Black Narcissus is a 1947 British psychological drama film written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and starring Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, Sabu, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Esmond Knight, and Jean Simmons. The title refers to the Caron perfume Narcisse Noir.
|Based on||Black Narcissus|
by Rumer Godden
|Music by||Brian Easdale|
|Edited by||Reginald Mills|
|Distributed by||General Film Distributors|
|Budget||£280,000 (or $1.2 million) or £351,494|
Based on the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, the film revolves around the growing tensions within a small convent of Anglican nuns who are trying to establish a school and hospital in the old palace of an Indian Raja at the top of an isolated mountain above a fertile valley in the Himalayas. The palace has ancient Indian erotic paintings on its walls and is run by the agent of the Indian general who owns it, a handsome middle-aged Englishman who is a source of sexual attraction for the nuns.
Black Narcissus achieved considerable acclaim for its technical mastery with the cinematographer, Jack Cardiff winning an Academy Award for Best Cinematography and a Golden Globe Award for Best Cinematography, and Alfred Junge winning an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.
A mission of Anglican nuns from the Order of The Servants of Mary is invited by General Toda Rai, the Rajput ruler of a princely state in the Himalayas, to set up a school and hospital to be called St Faith. The convent will be located at Mopu, a dilapidated palace high on a cliff where the general's father previously kept his harem. An order of monks had already tried unsuccessfully to establish themselves there, and the general's agent Mr Dean makes the social and environmental difficulties they will face plain to them. The ambitious Sister Clodagh is appointed Sister Superior and sent with four other nuns: Sister Philippa for the garden; Sister Briony for the infirmary; Sister Blanche, better known as "Sister Honey" to teach lace-making; and the emotionally unwell Sister Ruth for general classes. Mr Dean is unimpressed with them, and predicts they will manage to remain only until the beginning of the monsoon season.
During their time setting up the convent, the nuns face troubles with the old building and with the local Hindu population, often clashing with the building's native caretaker Angu Ayah. They have difficulty accepting a holy man in their grounds (the general's uncle) who spends all his time staring into the mountains. They take in a local girl called Kanchi to try and control her erratic spirit, and give the general's current heir—referred to as the Young General—classes to understand Western culture prior to a trip to Britain. Kanchi is whipped by Ayah for stealing, but the Young General stops her and ends up falling for Kanchi in a situation compared by Mr Dean to the tale of The King and the Beggar-maid.
Each member of the order has troubles of her own caused by their surroundings, which seem to magnify emotions. Briony suffers from ill health, and Philippa loses herself in the environment and ends up planting the vegetable garden with flowers instead. Ruth, already highly strung, becomes increasingly jealous of Clodagh and obsessed with Mr Dean, leading her to renounce the order. Clodagh remembers a failed romance from her home in Ireland which had prompted her to join the order in the first place. Honey's growing attachment to the children ends in disaster when she gives medicine to a fatally ill baby. The child's death angers the locals, who blame and abandon the mission, and puts further strain on the nuns. Mr Dean unsuccessfully tries to persuade Clodagh to leave before anything else untoward happens.
One night Clodagh confronts the now-unstable Ruth, finding her in a modern dress she has ordered to impress Mr Dean. Ruth escapes Clodagh's watch and finds Mr Dean. When he refuses her advances, she has a complete mental breakdown and goes back to the mission, intent on killing Clodagh. When Clodagh is ringing the bell for morning service located on a cliff edge, Ruth attempts to push her over the edge. In the resulting struggle, Ruth falls off the cliff to her death. The mission leaves just as the monsoon season begins, with Clodagh's final request to Mr Dean being to tend Ruth's grave.
- Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh
- Sabu as The Young General (Dilip Rai)
- David Farrar as Mr. Dean
- Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth
- Flora Robson as Sister Philippa
- Jean Simmons as Kanchi
- Jenny Laird as Sister Honey
- Judith Furse as Sister Briony
- Esmond Knight as The Old General
- May Hallatt as Angu Ayah
- Eddie Whaley Jr. as Joseph Anthony, the young interpreter
- Shaun Noble as Con, Clodagh's sweetheart
- Nancy Roberts as Mother Dorothea
Black Narcissus was released only a few months before India achieved independence from Britain in August 1947. Film critic Dave Kehr has suggested that the final images of the film, as the nuns abandon the Himalayas and proceed down the mountain, could have been interpreted by British viewers in 1947 as "a last farewell to their fading empire"; he suggests that for the film-makers, it is not an image of defeat "but of a respectful, rational retreat from something that England never owned nor understood". The story in the film quite closely follows that of the book, which was published in 1939.
Black Narcissus was adapted from writer Rumer Godden's 1939 novel of the same name. Michael Powell was introduced to the novel by actress Mary Morris, who had appeared in The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and an early film he did with Emeric Pressburger, The Spy in Black (1939). Godden had adapted her novel for a stage production for Lee Strasberg in the United States, but allowed Pressburger to write his own screenplay adaptation with Powell.
Kathleen Byron was among the first to be cast in the film, in the role of the crazed Sister Ruth. Pressburger described Byron as having a "dreamy voice and great eyes like a lynx", which he felt appropriate for the mentally disturbed character. In the role of the leading Sister Superior, Sister Clodagh, Deborah Kerr was cast. Pressburger chose Kerr for the role despite the reservations of Powell, who felt she was too young for the part. At one point, Powell considered Greta Garbo for the part. Kerr was paid £16,000 for fifty-five days of work.
David Farrar was cast as Mr Dean, the virile British agent who becomes the object of Sister Ruth's obsession. Farrar was paid £4,500 for forty-five days of shooting. Flora Robson appears as Sister Philippa, a gardening nun in the convent.
Of the three principal Indian roles, only the Young General was played by an ethnic Indian, Sabu; the roles of Kanchi, played by Jean Simmons, and the Old General were performed by white actors in make-up. Kanchi, 17, is described by Godden as "a basket of fruit, piled high and luscious and ready to eat. Though she looks shyly down, there is something steady and unabashed about her; the fruit is there to be eaten, she does not mean it to rot." Godden approved of Simmons's casting, remarking that she "perfectly fulfilled my description". The Indian extras were cast from workers at the docks in Rotherhithe.
Filming of Black Narcissus began on 16 May 1946, and was completed on 22 August. The film was shot primarily at Pinewood Studios but some scenes were shot in Leonardslee Gardens, West Sussex, the home of an Indian army retiree which had appropriate trees and plants for the Indian setting. While Powell at the time had been known for his love of location shooting, with Black Narcissus he became fascinated with the idea of filming as much in-studio as possible.
The film is known for making extensive use of matte paintings and large-scale landscape paintings (credited to W. Percy Day) to suggest the mountainous environment of the Himalayas, as well as some scale models for motion shots of the convent. Powell said later: "Our mountains were painted on glass. We decided to do the whole thing in the studio and that's the way we managed to maintain colour control to the very end. Sometimes in a film its theme or its colour are more important than the plot."
For the costumes, Alfred Junge, the art director, had three main colour schemes. The nuns were always in the white habits that he designed from a medley of medieval types. These white robes of heavy material stressed the nuns' other-worldliness amid the exotic native surroundings. The chief native characters were robed in brilliant colours, particularly the generals in jewels and in rich silks. Other native characters brought into the film for "atmosphere" were clad in more sombre colours with the usual native dress of the Nepalese, Bhutanese and Tibetan peoples toned down to prevent overloading the eye with brilliance.
According to Robert Horton, Powell set the climactic sequence, a murder attempt on the cliffs of the cloister, to a pre-existing musical track, staging it as though it were a piece of visual choreography. There was some personal, behind-the-scenes tension, as Kerr was the director's ex-lover and Byron his current one. "It was a situation not uncommon in show business, I was told," Powell later wrote, "but it was new to me."
Originally the film was intended to end with an additional scene in which Sister Clodagh sobs and blames herself for the convent's failure to Mother Dorothea. Mother Dorothea touches and speaks to Sister Clodagh welcomingly as the latter's tears continue to fall. When they filmed the scene with the rainfall on the leaves in what was to have been the penultimate scene, Powell was so impressed with it that he decided to designate that the last scene and to scrap the Mother Dorothea closing scene. It was filmed but it is not known whether it was printed.
Black Narcissus had its world premiere at the Odeon Theatre in London on 4 May 1947. According to trade papers, the film was a "notable box office attraction" at British cinemas in 1947. It premiered in the United States on 13 August 1947 in New York City at the Fulton Theatre.
In the United States, the Catholic National Legion of Decency condemned the film as "an affront to religion and religious life" for characterising it as "an escape for the abnormal, the neurotic and the frustrated". The version of the film originally shown in the United States had scenes depicting flashbacks of Sister Clodagh's life before becoming a nun edited out at the behest of the Legion of Decency.
The Manchester Guardian described the film as possessing "good acting and skilfully built-up atmosphere" and praised the cinematography. Philip Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times gave the film high praise, deeming it an "exquisite cinematic jewel", continuing: "I can't say how authentic Black Narcissus is, but the lotus land to which it carries us is uniquely unforgettable." Jane Corby of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the film as a "peculiar recital of religious life" and praised the cinematography, but felt that the "mixed atmosphere of religious seclusion and romantic vagaries is very confusing".
|Academy Awards||Best Color Cinematography||Jack Cardiff||Won|||
|Best Color Art Direction||Alfred Junge||Won|
|Golden Globe Awards||Best Cinematography||Jack Cardiff||Won|
|New York Film Critics Circle||Best Actress||Deborah Kerr||Won|
The Criterion Collection, an American home media distribution company, released Black Narcissus on laserdisc in the early 1990s, and issued it on DVD in 2002. Noel Murray, writing for The A.V. Club, deemed the 2002 DVD as a "crackerjack release," noting it was a direct copy of the old laserdisc.
In 2008, ITV DVD released a restored version of the film on Blu-ray in the United Kingdom. The Criterion Collection subsequently issued the restored version on DVD and Blu-ray on 20 July 2010. Network Distributing released another Blu-ray edition in the United Kingdom in 2014.
Black Narcissus achieved acclaim for its pioneering technical mastery and shocked audiences at the time of release with its vibrant colour and the themes of the film. Audiences gasped at some of the scenes, notably the shot of the pink flowers which, shown on the big screen, was a spectacle at the time. The film's clever use of lighting and techniques have had a profound impact on later film makers, notably Martin Scorsese who used the extreme close-ups of the nuns as the inspiration for the treatment of Tom Cruise's character around the pool table in The Color of Money. Martin Scorsese has said that the film, particularly in its last quarter, is one of the earliest erotic films. The film was one of his favourites as a boy and one of the greatest experiences he has had with film is viewing Black Narcissus projected on a massive screen at the Director's Guild in 1983. In Michael Powell's own view, this was the most erotic film he ever made. "It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image from beginning to end. It is a film full of wonderful performances and passion just below the surface, which finally, at the end of the film, erupts." The English film critic Peter Bradshaw, who put it on his list of the ten best films ever made, took Powell's statement further, and said that it was the most erotic film he had ever seen.
In The Great British Picture Show, the writer George Perry stated, "Archers films looked better than they were – the location photography in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff in Black Narcissus was a great deal better than the story and lifted the film above the threatening banality." In contrast, the critic Ian Christie wrote in the Radio Times in the 1980s that "unusually for a British film from the emotionally frozen forties the melodrama works so well it almost seems as if Powell and Pressburger survived the slings and barbs of contemporary criticism to find their ideal audience in the 1980s". Marina Warner, introducing the film on BBC2 (on a nun-themed film evening, with Thérèse), called it a masterpiece.
The film's resonance with populations exploring previously stifled sexual desires and expression extends beyond its contemporary milieu of women in the post-war era. Black Narcissus also influenced the themes and aesthetic of the ground-breaking gay experimental film Pink Narcissus, which portrays a series of pornographic vignettes in vivid colour as the fantasies of a prostitute between visits from his keeper. Although Pink Narcissus was lost in obscurity for some time, in recent years it has resurfaced as a cult classic, due in part to the vivid, fantastical aesthetic inspired by Black Narcissus.
The look and cinematography of the 2013 Disney film Frozen was influenced by Black Narcissus. While working on the look and nature of the film's cinematography, Frozen art director Michael Giaimo was greatly influenced by Jack Cardiff's work in Black Narcissus.
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- Black Narcissus on IMDb
- Black Narcissus at the TCM Movie Database
- Black Narcissus at AllMovie
- Black Narcissus at the BFI's Screenonline, with a full synopsis, film stills, and clips viewable from UK libraries
- Reviews and articles at the Powell & Pressburger Pages
- Black Narcissus: Empire of the Senses an essay by Kent Jones at the Criterion Collection
- Sophie Goldstein on Crafting House of Women, an Art Nouveau Sci-Fi Exploration
- Gemma Arterton takes the lead role in new BBC and FXP drama Black Narcissus