Retro Reel Review #1 Black Narcissus (1947)

 Posted by on April 14, 2012 at 1:13 pm  Film
Apr 142012

Update:  11/10/12 — I’ve added an adjoining column onto this one — Retro Reel Gallery, where you can see more images from the movies I review here.   Just click here (on my other blog) to see it! 

 Welcome Basketcases to my new series, Retro Reel Review!  I’ll be reviewing movies from the golden age of cinema, from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, and I look forward to stirring your memories of old favorites and possibly introducing you to some you may have never seen!  So dig out the snacks and settle in!

I’m starting this series with what I consider to be one of the most remarkable achievements in British Cinematography.  From 1947, it is Black Narcissus.

Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and photographed in dreamlike Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, it was another in a string of daring films by The Archers Production Company, which had previously released The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and A Matter of Life and Death. With its elite cast and splendid production, Black Narcissus is a stunning masterpiece from start to finish, that lingers in your memory long after the final frame.

Deborah Kerr portrays young Anglican Sister Cladagh (pronounced ‘Clowe-duh’), whose name in Irish means “washing river”. A name most fitting, for as a storming river will rush over its banks, so a sense of disorientation and suppressed feelings will rush over Cladagh and the nuns in her care.  What begins as a noble mission becomes a trial of determination versus temptation.

Black Narcissus was adapted from the novel by Rumer Godden.  The nuns of a Calcutta convent have been given permission by the current Sultan of Mopu, The Old General, to use the old palace there for a new hospital and school.   Cladagh will be the youngest sister superior in charge of it all.  She is assigned four nuns to run the new convent: the gardener Philippa, the nurse Briony, the popular and sweet Blanch (a.k.a.’Honey)’ and then there is  Sr. Ruth, who is… ill.  We are not told exactly what her illness is, but we get the distinct impression that her short wick makes the other nuns uncomfortable.  Cladagh is concerned that Ruth will make trouble, but Dorothea insists that a smaller group will make her more manageable, and give her a feeling of importance.

“Do you think it’s a good thing to make her feel important?” Cladagh asks.

“Spare her some of your own importance.” Mother replies, for she senses arrogance in the young nun.

But Cladagh’s own arrogance isn’t her only challenge.  The Palace at Mopu, which is renamed Saint Faith, was formerly used as a seraglio for the many wives of the late Sultan. (The current Sultan’s grandfather).   It is 8000 feet up in the Himalayas, its walls covered in murals of naked concubines, with continuous winds and faulty plumbing.  Cladagh is reluctant to call upon Mr. Dean, (David Farrar) the earthy Government Land Agent who is there to help them, for he too is arrogant, not to mention distractingly sexy.

Dean is hardly civil to the Cladagh in their first meeting.  As he puffs his pipe, she demands to talk to him on business.  He blatantly replies “I don’t suppose you want to talk to me on anything else”  Cladagh chooses to ignore his patent magnetism.  In time she accepts his friendship, if nothing more, as she struggles to make the community successful.  But Dean has little faith in St Faith; “I’ll give you until the rains come” he scoffs.

But the initial problems facing the nuns at St. Faith are compounded by several factors.  First, the masses of locals flowing in and out of their dispensary were paid to come by the Old General.  A young girl, Kanchi (Jean Simmons) is brought to them by Dean to get her off of his doorstep. The son of the Old General, The Young General, (Sabu) is reluctantly admitted to be a student at the girls-only school, but he is a distraction to the other students and Kanchi in particular.

The mystique and sensual atmosphere of the old brothel itself becomes the biggest problem. Between the clean, thin air, the scent of the Young General’s cologne, (hence, the title) or perhaps the spirits of the harem, the nuns become less and less able to concentrate on their assigned tasks.  Sr. Philippa plants flowers instead of the needed vegetables, and she and Cladagh are overtaken with nostalgic memories of their lives before entering the sisterhood.  Cladagh recalls being in love and recalling the material gifts of 1 oz gold bar jewelry from her grandmother with her former beau. (She is so stunningly beautiful here, it’s a shame her flame red hair is covered throughout the movie!)  Sr. Ruth is the most dangerously affected as she is drawn deeper into her fascination with Mr. Dean, mistakenly taking a brief compliment he paid her as attraction.  Her decreasing sanity is fueled by her passion for the aloof Dean and jealousy for Cladagh’s friendship with him.

The cinematography is so haunting and beautiful in this film, and every scene is a painting.  One must applaud Jack Cardiff in his mastery of chiaroscuro.   The opening scene is straight out of a Vermeer, as Mother Superior waits for Cladagh, with the sun streaming through a window into the folds of her wimple. We first see Sister Ruth from behind as she throws open the doors leading to the bell tower, her habit and wimple blow high behind her, briefly exposing the back of her head, as if a hint that what lies beneath reveals  her possible destiny. There are dramatic contrasts galore: stark white habits against the blue Himalayan heights, quiet needlework versus loud drums, and most importantly, calm demeanor versus raging hysteria.  As Sr. Ruth descends into madness, her eyes practically glow red, and when she appears in the doorway for a final showdown with Cladagh, it is a frighteningly iconic image.

Black Narcissus is a richly dramatic and highly erotic film, but it also has many funny and sweet moments, especially provided by the secondary characters.   The old hag caretaker of the palace, Ayah, makes no secret for her dislike of the nuns “They’ll be no fun!” and even mocks them in a moment of crisis. The Young General makes clear the study plan he wishes to follow, “I will take Science from the science nun, and Physics from the physical nun!”  Kanchi sneaks peeks at the Young General during classes and swoons at the scent of his cologne. And little Joseph, who translates for the nuns, proudly announces his age as “Between 6 and 11!”  From these gems and our first glimpse of Mr. Dean riding in on a tiny pony there is plenty of comic relief. It is a film not to be missed, and it’s available on a beautiful Criterion DVD as well as on TCM and Netflix.   Hope you get to see it soon!

As an added inducement, I’ll add a Snacking Game to most of the movies I review.  So grab the Bugles!

SNACKING GAME: You must have another bite or take another sip every time you hear the term “Limone” (pronounced “LIH-Mo-NEE”)

Cast:  Sister Clodagh – Deborah Kerr , Sister Philippa — Flora Robson, Sister Honey – Jenny Laird, Sister Briony – Judith Furse, Sister Ruth — Kathleen Byron Mr. Dean – David Farrar, The Old General – Esmond Knight, The Young General –Sabu,Kanchi – Jean Simmons, Angu Ayah – May Hallat, Joseph – Eddie Whaley Jr. Con — Shaun Noble, Mother Dorothea – Nancy Roberts

See you next Saturday!


  11 Responses to “Retro Reel Review #1 Black Narcissus (1947)”

  1. What I like best, or at least remember best about this movie (I haven’t seen it in years) is that they never really explain why the nuns begin to behave oddly. When the sister plants flowers instead of vegetables, she’s embarassed, but can’t give a reason. I loved that. If they’d given a reason (the thin air, ghosts, sexual repression, whatever) it would have killed the poetry of the concept for me.There’s just …something about the place.

    My favorite Powell/Pressburger film is still The Red Shoes, but this is wonderful, too.

  2. I’ve got the Criterion Collection for this on my Wish List, so maybe next month…

  3. Is this review series going to include non english language movies? Don Draper mentions several that are well worth seeing. I’d like to recommend “Black Orpheus”(a great unconventional musical) and “The Leopard”. If you’ve seen “The Leopard” you can’t miss the themes that are also part of MM.

  4. Thanks for the suggestions, Mike. I’m mostly covering Hollywood movies, but I’m sure there’s some non-english language ones I’ll look into.

  5. A MAGNIFICENT film!

    It’s right up there with the other masterful Powell & Pressburger films – The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway To Heaven), I Know Where I’m Going, Forty-Ninth Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Tales of Hoffmann, etc. These guys were incredibly brilliant!

    Anyway, I wholeheartedly agree that this is a classic that deserves to be better known to today’s film fans. It is worth it for Jack Cardiff’s amazing Technicolor cinematography alone, but there’s so much more than that: a feast of great acting (Kerr is magnificient, but she’s overshadowed by the showier work from many others in the cast, e.g., Kathleen Byron as increasingly unhinged Sister Ruth), a fascinating meditation on the power of place, and an interesting exploration of how the British were unable to “tame” India… made nearly at the moment that the British Raj was ending.

    Here’s something I rarely say, being a fifty-year film buff/collector/scholar with vast interest in and knowledge of movies: This is one of my favorite films. Well, one of my favorite Powell & Pressburger films, anyway…

    • Well Doctor, the first time I saw it, it blew me away. And it’s remained one of my favorites ever since. Good to hear from you, Thanks.

  6. This is my favorite film ever! (and when you’re 27, that’s a surefire conversation ender to the “favorite movie” discussion. 🙂 ) Try explaining the plot to a bunch of drunk kids at a college party, good times.

  7. Keep fighting the good fight, tmfak! Hey, maybe it you do the snacking (or drinking) game with them you can get them more interested!) Remember ‘limone!’

    • Actually, I’ve gotten good response from the people I’ve shown it to, so that’s something. Although IMHO Deborah Kerr should be more than enough to hold anyone’s attention 🙂

  8. You might consider Cocteau’s Orphee.

  9. […] starting with the first movie review I wrote, Black Narcissus from 1947.   You can read my review here.   This picture had gorgeous and moody cinematography as you will see […]

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