on September 7, 2005
One day, while I was washing the dishes, I turned on the TV and started flipping through channels, landing on "Black Narcissus", which was just ending. I had tuned in to the big climax, so I, of course, didn't fully understand what was going on, but after seeing the ending I thought, "I have to see this movie!!!" I was mesmerized by the images, the music, the acting, everything! Luckily, the same channel was rerunning the film later that night, so I was able to tape it and watch it the next day.
"Black Narcissus" is truly a cinematic classic. It won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and it is no wonder. The recreation of Mopu Palace on the mountain with its incredible drop are amazing and very realistic, especially for the 1940s. There are so many scenes that I love, but I don't want to give away the plot. The climactic ending is incredible, as is the "lipstick" scene between Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron)and Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr). I also love Sister Clodagh's flashback scenes, especially the one where Sister Clodagh's face is superimposed on the face of the character as a young woman, before she became a nun, telling the man she loves "I want to stay like this the rest of my life". A poignant moment when we realize that she became a nun to escape the shame of a failed love affair.
The movie can be rather strange at times; I found May Hallatt's character to be overdone in certain scenes, but at other times she is brilliant. Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth is unforgettable, and Deborah Kerr is excellent, as usual. All the actors are quite good in their roles.
I wouldn't say that this movie is for everyone, but if you like good cinema, then give it a try.
on January 3, 2004
The Criterion DVD edition of "Black Narcissus" brings out the most brilliant aspects of the film, a brightness and splendor that makes the drab Order of Mary nuns re-think a few things. The magnificent & exotic locale, high in the Himalayas, as well as clashing cultures trying to meld, make this a most absorbing experience. Okay, the nuns take a castle in the mountains to teach the locals. That's all I'll tell of the plot. The psychological experiences of each nun are vividly portrayed, as well as the intrusion of a local girl and an Indian prince. A very mystic atmosphere pervades, and the nuns start thinking mundane thoughts. Ah! The mystery of the mountains! It's a bit of a downer to find out that you're not seeing the Himalayas in their splendor; rather, all was filmed on a stage in England. The Oscar-winning art direction and cinematography are totally responsible for creating this wonderfully mysterious place. The Criterion version preserves the phenomenal photography, with colors clashing against each other, creating a visual display of the confusion those poor nuns were facing. Indeed, they all changed, in one way or another. Clear and crisp, you can see every facial wrinkle and every minute detail of costumes and jewelry. A fine achievement. Shadows against sunlight, and brilliant color...quite lovely. It's fun to see a post-adolescent Sabu, though here he plays a fancy young guy and looks uncomfortable, considering his greatest fame came wearing a much more comfortable loincloth. The rest of the acting is excellent, without exception. Deborah Kerr, in one of her first big roles, is commanding, as well as Kathleen Byron, Flora Robson, David Farrar, and an amazing performance by a 17-year old Jean Simmons, as a little Indian tart. I was most taken with the performance of May Hallatt as the crazy caretaker of the palace, who really put a lot in perspective. It's impressive that director Powell and writer Pressburger were in such close collaboration that they took equal credit for everything. As the liner notes tell, England was slow to recover after WW II, and watching the English nuns leave the most spiritual surroundings somehow suggest that the English had no business in India. They didn't understand their surroundings. Interesting. (David Lean's wonderful "A Passage to India" had a similar message). There is a cleansing rainstorm as the nuns leave, which suggests that life will go on, as usual, though the look on Farrar's face at the end is less than hopeful. My favorite moment is when May Hallatt finds out a bunch of "ladies" will be coming, expecting the old days of the harems. Imagine her surprise when she gets a bunch of nuns. If you haven't seen this film already, prepare yourself for a truly visual treat. Young filmmakers should see this, to learn about plot/character development, real conflict & resolution. I'm glad to own it.I
on June 23, 2003
Being a huge fan of the artistic team's Stairway to Heaven (AKA A Matter of Life and Death) and The Red Shoes, and after reading the glowing reviews in regards to this film, my expectations were very high going in. Unfortunately, I felt that I had been let down. Sure, the cinematography is brilliant. A technicolor wonderland, lush and vivid. But beyond the visual feast lies a story that, by today's standards, is just a tad Pythonesque.
Hot house nuns with barely suppressed libidos, cloistered in a Himalayan potentate's former love palace, with appropriately erotic artwork festooned upon every wall. A British agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar) showing up in short shorts and sometimes bare chested, never mind the fact that the convent/school is situated in the foothills of the Himalayas at 8000 ft. with the wind constantly ripping through the windows (which no one seems able to close). A subplot involving a young Jean Simmons made up to like a tartish Bengali dancing girl thrown into the mix to provide a bit more sexual tension (a screenwriter's rip off of Bessy Watty from The Corn is Green, produced a year previous to this film and still fresh in viewers' minds). Add to this the fact that, when habited, Kathleen Byron looks remarkably similar to Paul Rubens (Pee Wee Herman), and you have the makings of a camp classic.
In all honesty, if you want a film with an interesting script as well as sexually frustrated nuns, I would highly recommend that you purchase a copy of Ken Russell's The Devils. That film has held up well over time and has a much better pedigree (adapted from Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon)to back it up. Despite the rave reviews you may hear about this Archer production, it's really just 100 minutes of silliness.
on June 19, 2003
The first time I saw Black Narcissus, I was amazed by the use of light and color. That and the EXTREMELY good use of dialog and atmosphere to convey thoughts to you. Several times while watching this movie it was the unsaid lines, what I knew the characters were THINKING that had a strong impact.
Upon viewing documentaries about the making of this movie masterpiece, I came to further realize it also had some of the finest special effects you will ever see. Even though there are blue-screens and miniatures used, and almost the entire movie was shot on a sound stage (that's right, those clouds adn mountains are PAINTED backgrounds), you would NEVER guess it without being told. I was shocked when I found out.
After seeing this movie again recently, I must confess that this movie is a shing example of what great acting is all about. At the start of the movie, everyone is very much one kind of person. There's a great scene where almost all the nuns are in one room, and each one has something to say. One nun is sweet and good natured, another strong and sensible, their leader is cold as an iceberg and totally in control. And of course, one of the nuns is not quite right. Her comments are negative, sharp, and harsh (to say nothing of erratic). As the environment, isolation, and ATMOSPHERE of their surrounds start to get to them, you'll see the strong surface layer (the mask if you will) that each character carefully displays break down, leaving only their raw emotional core. AMAZING. And speaking of amazing...
As I said before, the first time I saw this movie, I was completely blown away by the use of color. But nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of what you see on the DVD. Truly it has to be seen to be believed. The crystal-clear, super-vibrant totally unbelievable color on this DVD truly has to be seen to be appreciated. Do NOT see this movie on VHS, see it on DVD. Several keys scenes would lose much of their power. In particular, the scenes of incredible drama and suspense to be found at the end of the movie come to mind. When one of the characters is getting paler and paler (to the point where the scene almost looks black and white), and then you see her in a BRIGHT RED DRESS wearing BRIGHT RED LIPSTICK, the use of color is positively SHOCKING.
What can I say? Every film made by the unstoppable dream team who called themselves "The Archers" is great stuff. But this movie is beyond great. It is the single greatest example of use of light and color I have ever seen in a movie. To give it four stars would be a disturbing insult. It deserves six at least.
on February 24, 2003
My DVD player has allowed me to discover such a wide variety of films. BLACK NARCISSUS is one of them. I had put this film in the back of my mind and thought that one day I should rent it. I think I had read somewhere that its cinematography was gorgeous. Then my sister told me about the film - she had seen it in Atlanta during a rerelease.
I finally rented -and have ultimately purchased it. This is what I discovered about BLACK NARCISSUS: it is a British film. It used the cumbersome Technicolor technology in new ways (especially during low-light scenes). And its art direction and use of color is gorgeous!
The thing I like most about the film is its fabulous atmosphere. It is shot almost entirely on sound stages, so it has that wonderful studio feel with art direction to die for! The story takes place in the Himalayas and concerns a group of Anglican nuns who attempt to establish their order there. Deborah Kerr plays the head nun, who must keep her group together despite the tough circumstances.
Nuns in the Himalayas? Contrary to your initial pessimism, the film is very erotic. One of the nuns freaks out, and the entire climax of the film rivals any of Hitchcock's famous sequences.
Criterion provides some excellent behind the scenes info on the disc. Those who do not know the directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (like me!), will find the supplementary material interesting.
on May 21, 2002
I can't think of another film that has the same feeling of exotic atmosphere that's found in this haunting story. The title comes from a flower with an enticing perfume.
A beautiful young Irish nun, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is sent off to an area in the Himalayan Mountains to establish a new convent. She's an extremely intelligent and competent woman, but the surroundings of the convent add an element of uneasiness and longing to the lives of the nuns. The building had been a harem at one point and the place is completely unsuitable for a convent. Sister Clodagh starts to dwell on her past life as do some of the other nuns which makes for an unsettled feeling within the convent. Kanchi, (Jean Simmons) is a young native woman who adds sensuality and mystery to the film when she flirts with the Young General played by Sabu. The difficult local agent, Mr. Dean provides a masculine influence that effects the sinister Sister Ruth, who is already very disturbed. All of the performances are great!
Rumer Godden, is the very talented author of this story. She's written many memorable books which have been made into films. Another of her classic stories is IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE. The movie version features Diana Rigg in the part of a woman who becomes a cloistered nun.
BLACK NARCISSUS is beautifully filmed and worth seeing..
on January 3, 2002
Black Narcissus stands as a peak film in the career of Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger. A flawless script centered on the personal experiences of a group of nuns that live in the Himalayas. The beauty of the place, the beauty of Nature all soon start to have a strange effect on those women. This is a movie about the conflicts between spirit and flesh. And what a film!
On top of it we have a impecable cast and what I believe to be the best cinematography work I have ever experienced - courtesy of the great Mr. Jack Cardiff. The cinematography IS BREATHTAKING. As breathtaking as nothing I have ever seen on the technicolor days.
I disagree with one reviewer who complained that Criterion Collection failed to bring us this film just because the aspect ratio was 1.33:1 (instead of a widescreen version). I strongly disagree with that idea and I must recall that Black Narcissus was made in 1947. At that time films had the 1.33:1 ratio. Widescreen only came up in the early 50's. It happeened that later on, some films had a fake-widescreen effect just for re-release purposes. Black Narcissus was filmed using a technicolor process involving 3 negatives and its correct aspect ratio was 1.33:1.
Criterion's edition of Black Narcissus is a gem. A great buy. You will never see anything like this again!
on December 27, 2001
A truly great film, a blending of the rare and unique. Great performances all around set amidst the lush color and tone created by the best use of Technicolor I have ever seen.
However, it should be noted, for those who love this film that the Criterion DVD release is not without some severe flaws.
Scenes have been cut (Kanji's dance sequence,) the color mixing is imprecise at times (the way Sister Ruth's eyes glow blue in the scene at Mister Dean's house.) Also, a critical mistake was that the Criterion release is available only in 4:3 aspect ratio - you may NOT view it letterboxed nor is there an option to view it in the widescreen 16:9 format. These may seem like trivial objections to those who have never seen the film before or those who do not have HDTV or wide screen televisions. For the film lover, for the purist, these objections are neither trivial nor without gravity. To see Black Narcissus as it was meant to be seen, without missing scenes and in widescreen, that is what the Criterion release could have been but is not.
That having been said, this is still a great film, with many interesting extras (commentary track by Scorcese and Powell.)
For those who share an intimate passion for this film - brace yourself for the Criterion DVD release, an opportunity lost to bring one of the great films, preserved and intact to the home screen.
on December 3, 2001
It is rare that a cinematographer gets credited with the success of a film before the producer director or even actor, but this has been the case recently with Black Narcissus. This is high praise indeed when you consider the directors and producers were Powell and Pressburger. Although his screen credit was prominent enough at the time the picture was made, since Jack Cardiff won Best Cinematographer (Color) Academy Award in 1947, his profile was raised further.
Cardiff's Special Academy Award last year recognises his contributions to this film, The Red Shoes, A Matter Of Life And Death and Rambo among others. The fact that Technicolor was still a developing technique makes Cardiff's achievements even more remarkable. The subtle contrasts he achieves particularly in the shooting of landscape scenery and locations are usually only achieved with monochrome photography. The splendid costumes on the other hand, provide rich reds, yellows and greens to contrast with the pale blues and greys of the background, making all the actors not playing nuns stand out, particularly Ruth when she wears her new red dress. Look at how the colouring of the dress changes according to her mood, achieved with skilful use of lighting and shadows. Sometimes it appears purple, others black, and sometimes bright scarlet. Earlier, Ruth is heard to remark that all the Indians look the same to her, which is ironic when the nuns' habits make them look alike, but the rich costume of the leading Indians mark each out as an individual. This reflects the mature attitude to race displayed in this film. There is little or no blacking up (apart from Jean Simmons), the beliefs and customs of the Indians are treated with respect by the film-makers, if not by all of the nuns.
There is some clever colonial observation in the British man who has gone native (played with square-jawed ruggedness by David Farrar) and the Indian Prince who wants to become a Christian (a grown-up Sabu). The achievement of Cardiff is all the more remarkable when you consider that the directors and producers he overshadowed were none other than Powell And Pressburger. The subject matter has dated since the film was made. India achieved independence the following year and a lot of what goes on in this film is now history. Having said that, the interpersonal relationships are still as fresh as they were in 1946 and Deborah Kerr's troubled nun still as relevant a character today as she was then. This film is worth watching just for the visuals, but it is also an enjoyable story to watch, unpredictable and with a rougher edge than might be expected at the beginning.
on March 24, 2001
This year, the motion picture academy of art and sience has chosen Jack Cardiff, BSC for their honorary oscar. This is the first time a cinematographer recieves this, and certainly, nobody deserves it more than Cardiff, who won his first Oscar for color cinematography on BLACK NARCISSUS.
It's an amazing work of colors and lights that he shows in this film --which was only his second film as director of photography-- which litterally changed the history of this art. Starting from a subtle, limited pallete of gray, white and beige (the simplicity of the lighting is clearly influenced by Vermeer), Cardiff graduately increase his color palette. Colors represent the sensuality of life that those nuns had gave up in sacrifice for their faith, and that keeps coming back in their lives.
As springs comes, the viewers will be stuned by the flowers flourishing all over the screen. Then as the climatic moment aproaches, Cardiff starts to add more colors in his lighting. Orange for sunset, amber for candle lights, and a lot of deep, menacing shadows. As the day breaks, the screen is covered with the blue and purplish red. For the climatic moment, Cardiff choses to cover the screen with a slight mist (fog filter) to add the poetic, misterious feeling to the hightened emotion.
In many ways, this is undoubtly one of the most daring, experimental, expressive and beautiful color film ever made. Add to this is the music and the movement of the camera and the cutting--all in synchronization with the music. Contemporary viewers may be put off by the exotisism of the story and the film, but then they will be surprised that everything was done in England, mostly in the studio sets and back-lots.
BLACK NARCISSUS is a jem of cinema, a true work of art, filled with extreme emotion and drama. This DVD faithfully represents the color and and the sound and the fury as created by Powell and Pressburger. Just see it!