I was familiar with the famous British writing and directing team of (Michael) Powell and (Emiric) Pressburger from film school. But until recently, my exposure to their work had been quite limited. I’m in the middle of remedying that.
I had the chance two years ago to see a 35mm film version of their The Red Shoes (1948), often called one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, Technicolor film ever made. Seeing it in the theatre, on film, I can’t argue with that. It was stunning.
That film was preceded by Black Narcissus (1947), which won Oscars (rare then for a foreign film) for Best Cinematography (by the legendary Jack Cardiff) and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color. That film, too, is stunning, and more than visually. But let’s start with the look of it. Three-strip Technicolor (what we tend to think of as Technicolor) was just a dozen years old by 1947, but already there was an American and a British look. The American look was bright, more primary-color oriented, and tended to feature high-key lighting. There were of course American experiments, such as The Garden of Allah (1936), A Star is Born (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Yearling (1946) that tended to soften the often hard edges of Technicolor films. But during this same period, the British developed a softer look, with moodier, more directional lighting not seen in their American counterparts.
Black Narcissus is a prime example, and worth a look just for that. Every shot bursts with color, ranging from eye-popping brilliant to subdued, gentle, and lovely. If you haven’t seen a color Powell-Pressburger film, it will surprise you, as it looks like nothing you’ve seen before. They have created a world of beauty, danger, and mystery, even hysteria, all in a gorgeous package.
It would be easy to say by today’s standards that the film is too beautiful, and some shots too self-consciously so. But that is all of a piece with the rest of the film. The whole film is just over the top. It’s a melodrama that doesn’t present itself as such. Everything about the film is just a little “too,” and that is part of its strength.
The story is of a group of nuns that make their way to the Himalayas to inhabit something of a castle and serve the local community with medical care and education. Without spoiling too much, the challenge isn’t anyone or any particular situation, but the entire area itself. The setting becomes a character in itself, and a powerful, elusive one that consistently undermines the group and their efforts.
Again, by today’s standards, the special effects may not seem as dazzling as they must have seemed then. But knowing that the film was shot entirely in England, and primarily on sound stages, is amazing when one sees the final product. It’s said that some folks from India wrote to say that they recognized the places filmed, even though every steep cliff and mountain is an optical trick. It’s as great an advance in the area of special effects as King Kong and Gone with the Wind were in their day.
A surprising theme for its time is the issue of sexual hysteria. The film belongs to a young (actually, too young) Deborah Kerr, who plays the Sister Superior with precision and passion (and who won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress). But it is Kathleen Byron whom a viewer will never forget as the nun who loses her focus, her control, and the reins on her libido. (Here again, the use of color by the directors and cinematographer is invaluable in advancing the story.) Her breakdown and transformation is frightening, and the shot of her face as she begins her final scene seems shockingly modern. The cause of much of the tension is the presence of David Farrar, who walks around in shorts, and occasionally, shirtless, representing masculinity, machismo, and male sexuality all at once. He is the focus of Byron’s character’s lust, but his strongest moments come in his powerful conversations with Kerr’s character—two strong polar opposites, attracted and repelled (at least on her part) at the same time.
The film fairly pulsates with spectacular color, geographical and sexual tension, with a classic melodramatic plot that unleashes itself slowly and powerfully. For those who want to see what luscious color can look like in the hands of an artist, it doesn’t get better than Black Narcissus. The same can be said for those interested in what can be accomplished with technology and without having to travel to far-off lands. The story itself is intriguing and gradually captivating. How it’s told takes the film to another level.