OSCAR Winners for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Alfred Junge
Best Cinematography, Jack Cardiff
Sister Clodagh, a nun, is charged with the responsibility for setting up a mission, the convent of St Faith, in the remote Himalayan Mountains. As Sister Superior she is given the responsibility for and the assistance of four other nuns. These include Sister Ruth whose suitability for the religious life is called into question by everyone.
The location they travel to was once used as a harem and they find they are in conflict not only with the location, but also with the locals, with each other and finally themselves. The air, the altitude and the ever-present winds seem to dredge up memories for all of them. Their dealings with the government agent Mr Dean provokes strong reactions in Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth as the later edges ever closer to madness.
The Powell and Pressberger films, especially those of the 1940’s represent some of the best in British film making and still stand up to the modern day efforts because of their innovation, their strength of purpose and the striking images they use.
Probably the greatest reason for watching this film is the constant streams of visual treats that bombard the viewer. The settings and scenery are as thrilling as they are beautiful and just as threatening. The cinematography within this film has frequently been referred to as ‘painting with light’ and it is. The look of the film is in a large part due to the efforts of Jack Cardiff who was cameraman and cinematographer. These were the early days of Technicolor. The technology was new, the techniques were still far from settled and mastered, and these considerations make his achievements all the more remarkable.
‘The Black Narcissus’ was a repeat of Powell, Pressberger and Jack Cardiff partnership with Alfred Junge who was in charge of production design. Cardiff and Junge had originally worked for Powell & Pressberger on the earlier films of ‘The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp’ and ‘A Matter of Life of Death’. The film was entirely shot at Pinewood Studios and Junge is the man responsible for the amazing backdrops that show off the Himalayas. The color palette used in the production design of this film is limited to stone and earth colors frequently punctuated by a vivid cool blue or a hot red. The sky never seems to change and seems equally blue and vast in the Himalayas or in Sister Clodagh’s flashbacks to her homeland of Ireland. The hot red is the color of Mr Deans shirt, a woman’s blood on the robes of Sister Ruth, the sunset, the dawn, Sister Ruth bloodshot eyes and the dress she wears when she breaks her vows. It is no accident that it is also the color of Sister Clodagh’s hair beneath her habit. Dressed in the vast, shapeless, off white habits the nun’s take on the colors either wearing it or being bathed in blue or red light.
Everything is designed to mirror the conflicts and mental stresses that the women are fighting within themselves. The themes of faith being challenged and the conflicts between faith and more earthly urges are not new ones but it has rarely been illustrated so well as it has been here. The look of the film would be hard to match and Powell and Pressberger do something very clever in that they reduce the soundtrack of the film primarily to the one constant sound of the wind. It is supplemented at times, and particularly at the end, where the film is edited to a pre-composed piece of music. It is clear that the wind is inside the house as well as outside. It reinforces the idea that whatever is coming, whatever the wind is provoking, is inescapable and inevitable.
‘The Black Narcissus’ is very much a film about women and the collection of performances that are given by Deborah Kerr, Flora Ronson, Kathleen Byron and a young Jean Simmons balance perfectly. Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth, played by Kerr and Byron respectively, are the Yin and Yang of this movie, the character and the behavior of each forcing the other to the extreme position of either repression or expression. This is distilled in a fabulous scene where they battle each other, not physically, that is still to come, but metaphorically, one with a bible, the other with a scarlet lipstick and compact.
David Farrar’s character Mr Dean adds a level of sexual frisson that subtly challenges the nun’s vows of chastity. It goes straight to the core of their beliefs and burrows deep, tapping into their more primal needs as women. It poses the very individual question for each character and it is a very personal question, even for the audience, as it relates to the conflicts that arise between who we are and what we do. He is frequently the spot of color in a sea of off white habits. In contrast to the nun’s modest clothes that cover them he frequently wears very little. His character is an early example of ‘man candy’ with his short shorts, bare legs and naked chest.
It is a rare thing in movie making that you get such a fruitful partnership, and there is so much to recommend this film. It is one of THE great movies that was original at the time and it still holds up to scrutiny. You can watch it over and over again and every time you go back to it there are new details to notice and increased layers of meaning.