Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Tribute to The Archers: The Powell & Pressburger Blogathon – Black Narcissus (1947)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger Blogathon, which is being hosted by The Classic Film and TV Café from March 25-28.  For a complete list of the movies spotlighted and the participating blogs, click here.

"Every time I saw The Archers logo, I knew I was in for something special..." -- Martin Scorsese, director

In the remote Himalayas, a former seraglio known by the locals as “the House of Women” has been turned over to a convent of Anglican nuns in Calcutta for the purposes of building a school and medical dispensary.  The Mother Superior (Nancy Roberts) assigns Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) to the task of overseeing the construction of hospital/school, in addition to choosing the nuns that will staff the facility.  The sisters will not be a welcome presence at the palace of Mopu, however; the British agent (David Farrar), known as Mr. Dean, has argued with “The Old General” (Esmond Knight) that the palace is simply not suitable for what the convent plans to establish.  The caretaker of the “House of Women,” a squirrelly old woman (May Hallatt) known as Angu Ayah, is inclined to agree with Dean.

The Sisters of Mary make a game attempt of converting the palace for their purposes, and receive assistance from young Joseph Anthony (Eddie Whaley, Jr.), who acts as interpreter.  Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) is overseeing the gardening, while Sister Briony (Judith Furse) has been put in charge of the clinic.  Sisters Blanche (Jenny Laird) and Ruth (Kathleen Byron) will instruct the students—Sister Blanche, beloved by the other sisters to the point that she is often referred to as “Sister Honey,” is a complete 180 from the troubled Ruth, who the Mother Superior acknowledges “is a problem.” 

And the atmosphere of the palace—with its high altitude and constantly blowing winds—begins to have a disturbing effect on the sisters; Sister Philippa, despite her dedication to the garden, experiences a crisis of faith and asks Sister Clodagh to be transferred from her post.  Sister Clodagh herself has difficulty keeping her mind on running the outpost; her thoughts frequently drift back to the time before she took her vows and was romantically involved with her childhood sweetheart Con (Shaun Noble) in her native Ireland.  The day-to-day activities of the school are also interrupted with the arrival of a lower caste dancing girl, Kanchi (Jean Simmons), who becomes infatuated with “The Young General” (Sabu), a prince who attends the convent school to further his studies.

It is Sister Ruth who suffers the most from the “exaggerated” atmosphere of the convent; she has become obsessed with Dean and announces that she is leaving the order (the nuns are only required to renew their vows on a yearly basis) despite Sister Clodagh’s attempts to persuade her to stay.  Ruth goes to Dean’s quarters one evening and attempts to seduce him but he rebuffs her advances…and in a crazed, feverish state Ruth, convinced that Sister Clodagh is responsible, tries to murder the Sister Superior but ends up falling to her own death.  Their experiment a failure, the nuns of the abandoned St. Faith are making plans to return to Calcutta as a hard rain starts to fall—leaving as, just as Dean predicted, “the rains break.”

I don’t remember the very first time I ever saw Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947)—but I also don’t remember ever not seeing it.  The TDOY faithful know that if I happen to see it listed among the offerings on TCM in any given month, I will generally single it out for praise as “you have to see this film if you haven’t already.”  It’s my favorite of the many wonderful Powell-Pressburger collaborations; at a time when British cinema was perceived by both homegrown moviegoers and foreign film enthusiasts to be a little too genteel and stodgy, Powell and Pressburger frequently made films with an emotional center…and in Narcissus, adapted from the novel by Rumer Godden, the two men were responsible for what Danny Peary once succinctly summed up in Guide For the Film Fanatic as “an erotic masterpiece about nuns.”

I’m a product of parochial education—I attended a Catholic school in St. Albans, WV until the fourth grade when my family then moved to Ravenswood and I was thereafter eased into the public school system.  (I’m pretty sure that none of the nuns at that school ever looked as sexy as Deborah Kerr in her habit, the hands-down winner of the cinematic “hot nun” contest [taking the crown, or wimple, if you will, from Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s]).  But in the nuns’ defense, the location and background of the Mopu palace, where the sisters have been assigned to construct their hospital and school, creates a mysterious atmosphere of only slightly restrained erotic tension…something completely foreign to the environs of St. Francis of Assisi.

"It's only a model..." (Shh!)
From the moment a viewer witnesses the opening shots of the movie, it’s astonishing to learn that the entire production of Narcissus wasn’t filmed anywhere near India…but was instead constructed at Pinewood Studios, using models and matte/landscape paintings (the outdoor scenes were lensed at Leonardslee Gardens, the home of an Indian army veteran who had planted the suitable flora).  Director Powell didn’t want to film “half-and-half” (half in studio, half on location) and though he could have filmed in India he chose not to—which I think has always helped the film immeasurably, contributing to the claustrophobic environs of the convent.  The end result is incredibly convincing—cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who won an Oscar for his breathtaking cinematography (Alfred Junge also nabbed a trophy for Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration), once mused that after the film came out a friend of his commented that he’d actually seen “the Indian locations” used in the film!

Deborah Kerr was singled out as Best Actress by the New York Film Critics (an honor that she shared with another film favorite of mine, 1946’s I See a Dark Stranger); Powell admitted in an interview that while he felt she was too young for the part she did an extraordinary job.  (The two had collaborated previously in the 1943 Powell-Pressburger feature The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.)  It’s my favorite of Kerr’s many screen performances, but even I’ll admit that she has her work cut out for her coming up against Kathleen Byron, whose tragic Sister Ruth—I’m always reminded of that wonderful Peter Sellers line from Dr. Strangelove, “went a little funny in the head”—puts Narcissus in a little black bag and walks off with the movie for points unknown.  (Byron, who later came to Hollywood to appear in Young Bess [1953] with her previous Narcissus co-stars Kerr and Jean Simmons, once related an anecdote that as she got into a taxicab the driver immediately recognized her as “that mad nun!”)  Byron had also appeared in one of the team’s earlier films, a small part as the recording angel in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and would later work again with “Mickey” and Emeric in The Small Back Room (1949).  The conflict/tension between the characters played by Kerr and Byron has a little verisimilitude when you know that director Powell had had a previous affair with Kerr and was currently enjoying one with Byron at the time of Narcissus’ filming.  (Powell would later write of the incident: “It was a situation not uncommon in show business, I was later told, but it was new to me.”)

Michael Powell was quite fond of reusing actors with whom he had worked previously in his productions, hence the casting of Sabu as the “Young General” (Sabu was the star of 1940s The Thief of Bagdad, co-directed by Powell) whose intoxicating perfume gives Black Narcissus its title.  It would be the first time Powell would work with David Farrar, however; though not the last—Farrar would appear in four additional films helmed by the writer-director team, the last being his narration of The Battle of the River Plate in 1956 (Powell observed that Farrar could have had an impressive career in pictures had the actor not walked away from it all).  It was also the first occasion where the team employed the talents of Jean Simmons; Powell had spotted her in a small role in 1945’s The Way to the Stars and wanted her for Narcissus…the only problem being that Sir Laurence Olivier also wanted Jean to be his Ophelia in his production of Hamlet (1948).  They were able to work out a system so that Jean could be in both…but Larry was positively agog when he saw Simmons as the sensual Kanchi in Narcissus—he had difficulty believing it was the same “Ophelia.”

As many times as I’ve seen Black Narcissus, I’ve never been able to detect any mention that the nuns in the movie are of a Catholic origin…but that didn’t stop the Catholic Church from objecting to the picture when it was released in the U.S. in 1947.  For a good many years, the print of the movie available on these shores was whittled down considerably—the casualty being the scenes in which Deborah Kerr’s nun thinks back on her former life in Ireland.  But the repressed sexuality on display in Narcissus no doubt had the Church a little concerned as well.  I remember talking a friend of mine into watching the film with me and at one point she remarked: “Well, no wonder Sister Ruth is so jealous of Sister Clodagh—that Dean fellow has got it bad for her because she’s so hot!”

Michael Powell believed that Walt Disney was the greatest of all filmmakers, and the influence of the pioneering animator is prevalent through Black Narcissus—Martin Scorsese accurately described the movie as “a cross between Disney and a horror film” (there’s a lot of Val Lewton in this pic) and has acknowledged that many of the shots have influenced his films, such as The King of Comedy (1983) and The Color of Money (1986).  Narcissus is part of an amazing trilogy of films on which Powell-Pressburger collaborated with Jack Cardiff (whose influences include the paintings of Vermeer and other masters), the first being A Matter of Life and Death (another favorite of mine, especially that one-of-a-kind monochromatic cinematography) and followed by what may be everybody’s favorite Powell-Pressburger masterpiece, The Red Shoes (1948).  But for me, I find myself returning to this incredible film time and time again, from its opening scenes of studio-filmed majesty to the cathartic, cleansing rains that close the picture.  “It makes everything seem exaggerated,” laments Farrar’s Dean about the spell the abandoned palace casts upon its new tenants…but it’s also sheer moviemaking magic.


ClassicBecky said...

Ivan, I adore The Red Shoes as a fantasy of great beauty and uninhibited emotion, where Anton Walbrook is the frightening character whose actions are not easy to predict. I adore Black Narcissus as a picture of reality in a fantasy setting, with Kathleen Byron as the also frightening and unpredictable character. I too never miss the chance to watch this movie, and am always mesmerized by it as if it were the first time.

It is incredible to find out that no location shots were used! What a masterpiece of set design. The restrained sexuality between Kerr and Farrar is perfectly done, and Byron's extreme emotionalism about Farrar is the perfect foil. One scene that struck me particularly was Kerr opening the door to Byron's room in the convent, and Byron has changed to a seductive dress and just as seductively applies bright red lipstick. It was scary and erotic.

I loved your anaysis: "Scorsese accurately described the movie as “a cross between Disney and a horror film” (there’s a lot of Val Lewton in this pic)." I couldn't agree more about the Lewton style as so similar.

Excellent review, Ive, well worth waiting for! (Oh, and those nuns are Anglican, not Catholic. There is no Catholic order that does year-to-year vows.)

Page said...

Thanks for giving us a behind the scenes view into Black Narcissus. This was the first film where I laid eyes on Sabu and after that I was so intrigued by him I tried to watch every film he was in going forward. Then there's Jean Simmons who smoldered. I've never been a big Kerr fan but this was one film that I enjoyed her immensely, Perhaps I should give credit to Pressburger and Powell for that.

It's unbelievable that the backdrops and what we assumed were actual exotic locations were all fantasy, creations by the studio. Glad that you pointed that out here.

I'm both surprised and delighted that this is a Powell, Pressburger collaboration as I thought I had only seen two of their films going in to this Blogathon.

Interesting info on the Catholic Church and their reaction to this film, although I can see it given the times.

An interesting and well thought out review Ivan! Oh, and thanks so much for including your own viewing experience, your companies opinions while watching Black Narcissus.

Caftan Woman said...

The Archers made that hilltop convent that never was a real and haunting figure to generations of movie fans. When you used the world "breathtaking" to describe the cinematography it was perfect. The look of the film is overwhelmingly beautiful. Another unique vision from Powell and Pressburger, and a fabulous article.

Rick29 said...

Ivan, I agree with you on so many counts! BLACK NARCISSUS is my favorite Archers film, features my favorite Deborah Kerr performance, and contains an incredible performance from Kathleen Byron. I could never understand why Ms. Byron didn't get better parts as a result. She was also fabulous in a small role in one of my favorite 1960s horror films, NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (aka BURN, WITCH, BURN...which is very Lewtonesque). Cardiff's use of Technicolor is masterful and I can't think of a more stunning color film (even vivid color masterpieces like THE WIZARD OF OZ). Thematically, BLACK NARCISSUS is rich with its interwoven fabric of hidden desires, overpowering surroundings, and struggles with faith. The term "one of a kind" is used far too frequently, but this is one where it's appropriate. I can't think of an Archers blogathon without it and so I thank you profusely.

whistlingypsy said...

Ivan ~ thank you for your excellent and thought provoking review of one of P&P’s equally provocative films. I was fortunate to see this film for the first time when it was screened at a local museum, and I’m afraid I was rather spoiled for watching it on television; the experience simply isn’t the same. However, the trio of P&P films from “The Red Shoes” to “A Matter of Life and Death” to “Black Narcissus” convinced me as a young person that contemporary films were doing something really wrong. The world of a Powell and Pressburger film can range from the esoteric to the mundane, but one element links them all: a stunning visual vocabulary and a fundamentally personal story. I, like you, had a brief experience with parochial education, and I can’t recall being frightened by the living personification of a nun as I was by Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth. I liked that P&P cast Kathleen Byron and David Farrar as lovers in "The Small Back Room", after their characters were so frustrated in "Black Narcissus" (thank you for including a link to my post).

Classicfilmboy said...

Loved it. I'm with you in that this is my favorite P&P film. This post is filled with so much information that I don't know where to start. The juxtaposition of religion and eroticism would be frowned upon today let alone in 1947, which is one reason this film surprises. That P&P brought their considerable talents to create a unique film with such breathtaking scope and depth is to be applauded.

Citizen Screen said...


Wonderful synopsis of the film. This is, sadly, the only P&P film I've seen and recently at that. I was quite shocked by it on several levels. maybe disturbed even. Striking film! Gripping - Visually and thematically. I'm astonished to find out it was filmed in a studio.

Really enjoyed your post. I think I may have to revisit this film. then again, I don't know if I've the guts to.


PS - First time I visit your blog. LOVE IT!

Kevyn Knox said...

Great piece on a great film.

My second favourite Powell/Pressburger, after The Red Shoes (yeah yeah, so predictable). The brazen sensuality of this film is quite shocking the first time you see it (and I actually remember when that was, only about three years ago actually, having coming to The Archers, now my beloved Archers, quite late in life) and especially the sensual nature of Kerr's performance.

And yes, she is a very hot nun - though I become more transfixed on the burning carnality of Byron's Sister Ruth. The lustful ferocity in her eyes as she seems to burn through the very screen I am watching her on, is enough to freeze and fry a man's soul simultaneously.

Again, great post. Wish I could have been part of such a tasty (and quite racy) blogathon.

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Ivan, I often go back and forth deciding whether this or The Red Shoes is my favorite P&P film. This films holds a strange but special place in my heart due to my former convent life--some of the characters remind me of nuns I knew. Overall, it's just a great film. Nice review.

R. D. Finch said...

Ivan, it's good to see you contributing to the blogathon and with such a wonderfully written post. I especially liked the sections where you discuss the cast and characters.

It IS hard to believe it was all filmed in England. I've been to Leonardslee and it didn't much look like India to me, although it was full of rhododendrons! Maybe this movie is a good illustration of the fact that by stylizing and exaggerating our mental images of a place, Powell makes it seem like the real thing, only more so. But then Powell was a visual magician who knew how to hypnotize us into believing what we were seeing was real when it was actually a carefully crafted illusion. The whole film has a unique atmosphere and look that stay with you long after watching it.

I was certainly surprised when I learned that the original US release version didn't contain the flashback that explains why Kerr became a nun. It seems an essential part of her character and her wonderful performance.

All in all, a great post on a film that it's clear you and a good number of others are crazy about.

Stacia said...

Jack Cardiff, who won an Oscar for his breathtaking cinematography (Alfred Junge also nabbed a trophy for Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration), once mused that after the film came out a friend of his commented that he’d actually seen “the Indian locations” used in the film!

I heard Cardiff say this on that recent TCM documentary, and I immediately wondered if photos were used when creating the sets and the matte paintings. If so, it would stand to reason that real, recognizable mountains might have been used.

Great write-up on a film you obviously adore, Ivan! Like Kevyn, I had considered being part of the 'thon, and my comments on my favorite Archers film (Peeping Tom) would have been "quite racy" indeed.

Dawn said...

I saw this film for the first time last year. What stood out most for me was the the beautiful photography, atmosphere and sets.

This maybe my favorite Deborah Kerr performance.

I also really enjoyed this very haunting story about what happens between two nuns, which comes to a head at the bell tower.

John said...


I am embarrassed to say I have this film in my collection for years now and never watched it. Why? I don't know, the few Powell films I have seem, I loved, and Deborah Kerr is a classy actress who always brings her "A" game. And you're right no nun ever looked as sexy as Deborah Kerr! How about that for impure thoughts! It's not surprising the Legion of Decency had a problem with the film's depiction of nuns. I love Scorsese's comparison of the film as a "cross between Disney and a horror film.” A great and entertaining review. Now all I need to do is dig out the DVD and watch it!

John Greco

Christian Esquevin said...

Ivan, wonderful review of Black Narcissus. For some reason I have always been only able to see only portions of this film rather than its entirety. It has thrilled me nonetheless with its superb acting and cinematography. I'm looking forward to the day when I can watch it all, spurred by your great piece about it.

Kristen said...

Excellent work! I've seen Black Narcissus on many a film site and recommended by numerous critics. I really need to see it!