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Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus(1947)

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teaser Black Narcissus (1947)

SYNOPSIS

A group of nuns, headed by the young and inexperienced Sister Clodagh, is sent to an isolated region in the Himalayas to establish a convent with a school and a clinic. They occupy a palace handed over to them by a local General that once held the concubines of a previous owner. Sister Clodagh arrives with others picked by the Mother Superior to assist her: Sister Briony, picked for her strength; Sister Philippa, for her gardening skills; Sister Honey, the most popular nun in the order; and Sister Ruth, who is in poor health and requires a challenge. Barely able to communicate with the locals, the Sisters must rely almost entirely on the estate's manager, Mr. Dean, an Englishman "gone native." Sister Clodagh feels duty bound to take in such outsiders as Kanchi, an Indian girl turned away from her family, and the Young General, a flippant noble looking for an education. The challenges the nuns face run the gamut from the damaging effects of high altitude on their health to a populace set in its ways, encroaching memories of their past lives before taking their vows, and even madness.

Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Adapted from the novel by Rumer Godden
Photography: Jack Cardiff
Music: Brian Easdale
Editor: Reginald Mills
Costumes: Hein Heckroth
Production design: Alfred Junge
Cast: Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh), David Farrar (Mr. Dean), Sabu (Dilip, the Young General), Flora Robson (Sister Philippa), Esmond Knight (The Old General), Jean Simmons (Kanchi), Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth), Jenny Laird (Sister Honey), Judith Furse (Sister Briony), May Hallatt (Angu Ayah), Eddie Whaley, Jr. (Joseph Anthony), Shaun Noble (Con), Nancy Roberts (Mother Dorothea).
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Why BLACK NARCISSUS is Essential

Black Narcissus (1947) represents a high point of the fertile collaboration between writer Emeric Pressburger and director Michael Powell, and it remains among the most beautifully designed color films ever made. The opening shots of the film depict Buddhist monks blowing a pair of large horns mounted on an intricately carved wooden stand decorated with gold leaf. The ornate, even sensuous quality of these images is juxtaposed with the more subdued color scheme and austere design of the convent in Calcutta that appears after the credit sequence, reflecting the ascetic life of the nuns. This visual contrast sets up the religious, cultural and psychological conflicts that follow.

One remarkable example of Powell's "dramaturgy of color" occurs after Sister Clodagh confronts Sister Ruth: the film cuts directly to images of flowers in bloom, accompanied by a sharp burst of orchestral music on the soundtrack. The almost overwhelming impact of this sequence beautifully conveys the psychological toll that the surroundings are taking on the nuns. But most striking of all, perhaps, is the nearly wordless struggle between Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh at the end of the film. Powell conceived this sequence in terms of opera, with the actors' movements guided by Brian Easdale's lush score. During rehearsal and shooting he used a piano track to set the mood and mark precise timings for the actors. Powell's approach to this scene opened the way for the radical stylization of his subsequent films The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951).

Rumer Godden (1907-1998), the noted British writer on whose novel the film is based, was born in Sussex, England. As a child Godden moved with her parents to India and lived in Assam and Bengal before returning to England to complete her studies. During the 1930s she began to publish her first novels, achieving a critical and popular breakthrough with Black Narcissus. Many critics have interpreted the novel in retrospect as a commentary on the ultimate failure of the British Empire's colonial project in India. In some respects, Godden would seem to play into stereotyped notions of the "East," with its supposed sensuality and narcissistic self-regard. This is embodied most clearly in the title, which refers to the perfume with which Dilip, the young General, douses himself. Similarly, in Powell and Pressburger's film, we first see the old General as he is gazing into an ornate mirror in the palace. However, both Godden and the filmmakers suggest that it is in fact a dual cultural misunderstanding that causes the convent to fail. At one point the old General blithely orders that the nuns be given tins of sausages, under the assumption that it is a typically "European" food. Later, Sister Ruth says dismissively of the locals: "They all look alike to me." Rumer Godden was said to prefer Jean Renoir's The River (1951) as an adaptation of her work, though Powell and Pressburger's film does retain the essentials of the book's plot and dialogue. The main difference between the film and novel of Black Narcissus is in style and tone: the film tends toward visually striking, at times melodramatic effects, whereas Godden's prose style is notably restrained.

As has often been observed, not a single foot of the film was shot in India. The Mopu palace-convent was constructed in Pinewood Studios, with matte paintings and painted backdrops providing views of the Himalayan landscape. Leonardslee, an extensive complex of gardens in Horsham, West Sussex, served as the valley below Mopu. (Leonardslee is open to visitors to this day.) The flashbacks depicting Sister Clodagh's memories of Ireland were shot on location in County Galway. The meticulous care behind Alfred Junge's set design for the palace is reflected in details such as the remarkably convincing murals of Indian nudes. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff deliberately modeled the delicate lighting of the convent scenes after Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other painters. Cardiff's work on this film is also noteworthy for his use of low-key lighting during certain sequences and, in general, lower light levels than usual for Technicolor stock, which was notorious for the amount of light it required on the set. Both Alfred Junge and Jack Cardiff deservedly won Academy Awards for their work.

Black Narcissus, however, is not just a work of visual design, and much of its effectiveness depends upon the superb acting in the lead roles. David Farrar later appeared in Powell and Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949) and a number of smaller films, but none of his roles ever matched the complexity and depth of Mr. Dean. Kathleen Byron is unforgettable as the mad Sister Ruth; she likewise did her best work with Powell and Pressburger--namely this film, The Small Back Room and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Lead actress Deborah Kerr first worked with Powell and Pressburger in Contraband (1940), in which she played a bit part; she followed that up with her triumphant triple role in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). For the part of Sister Clodagh, Powell claims in his autobiography that he initially thought of luring Greta Garbo out of seclusion. When Pressburger suggested Kerr, Powell initially expressed reservations that she was too young for the part - twenty-six at the time of production - but nonetheless agreed to cast her. By this time she was already under contract to MGM, which added considerably to the cost of signing her on. Black Narcissus was thus her last film in England before relocating to Hollywood. While Kerr went on to many great roles, including a brilliant and underrated turn as the governess in The Innocents (1961), Sister Clodagh remains among the most confident and subtle performances of her career.

by James Steffen

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teaser Black Narcissus (1947)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer realized the value of their long-time contract player Deborah Kerr following Black Narcissus, and cast her in The Hucksters (1947) opposite Clark Gable. Recalling the strong supporting role that Kathleen Byron played in Black Narcissus, Kerr wrote to director Michael Powell about her new film, saying "There is a new young actress in this picture, who is almost as big a menace to me as Sister Ruth, but not quite. Her name is Ava Gardner."

Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus was not the first adaptation of Rumer Godden's novel to another medium. In 1942 Godden herself wrote a stage version, which was produced as a play by Lee Strasberg.

Scenes from Black Narcissus were excerpted in Su Friedrich's avant-garde short Damned If You Don't (1987). In a story about the attraction between a nun and a female artist, Friedrich incorporates images from the Powell-Pressburger film. The footage was shot off a television set, keeping the "roll bars" that occur when a video image is captured on film.

Clips of Black Narcissus were used in the documentary A Bit of Scarlet (1997), directed by Andrea Weiss. This film, with voiceover work by Ian McKellen, highlights intentional and unintentional gay and lesbian subtexts in mainstream films. The scene in which Sister Clodagh discovers Sister Ruth wearing a red dress and applying lipstick in Black Narcissus is re-edited to play instead as a seduction scene.

American director Martin Scorsese has championed Black Narcissus for many years, saying that watching it is "like being bathed in color." He has also been quoted as saying it is "halfway between Disney and a horror film" and "one of the first truly erotic films". In 1988 Scorsese recorded a commentary track for the film alongside Michael Powell.

by John M. Miller

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teaser Black Narcissus (1947)

Michael Powell claimed that the marriage of Jean Simmons to actor Stewart Granger can be credited to her role in his film. Powell wrote, "When Stewart Granger, my old pal, who was sitting next to me at the first night of Black Narcissus at the Odeon Leicester Square, saw Jean eating a squashy fruit with a ring through her nose, he went straight out, proposed to her and married her."

Michael Powell, in his autobiography A Life in Movies, called Black Narcissus "...the most erotic film that I have ever made. It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image from the beginning to the end."

When Black Narcissus had its Los Angeles premiere on July 7, 1947, Universal-International, the film's American distributor, made sure that a number of celebrities were in attendance. Guests for the screening included Ingrid Bergman, Norma Shearer, Joan Bennett, Rosalind Russell, and Phyllis Calvert.

The effects artists are unlisted in the screen credits for Black Narcissus. The lead matte painters were W. Percy Day, whose credits dated to the silent era, and his two sons, Arthur George Day and Thomas Sydney Day. The film's assistant matte artist was Peter Ellenshaw. Following work on Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948), Ellenshaw left Britain for America where he became the resident live-action effects artist for Walt Disney Studios for many years.

The fox hunt scene in Sister Clodagh's flashback sequence of Black Narcissus was shot on location in County Galway, Ireland, using the Galway Blazers Foxhounds.

The Academy Award-winning cinematographer of Black Narcissus, Jack Cardiff, had been a child actor before he turned to a behind-the-camera role as an adult. His credits in front of the camera included a role in Tiptoes (1927), which starred Dorothy Gish and Will Rogers.

Flora Robson was billed fourth in the cast for Black Narcissus, although she played the relatively minor role of Sister Philippa. Robson had become a star in Britain after playing Queen Elizabeth in Alexander Korda's production of Fire Over England (1937), and had been a high profile actress both in America and in England for years afterward. In getting her for a small role in his film, Michael Powell said, "...I was almost afraid of my good luck."

The Archers reunited actors David Farrar and Kathleen Byron a few years after Black Narcissus, in The Small Back Room (1949), a dark thriller set during World War II. In this film, based on a novel by Nigel Balchin, Farrar plays a weapons expert who must disarm the nefarious devices that were dropped on England by the Nazis. Byron is the woman who helps him face his fears and his battle with alcoholism. In addition to this film, Byron also appeared in A Matter of Life and Death (1946) for The Archers, while Farrar starred in the duo's movie Gone to Earth (1950, a.k.a. The Wild Heart), co-starring Jennifer Jones.

Sabu was a stable boy for the Maharaja of Mysore when he was discovered by documentarian Robert J. Flaherty and cast in Elephant Boy (1937) at the age of 13. The success of that film, co-directed by Flaherty and Zoltan Korda, led to several more starring roles: The Drum (1938), again directed by Zoltan Korda; The Thief of Bagdad (1940); and perhaps his most famous role, that of Mowgli in the Korda brothers' adaptation of Kipling's Jungle Book (1942). Following Black Narcissus, Sabu appeared in several low-budget Hollywood films before his death in 1963. Of the latter-day roles, Michael Powell later observed that Sabu "...showed his good sense by accepting everything that was offered. He knew very well that he had come from nowhere and he had no intention of ending up nowhere."

Famous Quotes from BLACK NARCISSUS

Angu Ayah (May Hallatt): What do they eat? How do I know what nuns eat?
Old General (Esmond Knight): I have remembered that. Do you see that crate? Sausages. They will eat sausages. Europeans eat sausages wherever they go.

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr): Mother, are you sorry that I have been appointed to take charge of St. Faith?
Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts): Yes. I don't think you're ready for it. And I think you'll be lonely. Never forget - we're an order of workers. Work them hard. And remember - the superior of all is the servant of all.

Mr. Dean (David Farrar) (While looking at erotic tapestry): Do you know what the people call this place? The House of Women. The General's father used to keep his ladies here.
Sister Clodagh: From now on, it will be known as the House of St. Faith. Sister, will you have that picture taken down?
Mr. Dean: I give you 'til the rains break.

Sister Clodagh: Mr. Dean - Joseph tells us the people are still being paid to come to us.
Mr. Dean: Ah, the General's a wise man. It's only until it becomes a habit. Let it become a habit for them to come, and they won't remember a time when they didn't.

Mr. Dean: We call her Kanchi. She's 17, she's an orphan, and it's high time she was married. Every evening when I come home, I find her sitting on my veranda. She dresses herself up and puts flowers in her hair. It's becoming an absolute nuisance. If she's cloistered for a few months, her Uncle'll marry her off, but she's been behaving so that no one wants her.
Sister Clodagh: I don't think that we want her either. Why did you bring her to us?
Mr. Dean: Isn't it your business to save souls?
Sister Clodagh: You're not to speak to me like that, Mr. Dean.

Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) (On her mountainside garden): I think you can see too far. I look out there, then I can't see the potato I'm planting. And after a bit, it doesn't seem to matter whether I plant it or not.

Young General (Sabu): I want to be a student here with you. I want to study a lot of learning. ...I have a note from my Uncle, to ask you to encourage me.
Sister Clodagh: I'm very sorry - we only teach children and young girls.
Young General: Why?
Sister Clodagh: Convents don't teach men pupils.
Young General: That's not very polite to men.
Sister Clodagh: We don't mean it that way, it's the custom. Convents are for girls, the brotherhoods are for men.
Young General: Jesus Christ was a man.
Sister Clodagh: He took the shape of a man...

Young General (waving perfume-soaked handkerchief in classroom): Do you like it Sister Ruth? It's called Black Narcissus. Comes from the Army-Navy Store in London.
Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron): Black Narcissus. I don't like such scents at all.
Young General: Oh Sister - Don't you think it's rather common to smell of ourselves?

Young General (Standing next to a Nativity): Sister - May I congratulate you on the birth of Christ?
Sister Clodagh: Thank you, General.
Young General: I hope you don't mind my coming tonight. I am very much interested in Jesus Christ. ...Have I said anything wrong?
Sister Clodagh: No, but... We don't usually speak of Him so casually.

Sister Clodagh: I think - You have let yourself fall into thinking too much of Mr. Dean. Sister... Don't you realize what you're doing? What you're running the risk of losing in yourself? Sister, you must - I must make you see before it is too late...
Sister Ruth (Intensely): All the same I've noticed you're very pleased to see him yourself.
Sister Clodagh (Angrily): If that's what's in your mind I think it's better said you're out of your senses!

Mr. Dean: I told you it wasn't any place to put a nunnery. There's something in the atmosphere that makes everything exaggerated. Don't you understand? You must all get away before something happens!

Compiled by John M. Miller

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teaser Black Narcissus (1947)

During World War II, British actress Mary Morris introduced director Michael Powell to a new novel, Black Narcissus, by Rumer Godden. Morris and Powell had both worked on the elaborate Alexander Korda fantasy film The Thief of Bagdad (1940), and Morris thought that the Godden book would make a great film and supply a plum acting role for herself. Powell immediately took to the book. As he later wrote in his autobiography A Life in Movies, "I could see that the story, so coolly told in excellent prose, would be wildly exotic and erotic on the screen." Powell's filmmaking partner, Emeric Pressburger, needed little prodding on the subject; Pressburger's wife Wendy had previously brought the book to his attention and he had already started making inquiries about the film rights to the novel. Negotiations for the rights were carried on as the pair completed post-production on their latest film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946, a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven).

About the scripting chore Powell later wrote, "...we had always written our own original stories, as well as the film script... and I was nervous about tackling an adaptation from a book. The elements that make a book a success are not the same as those that make for a good film, and I had learnt to know the difference." Powell admired the job that Pressburger had done on the script, however, and as time went on, he was "...almost persuaded that we had written the original story ourselves."

Powell went about the task of casting the film. Although Mary Morris had wanted to play the key role of Sister Ruth, Powell gave it to Kathleen Byron: "She was young, confident and unusual looking, with extraordinary big eyes and a long pointed nose. I thought she could do it." Powell had also, he wrote, been having an extra-marital affair with the actress. For the lead role of Sister Clodagh, Powell was initially keen on trying to persuade Greta Garbo to emerge from retirement, but Pressburger was insistent on trying to get Deborah Kerr. Powell said, "I laughed at the idea. I turned it down flat. She was too young, far too young, ten years too young." Powell quotes Pressburger as saying, "'If she were as old as Garbo, you'd want her to look ten years younger than she is. Deborah is twenty-six and can easily look thirty-six. And she won't mind doing it, either.'" Kerr was in a curious position by 1947. She was just coming into her own, but with little help from the studio that held her contract, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM signed her in 1943, but in the intervening years she had continued to work in Britain.

For the role of the erotic young Indian girl Kanchi, Powell wanted teenager Jean Simmons, who had recently made a mark as Young Estella in David Lean's adaptation of Dickens' Great Expectations (1946). Powell's friend Lawrence Olivier also wanted Simmons, to play Ophelia in his film version of Hamlet (1948). Though scheduling allowed the actress to play both parts, Powell and Olivier playfully wrote back and forth over the competitive casting; at one point Olivier wrote, "Dear Micky, how you could imagine that a typical English teenager, straight from the vicarage, can play a piece of Indian tail, beats me. I enclose a book of erotic Indian pictures to help your casting director. Love, Larry."

David Farrar was cast as the estate manager Mr. Dean; "He reminded me in looks of Gary Cooper," Powell later wrote. First, Powell and Pressburger shot a test in color of the actor. According to Powell, Farrar "burnt up the screen," so the two not only cast him for the film, they also signed him to a three-picture contract with The Archers. As the young prince, Powell cast Indian actor Sabu, star of such Korda Brothers films as Elephant Boy (1937), Jungle Book (1942), and The Thief of Bagdad, which Powell had co-directed. Powell later wrote that the part of the Young General was "tailor-made" for the actor, and that "when he replied enthusiastically, we enlarged the part. Sabu was shrewd and soon saw this was no ordinary film, and he was proud to be in it."

by John M. Miller

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teaser Black Narcissus (1947)

At the end of World War II, motion picture facilities in Britain were coming back into civilian use following service toward the war effort, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as the independent production entity known as The Archers, had a decision to make. During the war, J. Arthur Rank had acquired both of the premiere facilities in England - Denham Studios and Pinewood Studios - and The Archers were able to choose one as their base of operations. Previously they had worked at Denham but now opted for the newer Pinewood. It would prove to be an important decision because Powell surprised everyone on staff during planning for Black Narcissus by announcing that not a frame of the film would be shot on location in India - it would be entirely produced at Pinewood. Scenes set in the forbidding palace high on the Himalayan peaks would rely on the talents of production designer Alfred Junge and his team. For scenes set in the lush valley below, Powell had an idea for location shooting, but in a spot much closer to home; Horsham, to be exact. "There's a famous house and gardens there called Leonardslee. It has one of the most famous sub-tropical gardens in England," Powell wrote in his autobiography. "...British merchant princes and pro-consuls when they retired and come back to Britain to live, would bring whole trees and bushes wrapped in matting to remind them of India. Himalayan plants and trees do well in the British climate." Powell wanted to keep the design and look of Black Narcissus consistent and completely under his control, feeling that mood and atmosphere was the key to the picture. He said, "If we went to India and shot a lot of exteriors, according to the usual plan, and then came back to Pinewood and then tried to match them here, you would have two kinds of colour and two kinds of style."

Principal photography for Black Narcissus took place at Pinewood Studios between May 16 and August 22, 1946. Junge tackled the formidable task of creating the Himalayas on stages and back lots. He made extensive use of huge canvas backdrops, painted with vibrant Himalayan landscapes. The backdrops, which naturally hid the actual English countryside, were tilted back at a 35 degree angle to eliminate shadows and soak up as much of the sun as possible, allowing for more hours of shooting time. Broader vistas, including the shots which establish the precarious cliff-side setting of the palace, were accomplished in post-production with glass shots and matte paintings.

Cinematographer Jack Cardiff drew inspiration for his shots from the great painters; he experimented with the tones of Van Gogh, for example, or the reds and greens from Rembrandt. In her British Film Guide book on Black Narcissus Sarah Smith quotes Cardiff, who explained the influence of Vermeer and Caravaggio: "They both lit with very simple light. Many painters did, but with Vermeer and Caravaggio you were very conscious of it; they really used the shadows. Caravaggio would just have one sweeping light over everything so that you were aware of the single light." The resulting lighting was unusual for Technicolor films of the time, and initially caused concern for Technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus. She grew to appreciate the look Cardiff was creating once she saw the initial rushes, however.

For the scenes depicting the villagers, Powell and his team had a ready supply of extras. As Powell wrote, "...when the war was just over, there was an immense floating population of Asians around London Docks, and we had no difficulty in building up a list of extras for the crowd scenes: Malays, Indians, Gurkhas, Nepalese, Hindus, Pakistanis, hundreds of them. We formed groups of different castes and races, and each group had a leader."

Powell and Pressburger had parted ways from the composer of many of their early films, Allan Gray, and Powell sought out a new composer for Black Narcissus, one who would share his "operatic" vision of the film. Carol Reed suggested Brian Easdale, whom Reed had met in India while working on a wartime documentary. Powell was anxious to use "...someone who was my superior in musical thought, a collaborator who would lead me out of my depth and whom I could tempt even further out of his." Powell also had something else in mind: the chance to create a sequence of "composed film" - that is, a section of the film that is pre-scored and which could be shot directly in time to music. As Powell later wrote, "we settled upon the sequence which followed the rejection of Sister Ruth by Mr. Dean. It starts with Sister Clodagh haunted by her conscience and literally haunted by Sister Ruth, bent upon her murder." Easdale scored this section of the script, and a piano track was recorded. A playback of this track was used as a guide in shooting the sequence. Powell elaborated, "It was planned step by step, bar by bar, by Brian and myself. I wanted to get the maximum suspense out of the cat-and-mouse play between the two women and we succeeded. The crew were amazed when Brian and I appeared with stopwatches and exact timings when we started to shoot the sequence." Later, during final recording, Easdale replaced the piano track with a thirty-eight piece orchestra and a choir of a dozen voices. (Powell and Pressburger's next film, The Red Shoes (1948), would push the possibilities of the composed film even further).

The last scene in the film, of the rains beginning as Mr. Dean watches the Sisters leaving Mopu, was carefully devised. It was Cardiff's idea to have a few initial drops of rain hitting the foreground flowers. Cardiff was to later regret this brainstorm, however. There was originally meant to be a concluding scene, in which Sister Clodagh returns to Calcutta and speaks with the Mother Superior. Cardiff thought that this sequence featured some of the best work of his career, but the power of the rain scenes demanded that they end the film. (This editing decision was probably made by Pressburger, who usually supervised the cutting of films by The Archers).

Black Narcissus was released in Great Britain on May 26, 1947 by the Rank Organisation. Through The Archers' deal with Rank, the film was assured solid distribution in the United States, because Rank had entered into an agreement with Universal Studios in 1946 which resulted in the distribution arm Universal-International. As it turned out, the film only had spotty distribution in America, due to censorship problems. Powell later observed, "...they couldn't leave a picture with nuns in it alone." Powell and Pressburger were actually aware of the potential for censorship trouble in America before the film was shot. In April of 1945, a rough draft of the script was submitted to Joseph Breen at the Production Code Administration. Breen outlined his initial concerns to Rank: "While the story is not quite clear and concise, to us it has about it a flavor of sex sin in connection with certain of the nuns, which, in our judgment, is not good." The Breen office, however, passed the finished film in June 1947, but on the condition that a foreword was added making it clear that the nuns were Anglo, rather than Roman Catholic. Indeed, it was with the Catholic Legion of Decency that Rank encountered the most problems. The Legion of Decency launched a campaign against the film's release as early as April 1946, when the Archbishop of Calcutta began writing about the production. Predictably, when the film was reviewed by the Catholic weekly The Tidings, published in Los Angeles, the judgment was harsh: "It is a long time since the American public has been handed such a perverted specimen of bad taste, vicious inaccuracies and ludicrous improbabilities." When the Legion of Decency screened the film, it was given a "C" classification, or "Condemned." Street reported that "out of thirteen Fathers, eight gave it a 'C' rating, the rest recommending A2, unobjectionable for adults."

The Legion of Decency still held great sway on filmgoing habits in America, and a Condemned film would eliminate a huge number of ticket sales. The film had already opened in New York and Los Angeles, but the ban interfered with scheduled openings in other cities, such as Detroit and Memphis. Rank was in a bad position. Parliament had just imposed a 75 percent duty on American films imported to England, and Hollywood was temporarily boycotting the British market. The few British films that could play well in America were encouraged as a goodwill gesture, so Rank was anxious that Black Narcissus play in as many American cities as possible. The only option they saw was to make cuts to the film to satisfy the Legion of Decency. So in September, 1947, the film was edited by 900 feet or so - ten cuts in all. All of Sister Clodagh's memories of Ireland were cut, accounting for most of the offending footage. The close-up of Sister Ruth applying lipstick also fell victim to censorship, and a few lines of suggestive dialogue were also eliminated, for example Mr. Dean's line to Sister Briony, "You will be doing me a great favor when you educate the local girls." Finally, the wording of the foreword was changed so that there would be no mistaking that the order of nuns might be Catholic; now it said that "a group of Protestant nuns in mysterious India find adventure, sacrifice, and tragedy." Now satisfied, the ban was removed and the film was released with an A2 classification from the Legion.

by John M. Miller

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teaser Black Narcissus (1947)

"It comes as no surprise that J. Arthur Rank's latest film, Black Narcissus, from Rumer Godden's novel of the same name, is well up to the best British standards. What is surprising is the storm of protest registered against this sensitive study of missionaries in the Himalayas by more than 300 Roman Catholic nuns and priests in conference last month at Notre Dame University. Their chief complaint concerns a community of 'worldly, neurotic, and frustrated nuns,' and thus depicts an 'utterly abnormal case.' Although the conference made some good points about religious movies in general, the charges in this instance seem slightly exaggerated. Rank did not accede to the Catholic request that he label the film a 'unique case,' but he inserted a foreword explaining that these are Protestant nuns of the Anglican faith. In any case, the nuns, with one exception, are represented as splendid, steadfast women who, having taken on an impossible assignment, execute a strategic withdrawal. ...Among the many excellent qualities Black Narcissus has superb color shots and a uniformly fine cast which, besides Miss Kerr and Farrar, includes Flora Robson and Sabu - this time minus his elephant. Whatever its minor faults, this is a strangely disturbing film, full of subtle antagonisms, and adult and sympathetic in treatment." - Newsweek, August 18, 1947.

"Black Narcissus is the curious story of some Anglican nuns who, in the interests of healing and teaching the Himalayan natives, are sent to establish a new convent in an abandoned mountain harem....change brings no good for any of the Sisters. They are disturbed by the remoteness of the place and its unearthly quiet, by the winds, by the breath-taking beauty of the mountains. They are unsettled by the florid carnality of the murals which glow from the walls of the old pleasure house. And people trouble them as much as the place and its erotic past. A lush young native girl (Jean Simmons) and a splendidly dressed young nobleman (Sabu) come to the convent to learn the ways of God and of Western civilization, but stay to play peek-a-boo. The local nabob's insolent British handyman (David Farrar) lolls about the nunnery in shorts, displaying enough chest hair to stuff a kneeling cushion. ...The attempt to convey the idea that nuns are human beings is doubtless laudable and sincerely undertaken. But considering the fact that writer-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made the excellent Colonel Blimp [1943], it is surprising how little they get across here, about human beings. The talk about the strange, compelling atmosphere of the place - a Lost Horizon routine in reverse - is just talk; lovely as some of the Technicolor photographs are, they bring little of the strangeness to the audience's eyes. Although some of the characters change, they change by sudden leaps & bounds, and without sufficient motivation. Messers. Powell and Pressburger have made the most of some melodramatic scenes and have hooked together many close-ups of uncommon sensitiveness and force. But in spite of a considerable lavishing of talent and good intention, Black Narcissus remains a striking sample of bad art, combining the least attractive features of slick and long-haired fiction. - Time, August 25, 1947.

"A curiously fascinating psychological study of the physical and spiritual tribulations that overwhelm five Protestant missionary nuns in the remote vastness 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. The awesome grandeur of the setting, a fantastic old place 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. ...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." Thomas M. Pryor, The New York Times, August 14, 1947.

"Interesting to compare with another version of a Rumer Godden story, Renoir's The River [1951], in that whereas Renoir shot on location in India and created an almost documentary feel to his film, Powell refused to go to the Himalayas and shot at Pinewood, coming up with a heady melodrama that treats India as a state of mind rather than a real country. ...Powell's use of color, design and music was never so perfectly in tune with the emotional complexities of Pressburger's script, their talents combining to create one of Britain's great cinematic masterpieces, a marvelous evocation of hysteria and repression, and incidentally one of the few genuinely erotic films ever to emerge from these sexually staid isles." - Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide.

"Black Narcissus is one of [Powell and Pressburger's] enduring films, but it is also very much of its time: an era when sex on screen meant smoldering glances, when Technicolor was gloriously fresh. Deborah Kerr plays the self-disciplined Sister Clodagh, fighting back memories of a lost romance. David Farrar is the exquisitely handsome Englishman who manages the rajah's estate and drives the sisters mad. Kathleen Byron gives an over-the-top performance as the hysterical Sister Ruth. Her eyes seem to glow red with demonic possession, but don't worry: it's just that old devil Lust trying to escape. The campy edge the film has acquired over the years does nothing to diminish its stature, for Black Narcissus was always a hothouse flower. Though it looks gorgeously exotic, it was filmed at Pinewood Studios in London, often with painted backdrops. (When the wind whistles through the high windows of the palace, notice that the clouds don't move). Some scenes were filmed at an estate in Surrey, where a one-time English military man planted a tropical garden to remind him of India. The artificial touches only enhance the storybook quality that was always one of the Archers' great strengths." - Caryn James, The New York Times, March 17, 1995.

"Visually sumptuous, dramatically charged movie, from Rumer Godden novel, about nuns trying to establish a mission in a remote Himalayan outpost amid formidable physical and emotional challenges. One of the most breathtaking color films ever made (winning Oscar®s for cinematographer Jack Cardiff and art director Alfred Junge). Scenes in which Mother Superior Kerr recalls her former life, a key plot element, were originally censored from American prints." - Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide.

"Black Narcissus is that rare thing, an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns, startling whenever Kathleen Bryon is involved." - David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Alfred A. Knopf.

"Cynics may dub this lavish production Brief Encounter in the Himalayas and not without reason. Stripped of most of its finery, the picture...resolves itself into the story of two sex-starved women and a man...Most effective acting comes from Kathleen Bryon who has the picture's plum as the neurotic half-crazed Sister Ruth." - Variety Movie Guide (Prentice-Hall).

"An unlikely theme produces one of the cinema's most beautiful films, a visual and emotional stunner despite some narrative uncertainty." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide (HarperPerennial).

"It is a rare treat to see nuns that don't want to sing or dance but serve God, just as it is a rare feat for the Archers...to produce a subtly erotic film about nuns. The Himalayan scenery is especially remarkable because it sets the mood of the film perfectly and was all created on a sound stage at Pinewood." - The Rough Guide to Cult Movies (Penguin).

"An erotic masterpiece about nuns!...Picture is splendidly acted, uncompromisingly written - surprising choices are made constantly - and ranks as one of the most stunningly beautiful color films of all time..." - Danny Peary, Guide For the Film Fanatic (Fireside).

" It remains a rapturous, near-indescribable work of cinematic art, spun from a simple story about nuns who travel to the Himalayas to start a school and a hospital, only to have mountain winds and native mysticism weaken their confidence and their faith. The title refers to an exotic perfume that clouds the air around their mission, redirecting the thoughts of the mother superior (Deborah Kerr) to the sensuous world she meant to leave behind." - Noel Murray, The Onion A.V. Club.

"The co-directors created from Rumer Godden's novel an extraordinary melodrama of repressed love and Forsterian Englishness - or rather Irishness - coming unglued in the vertiginous landscape of South Asia..Particularly affected is Sister Ruth - a magnificent performance from Kathleen Byron - who conceives an erotomaniacal obsession for Dean, and her final appearance in the film, gaunt and wraithlike, is still one of the scariest moments in British cinema history. The studio sets and backdrops are superbly and still convincingly rendered, and the film looks more beautiful than ever." - Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian.

Awards and Honors:

Black Narcissus won an Oscar® in 1947 in two categories:
Best Color Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Best Color Cinematography: Jack Cardiff

In addition, Jack Cardiff also won a 1947 Golden Globe award for Color Cinematography.

Deborah Kerr was given the 1947 Best Actress award by the New York Film Critics Circle, and Kathleen Byron received a nomination in the same category.

Compiled by John M. Miller & Jeff Stafford

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teaser Black Narcissus (1947)

Synopsis: A group of nuns, headed by the young and inexperienced Sister Clodagh, is sent to an isolated region in the Himalayas to establish a convent with a school and a clinic. Barely able to communicate with the locals, they must rely almost entirely on the estate's manager, Mr. Dean, an Englishman "gone native." The challenges the nuns face run the gamut from the damaging effects of high altitude on their health to a populace set in its ways, encroaching memories of their past lives before taking their vows, and even madness.

Black Narcissus (1947) represents a high point of the fertile collaboration between writer Emeric Pressburger and director Michael Powell, and it remains among the most beautifully designed color films ever made. The opening shots of the film depict Buddhist monks blowing a pair of large horns mounted on an intricately carved wooden stand decorated with gold leaf. The ornate, even sensuous quality of these images is juxtaposed with the more subdued color scheme and austere design of the convent in Calcutta that appears after the credit sequence, reflecting the ascetic life of the nuns. This visual contrast sets up the religious, cultural and psychological conflicts that follow.

One remarkable example of Powell's "dramaturgy of color" occurs after Sister Clodagh confronts Sister Ruth: the film cuts directly to images of flowers in bloom, accompanied by a sharp burst of orchestral music on the soundtrack. The almost overwhelming impact of this sequence beautifully conveys the psychological toll that the surroundings are taking on the nuns. But most striking of all, perhaps, is the nearly wordless struggle between Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh at the end of the film. Powell conceived this sequence in terms of opera, with the actors' movements guided by Brian Easdale's lush score. During rehearsal and shooting he used a piano track to set the mood and mark precise timings for the actors. Powell's approach to this scene opened the way for the radical stylization of his subsequent films The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951).

Rumer Godden (1907-1998), the noted British writer on whose novel the film is based, was born in Sussex, England. As a child Godden moved with her parents to India and lived in Assam and Bengal before returning to England to complete her studies. During the 1930s she began to publish her first novels, achieving a critical and popular breakthrough with Black Narcissus. Many critics have interpreted the novel in retrospect as a commentary on the ultimate failure of the British Empire's colonial project in India. In some respects, Godden would seem to play into stereotyped notions of the "East," with its supposed sensuality and narcissistic self-regard. This is embodied most clearly in the title, which refers to the perfume with which Dilip, the young General, douses himself. Similarly, in Powell and Pressburger's film, we first see the old General as he is gazing into an ornate mirror in the palace. However, both Godden and the filmmakers suggest that it is in fact a dual cultural misunderstanding that causes the convent to fail. At one point the old General blithely orders that the nuns be given tins of sausages, under the assumption that it is a typically "European" food. Later, Sister Ruth says dismissively of the locals: "They all look alike to me." Rumer Godden was said to prefer Jean Renoir's The River (1951) as an adaptation of her work, though Powell and Pressburger's film does retain the essentials of the book's plot and dialogue. The main difference between the film and novel of Black Narcissus is in style and tone: the film tends toward visually striking, at times melodramatic effects, whereas Godden's prose style is notably restrained.

As has often been observed, not a single foot of the film was shot in India. The Mopu palace-convent was constructed in Pinewood Studios, with matte paintings and painted backdrops providing views of the Himalayan landscape. Leonardslee, an extensive complex of gardens in Horsham, West Sussex, served as the valley below Mopu. (Leonardslee is open to visitors to this day.) The flashbacks depicting Sister Clodagh's memories of Ireland were shot on location in County Galway. The meticulous care behind Alfred Junge's set design for the palace is reflected in details such as the remarkably convincing murals of Indian nudes. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff deliberately modeled the delicate lighting of the convent scenes after Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other painters. Cardiff's work on this film is also noteworthy for his use of low-key lighting during certain sequences and, in general, lower light levels than usual for Technicolor stock, which was notorious for the amount of light it required on the set. Both Alfred Junge and Jack Cardiff deservedly won Academy Awards for their work.

Black Narcissus, however, is not just a work of visual design, and much of its effectiveness depends upon the superb acting in the lead roles. David Farrar later appeared in Powell and Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949) and a number of smaller films, but none of his roles ever matched the complexity and depth of Mr. Dean. Kathleen Byron is unforgettable as the mad Sister Ruth; she likewise did her best work with Powell and Pressburger--namely this film, The Small Back Room and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Lead actress Deborah Kerr first worked with Powell and Pressburger in Contraband (1940), in which she played a bit part; she followed this up with her triumphant triple role in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). For the part of Sister Clodagh, Powell claims in his autobiography that he initially thought of luring Greta Garbo out of seclusion. When Pressburger suggested Kerr, Powell initially expressed reservations that she was too young for the parttwenty-six at the time of production--but nonetheless agreed to cast her. By this time she was already under contract to MGM, which added considerably to the cost of signing her on. Black Narcissus was thus her last film in England before relocating to Hollywood. While Kerr went to many great roles, including a brilliant and underrated turn as the governess in The Innocents (1961), Sister Clodagh remains among the most confident and subtle performances of her career.

Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Adapted from the novel by Rumer Godden
Photography: Jack Cardiff
Music: Brian Easdale
Editor: Reginald Mills
Costumes: Hein Heckroth
Production design: Alfred Junge
Cast: Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh), David Farrar (Mr. Dean), Sabu (Dilip, the Young General), Flora Robson (Sister Phillippa), Esmond Knight (The Old General), Jean Simmons (Kanchi), Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth), Jenny Laird (Sister Honey), Judith Furse (Sister Briony), May Hallatt (Angu Ayah), Eddie Whaley, Jr. (Joseph Anthony), Shaun Noble (Con), Nancy Roberts (Mother Dorothea).
C-101m.

by James Steffen

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