda and Powell co-directed classic "The Thief of Bagdad", which made him an international star. 1942's "The Jungle Book" followed, which was filmed in Hollywood and Sabu moved to the US and signed a contract with Universal Pictures. After making several films at Universal, he became an American citizen and served and fought in World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery. After the war his career floundered. His boyish youth had passed and because he was still pigeonholed into playing exotic characters, it was harder and harder for him to find roles let alone decent films. He appeared mostly in low-budget adventure films, with "Black Narcissus" being an exception. In his career, Sabu appeared in 23 films, others include "Arabian Nights", "Cobra Woman", "Rampage", and his final, 1964's "A Tiger Walks". He was married once until his death. Sabu died of a heart attack in 1963 at the young age of 39.
Adding much of the film’s eroticism is David Farrar as “Mr. Dean”, the general’s agent, often clad in short shorts and open shirt (or no shirt). Oozing with sex, masculinity, a reputation as a ladies’ man, and a surly but appealing devil-may-care attitude, “Dean” holds nothing back, nuns or no nuns. He seems to relish in challenging “Sister Cloydagh’s” authority, and ask questions with sexual connotations, such as when he asks her “Don’t you like children?” before coyly looking at her. Or more boldly, when he brings the teenage girl “Kanchi” to Mopu, and asks “Sister Cloydagh”, “You’re sure there’s no question you’re dying to ask me?”, followed by his mischievous grin as she looks back and forth at “Kanchi” and him, and sternly replies “Nope”. Like all the characters in “Black Narcissus”, “Dean” has his skeletons, as it’s clear he can’t express his true emotions for “Sister Cloydagh”. It is a fascinating character, well-played by Farrar, and it made him famous.
English-born David Farrar began as a journalist before turning to theater in his early twenties. Spotted by a talent scout, he began working in 1937 with an uncredited role in "The Face Behind the Scar", followed by larger roles, leads in low-budget films, and smaller roles in better films. Powell saw him in a film and fully impressed by Farrar and his violet eyes, put him under contract to The Archers for three films (the only actor ever under contract to The Archers). His twenty-third film was "Black Narcissus", which made him a star and Hollywood noticed. Farrar starred in two more Powell/Pressburger films, "The Small Back Room" ("Hour of Glory" in the US) in 1949, and "Gone to Earth" in 1950. He made his Hollywood debut starring opposite Ann Blyth in 1951's "The Golden Horde", and shortly after found himself playing mostly villains or the third lead in films like "Escape to Burma" and "The Sea Chase". He returned to the UK in the early 1960s, and his last film was "The 300 Spartans" in 1962. After appearing in forty-nine films and four TV shows, fearing he was going to start playing fathers and uncles, he retired. He was married once for over thirty years, until his wife's death. David Farrar died in 1995 at the age of 87.
Flora Robson portrays “Sister Philippa”, the nun in charge of the garden at Mopu. Robson gives a warm and sensitive performance, and as such, one can honesty feel this woman’s pain. She brings a realistic calm and seriousness, contributing just the right tone to round out the drama.
A highly respected English actress, Flora Robson had a flourishing sixty year career in theater, films, and TV. She began in the theater in 1921, though it was initially difficult for her to get jobs because she wasn't considered pretty. Eventually her talent shined through and she began to land stage role after stage role, including leads in "The Cherry Orchard" and Ibsen's “Rosmersholm”, and went on to become one of the great ladies of the stage. Her film career began in 1931 with an uncredited role in "A Gentleman of Paris", and in 1937, she famously played Queen Elizabeth I in "Fire Over England", opposite Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. She played Queen Elizabeth again in the 1940 Hollywood film "The Sea Hawk", starring Errol Flynn. Some of her other classic films include "Wuthering Heights", "Murder at the Gallop", "Caesar and Cleopatra", "Romeo and Juliet", "55 Days at Peking", and "Saratoga Trunk" in 1945, for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (her only). Her final film was 1981's "Clash of the Titans". For all her inspiring work as an actress, Robson was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1952, and raised to Dame Commander (DBE) in 1960. She never married. Dame Flora Robson died in 1984 at the age of 82.
There happened to be many Indians by the docks in Rotherhithe, England at the time of “Black Narcissus”, and that’s where Powell found extras for the film, including Eddie Whaley Jr. who is excellent as “Joseph Anthony”. As was common custom in those days, two major Indian roles were played by British Caucasian actors made-up to look like Indians. One was Esmond Knight as "The Old General", and the other, Jean Simmons as “Kanchi”.
Without speaking a word of dialogue in the film, Jean Simmons paints a consummate portrait of the seventeen year old orphaned girl who “Dean” brings to live and work with the nuns at Mopu. “Kanchi” is of the age where she needs to marry, and her hormones are clearly raging. “Kanchi’s” eyes were first set on “Dean”, until she caught sight of “The Young General”. Just watch the little look she gives after spying on “The Young General” through the window, and then proceeds to do a sensual dance alone in the room. The whole sequence is sensational, dripping with lustfulness. Simmons is outstanding.
While in school studying dance, English born Jean Simmons was spotted and cast in the 1944 film "Give Us the Moon". More film roles followed and in 1945 she signed with the J. Arthur Rank Organisation. The 1946 David Lean classic "Great Expectations" made her a British star and hot property. While signed with Laurence Olivier to appear as "Ophelia" in his film version of "Hamlet", Powell desperately wanted her for "Black Narcissus". Powell and Olivier fought each other to get her, and in the end they worked out their production schedules so she could appear in both films. She earned excellent reviews for both and her first Academy Award nomination (Best Supporting Actress) for "Hamlet". She was now starring in films such as "Uncle Silas", "The Blue Lagoon", and "Cage of Gold” (opposite Farrar). Simmons starred opposite Stewart Granger in 1949’s "Adam and Evelyne" and they fell in love and married. When Granger was signed to MGM, he and Simmons moved to Los Angeles in 1950. In Hollywood, she became a major leading actress and star known for her beauty and incredible talent and in her career, appeared in just shy of 100 films and TV shows. Her numerous other classics include "Spartacus", "Elmer Gantry", "The Big Country", "Guys and Dolls", "The Robe", "Désirée", "The Actress", and "The Happy Ending" in 1968 which earned her a second and final Oscar nomination (Best Actress). Her final film was the 2009 independent British production "Shadows in the Sun". Simmons won an Emmy Award for her work in the 1983 TV miniseries "The Thorn Birds" and garnered a second nomination for her appearance on a 1984 episode of “Murder, She Wrote”. She was awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 2003. Married and divorced twice, her second husband was director Richard Brooks. Jean Simmons died in 2010 at age the age of 80. I briefly got to meet her years ago, and she was very cordial.
The last character and actor I’ll mention is "Sister Ruth” played by Kathleen Byron. “Sister Ruth” is by far the showiest role in the film and Byron tackles it with tremendous artfulness. We are told even before we meet her that "Sisters Ruth" is ill and being a nun might not be her proper vocation. Byron expertly shows us a woman being overtaken by sexual desire and jealousy. It is riveting work, enhanced by expressionistic makeup, Cardiff's colors, and the manner with which Powell presents her. Byron earned a New York Film Critics Best Actress Circle Award nomination for her fabulous work.
English born Kathleen Byron trained at the Old Vic Theatre School and shortly after appeared in Carol Reed's 1942 film "The Young Mr. Pitt". Next came the part of a schoolmistress in 1943's "The Silver Fleet" based upon a story by Pressburger. She then married an American pilot and moved to the US. Byron had trouble finding work there and Powell asked her to return to Britain to appear in his and Pressburger's 1946 film "A Matter of Life and Death". "Black Narcissus" was next, followed by another of the duo's films, "The Small Back Room", starring Farrar. Byron had affairs with both Powell and Farrar (at different times), and her marriage ended in 1950. She briefly tried her hand again in Hollywood, and appeared in "Young Bess" starring Simmons, but quickly returned to Britain. In the mid 1950's she began working extensively on British TV, and by her final appearance in the British TV miniseries "Perfect Strangers" in 2001, she accrued 120 film and TV credits. Her other films include "Madness of the Heart", "Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, "The Elephant Man", "Emma", and her final film appearance as "Old Mrs. Ryan" in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film "Saving Private Ryan". She remarried in 1953, lasting until her death. Kathleen Byron died in 2009 at the age of 88.
The direction and cinematography in "Black Narcissus" have been credited as influencing many films, everything from the 2013 Walt Disney animated film "Frozen" to Martin Scorsese's 1986 film "The Color of Money". Scorsese has consistently cited Powell and Pressburger as having the biggest influence on his career and is currently set to executive produce and narrate a documentary about the two. In 2020, a new adaptation of "Black Narcissus" was made into a TV miniseries, but it doesn't capture any of the charisma found in this film.
Aside from being considered among the most erotically charged films ever made, this week’s classic will provide absolute proof of the vital role color, lighting, and sets can play in films. When done well, as in this film, they create magic. So sit back and enjoy the utterly ravishing and thoroughly entertaining, “Black Narcissus”!
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