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Black Narcissus (Blu-ray Review)

19 Jul, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 7/20/10
$39.95 DVD or Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Sabu, Jean Simmons.

Thanks to an unusual story stirringly told plus apt and imaginative casting, the high-Fahrenheit 1947 film version of Rumer Godden’s novel (one that she of a calmer psyche didn’t like) played well even when shown in black-and-white in early TV showings decades ago.

Not that this is by any means the way to see the movie. Alfred Junge’s production design and Jack Cardiff’s cinematography both won Oscars, and just about anyone would have to give the result — which gets an extra emotional push from Brian Easdale’s score — serious consideration as one of the 10 most beautiful color movies of all time. 

In fact, the three most impressive theatrical prints I have seen in my lifetime were nitrate originals of Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, the 1943 Phantom of the Opera (another cinematography Oscar winner) and this all-timer from the long-standing Brit film team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which the Blu-ray pretty well equals.

Like so many movies from the team, it has an even better rep now than it did at the time, when it was jointly filmed by P&P just before their collaboration on The Red Shoes (itself the object of Criterion Blu-ray treatment this week). Around the time Hollywood was in a heyday of film noir and Italian neo-realism was examining the fall-out from a wound-down war and the attendant post-war squalor, here was a Technicolor psychological drama with religious overtones that dramatized the challenge of British Anglican nuns to bring a sense of order to what is at least physical paradise in the Himalayas. And, after some lessons learned the hard way, finding themselves unable to complete the task. One of the order, assigned to plant vegetables, instead opts for flowers. The setting brings out the sensual side of its new inhabitants, and it’s fitting that the nuns’ headquarters formerly housed an Indian potentate who employed it as living quarters for certain female acquaintances. (And to quote Frank Sinatra on his classic live Sinatra at the Sands album, “I cleaned that up.”)

In her final British film before conquering Hollywood to a degree that only a few actresses of her generation did, Deborah Kerr plays supervising Sister Clodagh, and even she, as we see, hasn’t always been “all business.” A brief but memorable flashback pictures her in a stream with a long-gone fiancé — fishing — but even this was too much for American censors of the day, who jettisoned the scene because, in the twisted thinking of the day, a nun presumably wasn’t allowed to have had any secular kind of existence before she became one. I think of this whenever blind nostalgia types wax on about the good old days — both in movies and real life.

The supporting characters have no shortage of colorful characters. In an artistic step up from his ubiquitous second-bananna-dom in Universal’s Maria Montez vehicles, there’s Sabu (previously of 1940’s beloved The Thief of Bagdad, which Powell co-directed without Pressburger) as a character alternately known as “Dilip” or “The Young General.” (Whatever his name, the perfume he wears provides the movie with its title.) And almost concurrently with her role as Ophelia in Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning Hamlet, a very young Jean Simmons got cast as “Kanchi,” a young Indian woman cast off by her family and given some nurturing by the nuns. And then there’s Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the Brit overseer of the palatial digs and a hunk of outdoor man in that Hugh Jackman/Australia kind of way. This last trait causes major problems and helps doom the nuns’ mission to be termed less than a success.

The payoff scene involves emotionally unbalanced Sister Ruth (an unforgettable Kathleen Byron), who probably ought to be fitted with a Lindsay Lohan ankle bracelet. A few looks at and exchanges with Farrar, and she starts to belong on the cover of some future Mickey Spillane paperback, dressed in a negligee and with a haze of cigarette smoke in the background. Their payoff scene, which leads to another between Byron and Kerr, is splendidly acted and makes you wonder why both didn’t become bigger stars, though they did work well together a year later in Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room (and Farrar solo in the filmmaking duo’s underrated Gone to Earth).

The team elected not to go to India, reasoning that color footage from any location work would fail to match what would be shot in the studio. So the entire movie was filmed in England and indoors, except for a few nearby exteriors. One of many advantages to this was controlling the lighting, and you can see what Cardiff was able to do just by looking at the magnificent color stills that appear in the Blu-ray booklet.

The accompanying essay is by Kent Jones, who wrote the great 2007 Val Lewton documentary (Man in the Shadows) that Martin Scorsese narrated — as well as an upcoming portrait (with Scorsese as well) of director Elia Kazan. Between it and several more supplements — some carried over from Criterion’s 2001 standard DVD and some not — you learn a lot about the production. (As in: Kerr and Powell had previously had some romantic history, but he feared she was too young for the role.)

All this reminds me that I should finally get around to reading my copies of Powell’s two-volume autobiography — the first of which my old film school prof William K. Everson called one of the five best film books he ever read. And he devoured a few.

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