Black Narcissus (1947): Revisiting Powell and Pressburger’s Masterpiece, Erotic Drama, Starring Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons

One of the most gorgeously shot color films, Black Narcissus, a highlight of the British cinema of the 1940s, was directed by the gifted team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, perhaps better known for their follow-up masterpiece, The Red Shoes (1948).

Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

The film had deservedly won two Oscar Awards, for color cinematography and for art direction. (See below).

Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, which was published in 1939, adapted to the screen by Powell and Pressburger, it’s an intensely erotic drama about sexual repression, laced with Freudian psychology, dealing specifically with the tensions between the id, the ego, and the superego.

The tale concerns a group of Anglican nuns who attempt to establish a school and hospital in the Himalayas.  The young Deborah Kerr, in a breakthrough role and just before moving to Hollywood, shines as the young and ambitious Sister Clodagh, who clashes with the natives, as well as with her peers and superiors.

Early on, Clodagh meets the handsome British government agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a handsome cynical, down to earth man, who symbolizes masculinity in his looks, dress and behavior.  There is overt sexual tension between Dean and Clodah, who’s is physically attracted to him, but obviously cannot act on her impulses.  Instead, she gazes at him more than he gazes at her, and the directors display his virility, when he appears in shorts and sandals, or bears his chest.

The film features the Indian-born actor Sabu, in his last major role, as Dilip Rai, a rich, bejeweled young General (who wears Black Narcissus perfume).  Sabu is the only authentic casting; the other natives are played by white actors (as was the norm at the time).

Kanchi,  the wildly seductive native girl, is played with heavy make-up by the very young Jean Simmons, two years before she essayed the role of Ophelia in Olivier’s “Hamlet,” for which she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Tensions build up and the emotionally intense drama reaches its climax, when Sister Ruth (Kathlyn Byron) becomes attracted to Mr. Dean, and is determined to show her interest; she applies a hot red lipstick.   Naturally, her “deviant” behavior causes strains and increases jealousy with the other sisters, and ultimately leads to a tragedy, when she accidentally falls to her death after engaging in a fight with Clodagh, around the bells at the top of the convent.

The film is at its most powerful in depicting the heavy price of sexual repression and emotional restraint, and how they cause animosity, intrigues, hysteria, and even death.

Like the directors’ other films (“The Death of Colonel Blimp”), Black Narcissus presents a critique of the rigid mores of British society.  Intensely dramatic scenes are alternated with lyrical flashbacks, in which Sister Clodagh recalls her happy (happier?) romantic days before entering the convent. The flashbacks, which are brief, are consistently shown from her subjective POV.

These scenes were controversial and the censors (the Catholic Legion of Decency) demanded that the producers excise them from the theatrical version that played in 1947.  However, those scenes were later restored, and there’s no doubt that they are necessary in adding complexity to Clodagh’s character. We get the impression that Clodagh is still tormented, in fact torn, between the austere lifestyle, dictated by her position (ego), her conscience (superego), and her inner physical and emotional instincts (her id).

Thematically, Fred Zinnemann’s 1959 drama The Nun’s Story, starring Audrey Hepburn as a conflicted nun, who ultimately realizes that she is really not built up to be a fully devoted nun, may have been inspired by “Black Narcissus,” though it takes a different visual approach.

The film was largely made at the Pinewood Studios, but some scenes were shot in Leonardslee Gardens, West Sussex, the home of a retired Indian military.  In lieu of on location exteriors, the directors use large matte and landscape paintings to suggest the mountainous environment of the Himalayas. Black Narcissus is so stylized that the artifice becomes integral to the overall scheme.

In his memoirs, Powell later recalled: “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 color control to the very end. Sometimes in a film its theme or its color are more important than the plot.”

Black Narcissus was released in May of 1947, only a few months before India declared Independence from Britain, in August 1947.  The changing political context has obviously influenced the way in which the film was interpreted, particularly its ending.

Made on a budget of £280,000 (about $1.3 million), Black Narcissus was a commercial success at the time of its initial release.

But there is no doubt that the film received much greater critical acclaim decades later by a new generation of critics, such as Andrew Sarris, and filmmakers, prime among them Martin Scorsese.

Cast:

Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh

Sabu as The Young Genera

David Farrar as Mr. Dean

Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth

Flora Robson as Sister Philippa

Jenny Laird as Sister Honey

Judith Furse as Sister Briony

Esmond Knight as The Old Genera

Jean Simmons as Kanchi

May Hallatt as Angu Ayah

Eddie Whaley Jr. as Joseph, young interpreter

Shaun Noble as Con, Clodagh’s sweetheart

Nancy Roberts as Mother Dorothea

 

Acting Award

Deborah Kerr won the Best Actress Award from the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) for this film as well for I See a Dark Stranger.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Cinematography (Color): Jack Cardiff (who later became a distinguished director on his own right).

Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color): Alfred Junge

 

Oscar Awards: 2

Cinematography

Art Direction-set Decoration

 

Oscar Context

In 1947, the two frontrunners in the Best Picture category were: Kazan’s anti-Semitism drama “Gentleman’s Agreement” (which won) and Edward Dmytryk’s “Crossfire,” which lost in each of its five nominated categories.  The other contenders were David Lean’s “Great Expectations” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”  Kazan won Best Director, the editing Oscar went to Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish for the boxing drama, “Body and Soul,” and the Scoring Oscar was given to Miklos Rozsa for “A Double Life.”

Credits 

Release Date: May 26, 1947
Running time: 100 minutes

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