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Original at Jerome's pages

Alton Jerome McFarland



Madness through Music:

An Analysis of Sound in Black Narcissus

    Black Narcissus, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is a compelling film about a group of Anglican nuns and their doomed religious mission. The conservative sisters, having established their community in a sumptuous Himalayan paradise, soon find themselves struggling to maintain control over their own suppressed emotions and desires. Through a powerful score and attentive audio editing, the sound of Black Narcissus manages to do much more than merely complement the visual action. As the nuns face their internal conflicts, the film's sound is often the clearest indicator of mood and character intention. In particular, Powell and Pressburger's depiction of Sister Ruth's final descent into madness is replete with music and sound effects whose function is to advance the narrative, rather than simply fill the silence.

    The sequence begins with a dissolve from Sister Ruth's face into a close shot of the jungle. As the dissolve begins, the low sound of tribal drums appears and slowly rises in volume. Simultaneously, the camera tracks down below the canopy of trees, revealing a group of natives seated around a fire. The drumming is revealed to have a diegetic source, as the viewer is now able to see the natives actually beating on drums. That revelation does nothing to lessen the drums effect, however, as the steady beating sound, combined with the tension already present at this point in the film, creates an extremely suspenseful mood.

    When the scene cuts to a shot of Sister Clodagh entering a darkened palace walkway, the drumming sound can still be heard, though much lower, and thereby provides a spatial link between the two locations.

    While it remains unclear exactly what turn the plot will take, the drumming sound is a clear precursor of impending conflict. The drumming gives a feeling of ominous regularity that begs to be disrupted. That effect parallels the unease that the viewer is already feeling with regard to the state of the nuns' mission. Preceding scenes have made it clear that the success of their undertaking is in grave danger. With one sister returning home and Sister Ruth showing signs of paranoia, the fate of their Himalayan community already seems bleak. The continuation of the drumming sound from the natives to Sister Clodagh serves to connect the drums' ominous tone, not only with its diegetic source, but also with the mood of the film as a whole. As the scene progresses and Sister Clodagh begins to move down the hallway, the sound of a strong wind rises quickly in volume until it completely blocks out the noise of the drums. Coupled with the shot's imposing darkness and the billowing white drapes that occupy the center of the frame, the windy sound effects seem almost ghostly.

    When Sister Clodagh moves down the walkway, she is shown stopping at the door of each sister to listen. Here Powell and Pressburger privilege the viewer to Clodagh's auditory perspective, as the voice of each sister inside their rooms is heard as Clodagh leans against their respective doors. As she moves from room to room, Clodagh's rounds give the viewer insight into the true condition of the nuns inside. By allowing us to hear their voices when they believe they are alone, Powell and Pressburger are able to move beyond the nuns' formal outward appearance to show their "true" condition. In a film where characters' thoughts are not made audible, the directors have cleverly used sound and staging to portray the nuns' inner feelings. The revelation of those feelings, however, does nothing to lighten the already ominous mood, as we successively hear desperate prayer and uncontrolled sobbing from the first two doors. Her third stop, at least, does nothing to further darken the mood, for the sound of snoring is all that issues from within. Continuing down the walkway, Sister Clodagh approaches the door of Sister Ruth. As she does so, the sound of the natives' drums briefly overcomes the wind as if to signal the significance of what lies beyond that particular door. Noticing light coming from beneath Ruth's door, Sister Clodagh knocks and inquires "Sister, are you there?" These are the first words that Clodagh has spoken, though the scene is over a minute old. The sound of her voice, clear over the now muted howl of the wind, is almost startling, especially in comparison to the more muffled voices that issued from the first three rooms. When the light from within disappears and Clodagh is unable to open the door, her voice takes on a more anxious tone as she asks "Sister, do you want me to wake the others!?!" After rattling the door once more, we see a shadowy figure inside the room remove a chair that had been propped against the door. Cued by the noise made from the chair's removal, Clodagh immediately bursts into the room. The sound of the door slamming against the wall punctuates her violent entrance. The viewer is then shown a close shot of Clodagh's face as she reacts to what she sees within. Accompanying that reaction shot is a single non-diegetic drum beat that accentuates the sudden shock expressed on Clodagh's face. As we see the source of Clodagh's shock, a shadowed Sister Ruth clad in a brazenly red dress, trumpeting horns and then the sound of a ghostly chorus drown out all other sound. The chorus' entrance into the soundtrack at the precise moment of Ruth's appearance is obviously no coincidence. Powell and Pressburger are using the almost supernatural sound of the chorus to illustrate just how far from reality Sister Ruth has withdrawn. Ruth begins to speak, and her voice soon takes on a manic pitch as she tells Clodagh that, "You have nothing to do with me anymore!" As Clodagh tries to convince Ruth to return home with a departing sister, the ghostly chorus backgrounds their speech. Ruth's responses are accompanied by an eerie change in the sound of the chorus. At these moments the chorus increases in both volume and intensity and seems on the verge of becoming a scream. These fluctuations in the chorus are being used by Powell and Pressburger to depict the rapid fluctuations of Ruth's mental state, as she teeters on the brink of madness. Only when Ruth turns away from Clodagh and quiets, does the chorus begin to fade. At this point, Sister Clodagh sees her opportunity and begins trying to reason with Ruth. Again, the soundtrack plays an important role as it helps the viewer see the transition of scene focus from Ruth to Clodagh. When Ruth is turned away, we are shown a shot of Clodagh as she regains her composure and begins to move slowly towards Ruth. This shot is also the point where the soundtrack transitions from the fading chorus that represented Ruth's madness, to more serene flute-driven music that represents Clodagh attempts to calm her. Clodagh offers to stay and wait out the night with Ruth. Once Clodagh sits, though, Ruth turns from the window and slowly breaks into an insane smile. Her change in expression is accompanied by a loud resumption of the ghostly chorus that has come to represent her madness. Largely through sound, it has been made clear to the viewer, though not to Sister Clodagh, that Ruth is beyond reason and merely cooperating temporarily. The scene's non-diegetic sound has allowed Powell and Pressburger to convey internal information about each character to the audience. Ruth does not know that Clodagh is simply trying to help her, just as Clodagh remains unaware of the extent of Ruth's madness. We, as viewers, however, have been given that information though well-timed manipulation of the score. When Ruth finally sits down with Sister Clodagh, the ghostly chorus enters again as Ruth begins applying lipstick. As they sit, we see the film skip forward to later in the night. The music is now much more subdued and the sound of the wind can again be heard. We see Clodagh, asleep, as her prayer book falls from her hands. The fall of the book signals to Ruth that Clodagh is actually asleep and spurs her into action. Immediately, the score, mostly horns at this point, begins rising in volume and intensity to match Ruth's hurried actions as she prepares to leave. Just as Ruth exits the room Clodagh wakes up. It is too late, however, and Ruth locks her in.

    Up to this point in the film, there has always been some distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. After Ruth locks Clodagh in, however, there is a startling overlap between score and dialogue. When the scene cuts to a shot of Ruth outside the room, the viewer simultaneously hears Ruth's maniacal laughter and a sudden, particularly loud resurgence of the ghostly chorus. The distinction between these two sounds, though, can only be made on very close inspection. At first pass, sounds' overlap makes it seem as though the ghostly chorus is crazily laughing right along with Ruth. This serves to make Ruth seem all the more dangerous, as it appears that her madness has crept even into the non-diegetic sound. Only as Ruth hurries down the walkway and ceases her laughter, does it become clear that it was only she who was laughing. As Ruth escapes and the ghostly chorus increases in tempo, we see Sister Clodagh, finally free from the room, rushing futilely to try and stop her. When she reaches the end of the walkway, though, Clodagh realizes that she is too late and that Ruth is already gone. As if to verify that fact, the ghostly chorus representative of Ruth's insanity quickly fades away allowing Clodagh to yell into perfect silence "...wake up!!! Sister Ruth has gone mad!!!!" Clodagh's words, besides bringing the problem with Sister Ruth out into the open, are a breakpoint for a drastic change in the film's score. After Clodagh speaks, Ruth's ghostly chorus is replaced by more pensive music created by stringed instruments (very similar to what would later be done in Psycho) representative of the current panic that the now-gathering nuns all feel. Their mood continues to be reflected in the score as the pensive music continues for the few shots where we see the nuns frantically searching the grounds for Sister Ruth. Their search yields no results, though, and the scene cuts to the nearby jungle where we see Ruth stumbling through the trees towards Mr. Dean's house.

    In keeping with film's pattern, a change in the onscreen situation is accompanied by a change in the score. Now, as Ruth stumbles through the jungle, we again hear the native drums that we heard at the start of the sequence. The sound of the drums is much clearer now than when we heard it on the walkway, giving the viewer a sense of off-screen space as we know that Ruth has moved a good distance from the palace. Ruth's walk through the jungle is also accompanied by numerous sound effects (the chirping of crickets, the squawks of birds, the chatter of monkeys, etc.). At one point Ruth is visibly startled by a mysterious growl. In this scene, Powell and Pressburger are utilizing sound effects to make the jungle seem dangerous and alive. Ruth hears noises all around her, but cannot see the sources and it is clear to the viewer that she's intruding into an area where she does not belong. Those jungle sounds, especially when combined with the continuing beat of the native drums, give the scene a very primal atmosphere that fits well with the primal urges that have driven Sister Ruth insane.

    When Ruth finally reaches Mr. Dean's house, the film's sound undergoes yet another telling change. As she walks through the doorway, watched from the jungle by Dean, the jungle sound effects cease and a more romantic theme begins to dominate the soundtrack. The soft, melodious music represents Ruth's hopes for a relationship with Mr. Dean. Still, while Ruth wanders through the house, the native drums can be heard in the background. Even though Ruth appears to have calmed, the viewer knows that she is unstable and could snap at any moment. The sound of the drums underlying the more romantic music again heightens the suspense as the viewer waits to see what will transpire. When Dean approaches her from behind and makes his presence known, we see Ruth spin around in anticipation. When she does so, we see Dean's surprise at the drastic change in her appearance. As they start to converse, the romantic music begins decreasing in volume. This change in volume has two effects. For practical purposes, it was necessary to lower the music to allow Dean and Ruth's conversation to be heard. Viewed in relation to the on-screen action, however, the lowering of musical volume has another, equally significant purpose. When the romantic music is lowered, it drops to the same volume-level as the still-beating native drums. While Ruth was alone in the house, her delusion was dominant and so the romantic music dominated the soundtrack. Now, however, Dean is also present and so the soundtrack has become equally reflective of Ruth's hopes and the tense inevitability of her rejection.

    As they converse, Ruth's voice quickly betrays her manic state as it becomes loud and high-pitched. Dean, sensing her agitation, tries to keep his voice even and controlled. Despite these attempts, his rebukes of her advances only increase her agitation. By this point there is no trace of the romantic music and Dean's mention of Sister Clodagh especially serves to incense the already unstable Ruth. Finally, when Ruth accuses Dean of being in love with Clodagh and out of frustration he yells, "I don't love anyone!", Ruth snaps. Her breakdown is depicted visually and aurally. As we see the scene from Ruth's perspective, red swaths of color begin invading the screen, the native drums dramatically increase in volume, and she is heard manically chanting "Clodagh!, Clodagh!, CLODAGH!!!" louder and louder. Just before Ruth faints and the shot fades out, we even hear animalistic jungle sounds accompanying the now dominant native drums, as if to signify that Ruth's primal side has triumphed over her sanity.

    The next shot is of Sister Ruth, lying prostrate on a wicker chair. The scene's climax having already passed, the native drums are no longer heard. Ruth's condition at this point is unclear. When she opens her eyes, however, the action is accompanied by a loud resumption of the ghostly chorus that represented her madness in the earlier scenes. It is clear at this point that Ruth has gone completely mad. As she goes to leave, the ghostly chorus is interrupted briefly as she kisses Dean's hand while he puts on her coat. When she does this, the romantic music that represented her now-dashed hopes resumes for a moment. It disappears just as quickly as it resumed, however, and Sister Ruth rushes back out towards the palace and Sister Clodagh, full of murderous intent.

    In their depiction of Sister Ruth's descent into madness, Powell and Pressburger have utilized the film's soundtrack to both set the tone and to relay information. By tailoring the score not only to express the mood of a particular scene, but often to represent the mental state of a particular character or group of characters, they are able to keep dialogue to a minimum. In a film so visually rich, it can be easy to overlook the important role played by sound, but in viewing Black Narcissus this would be a grave mistake. For as the film shows us, motivations need not always be expressed in words, for the resumption of a specific theme or the intrusion of a particular noise can serve just as well to intimate a character's thoughts and feelings.

Sequence Sound Segmentation

Shot Voice Effects Action/Camera

natives drumming drum beat tracks down from trees to close shot of natives.
(Duration: 24 seconds)

(Clodagh enters) wind, drum beat tracks to follow Clodagh from door to door
(Clodagh listens at each door) successively: prayer, crying, snoring wind, (drums lowered)
(Clodagh approaches Ruth's door) "Sister are you there?" wind, (drums lowered), Clodagh knocks on door
Light disappears from under Ruth's door "Sister, do you want me to call the others?" Clodagh rattles door
(Duration: 1 minute, 34 seconds)

Shadowy figure inside room, removes the chair that is propped against the door chair scrapes across ground
Sister Clodagh bursts into room, Ruth revealed door bangs against wall, ghostly chorus alternating close shots of Clodagh and Ruth
Ruth and Clodagh converse Clodagh: "..I want to send you back with Sister Philippa." etc. ghostly chorus alternating close shots of Clodagh and Ruth
Ruth: "..That's what you'd like to do... shut me up!", etc.
Clodagh invites Ruth to wait out the night "At least wait 'til morning." serene music close shot of Clodagh
Ruth smiles crazily, sits at a table with Clodagh ghostly chorus tracks to follow Ruth as she moves to sit
Ruth applies lipstick, they both wait ghostly chorus, tense music alternating close shots of Clodagh and Ruth
candle burns down (time passes), Clodagh, now asleep, drops her book wind, book dropping close shot of candle, Clodagh
Ruth prepares to leave, Clodagh wakes, Ruth locks Clodagh in frantic music builds, door slams close shots of Ruth readying to leave, close shot of Clodagh awakening, rushing to door
(Duration: 3 minutes, 9 seconds)

Ruth rushes away, laughing madly Ruth's mad laughter ghostly chorus pans and tracks to follow Ruth as she leaves
Clodagh escapes, rushes after Ruth, but is too late "Sister Ruth has gone mad!" Psycho-like' tense music tracks to follow Clodagh
Sisters awaken, search futilely for Ruth 'Psycho-like' tense music shots of sisters searching
(Duration: 1 minute, 23 seconds)

Ruth stumbles through jungle towards Dean's house drum beat, animal sounds tracks to follow Ruth
(Duration: 35 seconds)

Ruth enters as Dean watches from the jungle, Ruth wanders about the house romantic music (dominant), drum beat tracks to follow Ruth
Dean enters, Ruth begins making advances towards Dean, Dean rebuffs Ruth Ruth: "..I've finished with them up there... I love you." drum beat and romantic music (both low) alternating close shots of Ruth and Dean
Dean: "..well if you do, you can forget about it."
Dean mentions Clodagh, continues to rebuff Ruth "I don't love anyone!" drum beat (low) pans and tracks to follow Dean and Ruth
Ruth snaps and faints "Clodagh! Clodagh! CLODAGH!!!" drum beat (loud) non-diegetic swaths of red invade screen
Ruth awakens, moves to leave, Dean tries to go with her, Ruth refuses "Alright, I'll go... I'll go alone or not at all." ghostly chorus tracks to follow Ruth
Ruth leaving, Dean helps her put on her coat, Ruth kisses his hand, leaves ghostly chorus, romantic music swells for a moment, then dies close-up of Ruth
(Duration: 3 minutes, 44 seconds)

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