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TV Guide review

Black narcissus (1947)

English cinema reached its creative peak in a glorious series of films made in the 1940s by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Among the best of them was Black Narcissus, a neglected masterpiece of melodrama about the disintegration of an Anglo-Catholic mission in the Himalayan mountains.

Five Anglican nuns are sent to the high Himalayas to establish a school and a medical dispensary. Things immediately begin to go badly for Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the young sister superior: the natives have to be bribed into using the services offered by the nuns; their main source of advice and guidance, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), an Englishman who works in the area, is sarcastic and arrogant; and each of the sisters is having difficulty adjusting to the windswept environment and exotic culture -- particularly Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), a neurotic young woman who fiercely resents Sister Clodagh.

No sooner have the natives become accustomed to utilizing the new facilities than a baby the nuns have treated dies and the villagers become distant and hostile. To make matters worse, Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) has requested a transfer, Sister Ruth has renounced her vows, and Dilip Rai (Sabu), a highborn student at the convent school, runs off with Kanchi (Jean Simmons), a seductive orphan girl who lives with the nuns. Tormented by failure and haunted by memories of the past, Sister Clodagh confides in Mr. Dean, telling him of her youth in Ireland and of her childhood sweetheart, who abandoned her to move to America.

One night, Sister Clodagh visits Sister Ruth's room to find her in a burgundy civilian dress, about to leave the convent for good. Sister Clodagh exhorts her to stay, at least until morning, and seats herself at a table, determined to spend the night. When Sister Clodagh falls asleep, Sister Ruth makes her way down to Mr. Dean's house in the valley. There, she tells him that she loves him, is rebuffed, and, after spitefully accusing him of being in love with Sister Clodagh, returns to the convent in a jealous rage.

It is now early morning. Weary and despondent, Sister Clodagh begins the customary tolling of the convent bells, which sit on the edge of a precipitous cliff. As she is doing so, Sister Ruth, by now quite mad, comes up behind her and tries to push her over the edge. In the struggle that ensues, Sister Ruth falls to her death.

Their mission a total failure, the nuns prepare to leave the Himalayas. Mr. Dean comes to say goodbye to Sister Clodagh. Now very fond of her, perhaps even in love, he takes her hand and she departs.

Powell surprised his colleagues when he opted to shoot Black Narcissus entirely in England, thus assuring the movie a uniform look. "The atmosphere in this film is everything," he said, "and we must create and control it from the start." Powell's strategy resulted in a film of astonishing beauty, power, and style, a lovingly crafted artifact in which drama is heightened but never swamped by effect.

"There's something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated," says Mr. Dean to Sister Clodagh, and Powell and crew seem to have adopted that line as the key to the entire production. Particularly crucial to the movie's success was the bold production design of Alfred Junge, for which he received a deserved Oscar. Junge obviously loved latticework and applied it liberally to his sets, creating patters and, with the help of lighting effects, patterns within patterns that are at times breathtaking--in particular, a shot in which Sister Ruth rushes toward the camera through a Caligarian corridor, then lurches left and stops behind a screen-filling hunk of fancy latticework that seems to have materialized from nowhere.

By the time he directed Black Narcissus, Powell had become almost obsessed with the idea of making "a composed film" -- one which is shot to the rhythms of pre-existing music, a reversal of the customary procedure. He experimented with this technique in one of Black Narcissus's key reels, the stretch in which Sister Ruth stalks and tries to kill Sister Clodagh. "I have never enjoyed myself so much in my life," he reported. "I swore this was the only way to make films." Later in his career, he would extend this technique to an entire movie, The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). It's a measure of Powell's filmmaking genius that this pre-timed segment of Black Narcissus registers as hardly more carefully wrought than the rest of the movie.

Within this climactic reel occurs one of the most electrifying shots ever seen on the screen: the image of Sister Ruth, sweated with passion and madness, emerging from the convent to eliminate her imagined rival, Sister Clodagh. One could comb hundreds of horror movies before finding a shot to match the ghastly beauty of this one.

Powell was one of the very few moviemakers with the brass to depict a character who never speaks but is not a mute. (Another was fellow Brit, Carol Reed, who showcased a similarly speechless seductress in his 1951 film, An Outcast of the Islands.) 17-year-old Jean Simmons' portrayal of the silent hussy Kanchi provided the tepid decade with one of its most memorable hot spells -- a performance that, according to Powell, instantly induced Stewart Granger to propose to her. Powell, in fact, believed Black Narcissus to be "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."

In 1948, Black Narcissus failed to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, an award that went to Gentleman's Agreement (1947), a static, black-and-white picture diametrically opposed to Powell and Pressburger's ravishing Technicolor film in both form and content. Why was (and is) Black Narcissus's so undervalued? Perhaps because -- in addition to being a melodrama, a perennially unfashionable genre -- the film implies that we are not all brothers and sisters under the skin and that some cultural distances cannot be closed, despite the best intentions. This illiberal attitude has never sat well with the cinema's critical and executive powers-that-be.

Black Narcissus's story may be a little hokey when you stop and think about it (but only when you stop and think about it) -- an apparent throwback to "the-natives-are-restless" mindset, complete with sinister, portentous drum pounding and dusty vixen. Its themes and characters are not to be scorned, however, and its extraordinary artistry deserves nothing less than grateful applause. (Violence.)

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