|Based on||Black Narcissus|
by Rumer Godden
|Music by||Brian Easdale|
|Edited by||Reginald Mills|
|Budget||£280,000 (or $1.2 million) or £351,494|
Black Narcissus is a 1947 British psychological drama film written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and starring Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, Sabu, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Esmond Knight, and Jean Simmons. The title refers to the Caron perfume Narcisse noir. Based on the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden, the film revolves around the growing tensions within a small convent of Anglican nuns who are trying to establish a school and hospital in an old palace on an isolated mountain above a fertile valley in the Himalayas. Although some of the publicity makes it sound as if the nuns all fall in love with the same man and compete for his affections, the truth is much more complicated. One mentally ill sister does harbor a grand--and ultimately fatal--passion for the handsome libertine British expatriate who is agent for the local potentate, but he is completely unaware of her feelings until the end of the film. Her paranoid delusions embrace everyone around her and she becomes insanely jealous of one sister. In fact, the greatest challenges to the nuns' work come from the place itself and the unfamiliar people they have come to serve.
Black Narcissus achieved acclaim for its pioneering technical mastery with the cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, shooting in vibrant colour, winning an Academy Award for Best Cinematography and a Golden Globe Award for Best Cinematography, and Alfred Junge winning an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.
In the late 1930s, before the outbreak of World War II and the end of the British Raj, a group of Anglican nuns of the Order of the Servants of Mary travel to a remote location in the Himalayas, 8,000 feet up, a difficult journey by pony from Darjeeling. They are not a contemplative order, but an order of workers, and they do not take vows for life, but renew them every year. They have come from the convent in Calcutta to set up a school and hospital in a dilapidated seraglio, The Palace of Mopu, which sits high on a cliff overlooking a fertile valley, itself overlooked by the Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. The nuns have been invited by the local potentate, General Toda Rai, known as The Old General ( Esmond Knight), who wishes to find a use for the house that once sheltered his father's women. A group of Christian monks tried and failed to establish a monastery there, and Toda Rai is puzzled because the brothers could never tell him exactly why they left after only five months. Mr. Dean (David Farrar), an expatriate Briton, is the Old General's agent in the district, overseeing the tea plantations in the valley far below the convent and leading hunting parties with Toda Rai and his guests. He lives a life of relative ease and goes about in shorts and sandals and a battered felt hat, occasionally donning a sports shirt or a loose cotton shirt in the native style. Dean is opposed to the convent, and makes no bones about it when writing to Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts).
At the convent in Calcutta, Mother Superior Dorothea informs Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) that she will be Sister Superior of the new establishment, which will be called the Convent of St. Faith. She will be the youngest sister superior in the order, and Mother Dorothea does not entirely approve of the appointment; she thinks that Clodagh isn't ready. She chooses four nuns to accompany Sister Clodagh and help her, including the ailing Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who she hopes will improve with the change of scene and new responsibilities. Upon their arrival, the sisters find themselves struggling to acclimatise to their new environment, both culturally and physically. The early meetings with Mr. Dean are unpleasant clashes of egos, and highlight the inescapable fact that they will have to rely on him, no matter how independent they wish to be. He tells them flatly that he gives them until the rains break.
The cultural challenges include the language barrier--these mountain folk are Himalayan people, unlike the Hindi girls and children they ministered to at the convent in Calcutta, and they speak no Hindustani. Joseph Anthony (Eddie Whaley Jr.) a "six-to-eleven years old" boy from the village who speaks English, is sent to them by the Old General as live-in interpreter. (The state of the actor's front teeth indicates that he is eight years old.) Every day they hear the great Tibetan horns of the Buddhist monastery on the mountain opposite, invisible to them. The convent's answer to the horns is their own great bell, which sits in a tall carved wooden arch at the edge of the precipice. The frame once held a great gong.; the monks placed the bell there. It is not a European-style bell, and may be ancient. It is rung several times a day for the canonical hours, usually by Sister Ruth, who enjoys looking over the precipice.
Angu Ayah (May Hallett ), the old caretaker who remembers the days when the house of women was occupied by lovely ladies calling her name, finds the nuns and their peculiar preoccupations a source of endless amusement, and has no respect for them.
The Old General has told his people that they will be paid for visiting the infirmary and sending their children to school. The nuns are appalled, but Mr. Dean says it is simply the intelligent way to handle the problem of getting them to come at all. He makes a point of warning them not to treat anyone who is gravely ill. The villagers believe in magic and will see Western medicine as a new kind of sorcery. They would blame a death on the nuns. At this point, Sister Ruth rushes in, covered with blood. She tried to stanch a wound, and the injured woman almost bled to death before she succeeded. Both Sister Briony ( Judith Furse ), the Infirmarian, and Sister Clodagh scold her for not sending for Sister Briony. Mr. Dean says a kind word to her as she leaves the room.
The local holy man sits nearly naked and completely unmoving on the mountain above the convent, faithfully tended to by the villagers. Sister Clodagh wants him sent away--the people who come to visit him climb the path to watch the nuns. Mr. Dean tells her that the General will never interfere with the holy man--he is more likely to see it as a case of "go thou, and do likewise." The holy man is the General's uncle, "General Sir Krishna Rai, KCBO, KCSI , CMG, " a sophisticated man of the world who retired to this spot for reasons unknown. When a frustrated and impatient Sister Clodagh declares "I really don't know what to do!" Mr. Dean silences her by asking "What would Christ have done?"
As to the physical adjustments, Sister Briony ( Judith Furse ), the Infirmarian, surmises that the high altitude and bad water may account for some of their ailments, which include fatigue, headaches, painful joints insomnia, boils, and "spots." Dean tells them the water is too good: They are suffering from " Darjeeling Tummy." The wind blows ceaselessly, it is cold, and the changing light on the snow-covered peaks that face them across the valley is dazzling and distracting. The palace badly needs repair, and many of the tasks--such as plumbing--can only be done by Mr. Dean. The isolated environment begins to impact the nuns psychologically. Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), who is in charge of the gardens that will provide much of their food the next year, finds herself daydreaming even through the bell's call to prayer. She tells Clodagh that after 21 years in the order, long-forgotten memories are returning.
Clodagh, too, finds herself being caught up in memories of her life in Ireland and the man she expected to marry (shown in several flashbacks). Con (Shaun Noble) was discontented with life in their small Irish community and went to the United States. Meanwhile, Ruth becomes increasingly obsessed with Mr. Dean, quietly lusting after him while growing pathologically paranoid and jealous of Clodagh.
The nuns establish an Infirmary and schools for young children and for older girls, who learn needlework and lacemaking from Sister Blanche(Jenny Laird), (known as Sister Honey because everyone loves her) and, of course, English. Sister Honey adores the little ones.
Mr. Dean brings Kanchi (Jean Simmons), a beautiful 17-year-old orphan who has been flirting shamelessly with him, to live at the convent so she can learn some skills and remain away from the village--and temptation-- long enough for her uncle to arrange a good marriage. Sister Clodagh, always suspicious of Mr. Dean, cannot quite make up her mind whether to suspect him of wanting Kanchi for himself or of being Kanchi's father.
Soon after they arrive, the nuns are kept awake all night by the sound of drums. The Old General's heir, the Young General (never seen on screen) is dying. The drums cease when he dies. The new Young General, Dilip Rai (Sabu Dastagir), now heir to the princely state, comes to the convent to ask Sister Clodagh to take him as a student. He had been destined for Cambridge, but the death of his brother means, Dean says, that "now he will be a warrior and marry young. It will suit him. These Rajputs are a fighting race." But Dilip wants to study, and persuades Clodagh to admit him as the sole male pupil. The nuns are fascinated by the young general's fine jewels and ever-changing regalia, as well as by Narcisse noir ("Black narcissus"), the perfume by Caron he favors. So is Kanchi, who peeks over and under the screen dividing the older girls' workroom and the classroom.
On Christmas Eve, Dilip and Mr. Dean (who is dressed in evening clothes) come late to the midnight service at the convent. (There is no priest to celebrate Midnight Mass.) Dean joins in singing the carols, in a beautiful baritone and in perfect harmony. As they leave, Dilip congratulates Clodagh on the birth of Jesus Christ. He is "very interested in Jesus Christ. Her response is, as always, slightly condescending: "We don't usually speak of him so casually," and Dean, who is drunk, calls out: " He should be casual, and as much a part of life as your daily bread." Enraged, she chastises him, telling him he is objectionable when he is sober and abominable when he is drunk, and he is not to come back. Her anger is at least partly fueled by the fact that during the singing, she drifted into a beautiful memory of caroling with her friends--and Con. Dean mounts his pony precariously and rides off singing the chorus of an old music hall song: "No I won't be a nun, No I cannot be a nun, for I am too fond of pleasure..." laughing and calling "Happy Christmas!" Dilip, who does not understand what is happening, says that he thinks Dean's voice is lovely. Shortly afterward, Sister Clodagh summons Sister Ruth and talks to her about how thin and ill she is and says she should go in and see a doctor. Sister Ruth explodes and then controls herself, barely. She is clearly in a bad state mentally as well as physically, reacting with suspicion to every expression of concern or attempt to help. When Sister Clodagh suggests that she has been thinking too much of Mr. Dean, Sister Ruth, increasingly manic, accuses Clodagh herself of being attracted to him.
Spring comes in a burst of vivid blossom, and a series of grave and eventually fatal misfortunes strike the convent.
Kanchi steals a brass chain from a censer, and Ayah beats her, for thieving, for getting caught, and for stealing something so worthless. The young general comes upon the scene and Ayah, exultant, hands the whip to him and challenges him to "finish the beating, my little General Bahadur. You're going to be a great man, not like your uncle, no, like your grandfather! He was a man! Finish the beating and become a man." He discards the whip and Kanchi rises to her knees, moves forward, sensuously, and gazes up at him. He takes a long string of large gold beads from around his neck and fastens it on hers. She rises to her feet and slips her arm around his neck and puts her head on his shoulder.
Ruth decides that she will not renew her vows. Sister Clodagh learns of this from the Mother Superior, not from Sister Ruth, who keeps her plans to leave the order a secret, sending to Calcutta for clothes and other things.
When Joseph reads the labels in thr garden aloud to the children, they discover that, in the autumn, Sister Philippa planted flowers in the gardens instead of vegetables, leaving the convent completely dependent on charity from the General or support from the Mother House for another year. She asks to be transferred to another convent immediately and tells Sister Clodagh that there are only two ways to live in this place--to ignore it like Mr. Dean or surrender to it, like the holy man. When Clodagh reminds her that the transfer request will be a mark against her, Sister Philippa says, "That's what I need."
But before she can go, the nuns' troubles reach a critical mass. A mother brings her dying baby to the infirmary. Sister Briony examines the child and says the mother should take the infant home and let it sleep: Sister Honey is distraught and defies Sister Briony's orders, giving the mother a bottle of castor oil, a spoon and some cotton wool so she can massage its tummy. The next day, no one comes to the convent, no pupils, no servants, no one seeking help in the dispensary. The young general and Kanchi have disappeared. At last, a weeping Joseph tells them that the baby died. Ayah refuses to go down to seek help and tells them that if Joseph goes down he will not be allowed to return. Realizing how dangerous the situation is, Sister Clodagh rings the bell repeatedly. Down in the valley, Mr. Dean, sitting on his verandah having coffee, hears the call for help. When he appears at the convent, defiantly shirtless, he tells them he has investigated and done his best to help--including drinking the castor oil to prove that it is harmless. But things are very bad. He tells them of an incident when the villagers murdered the agent before him with less cause, after the death of a child.
That night, Joseph brings Sister Ruth a glass of milk, which she pours out the window. She looks down to see Sister Clodagh Mr. Dean talking on the terrace. She darts furtively through the convent and pauses behind a grill to watch and listen unseen. (The music is an essential part of the drama in this film and never more so than when portraying Sister Ruth's escalating insanity..) Sister Clodagh confides in Mr. Dean. At the end of their conversation, he repeats that this is no place for a nunnery. There is something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated: They must all get away before something happens.
That night, drummers play down in the valley. Clodagh walks through the hall listening at each door. The light is on in Sister Ruth's room. Sister Clodagh makes her open the door and Sister Ruth stands there in her crimson dress, her hair in curls, about to leave. Clodagh asks her to wait until morning. Ruth slowly applies scarlet lipstick while Clodagh reads her breviary. When Clodagh falls asleep, Ruth puts on boots, takes up her new high heels and runs away laughing wildly. Sister Clodagh calls to Ayah to wale up and stop her, she has gone mad. Ayah replies you should leave mad paople alone. They search the convent in vain, calling her name; Ayah mocking the nuns' urgent call.
Ruth is in the valley, walking through the bamboo forest, surrounded by bird and animal noises, on her way to Mr. Dean's home. She has a moment of peace here, caressing his pipe. He treats her appearance casually but when she proclaims her love to him, and he tells her to go back to the convent, where sister Clodagh can help her. "I don't love anyone!" he shouts. The screen turns red as her rage overcomes her, and she screams "Clodagh" over and over and loses consciousness. She comes to. Her face has changed, beginning a transformation into something feral. Mr. Dean sends her back to the convent, where she arrives at dawn. Ruth stalks Sister Clodagh, who is aware of something watching her, until she goes out to ring the bell for Lauds at 6 a.m. Ruth emerges from the door, so wet from the morning mist that her dress appears black at first. She walks slowly toward the oblivious Sister Clodagh and then attacks, attempting to push her over the edge, prying her fingers loose from the rope. In a violent struggle, Sister Clodagh pulls herself to safety, and Sister Ruth falls to her death in the forest far below.
The convent gardens are now in bloom, and Sister Philippa placed a bouquet before the crucifix on the terrace. The nuns are packing. Dilip reappears to tell Sister Clodagh that he is deeply sorry about Sister Ruth. He has decided to give up his studies and trying to be clever and famous. He will follow in the path of his noble ancestors, warriors and princes who were "modest and brave and polite, and never did anything cheating." He has asked Dean how to explain what happened with Kanchi; Dean said to tell Sister Clodagh that "it was the Story of the Prince and the Beggar Maid,"
Down in the valley, Sister Clodagh takes a last look up at the palace, disappearing in cloud far above. As their caravan of ponies waits to start, Mr. Dean comes to take leave of them. Clodagh tells him she is being transferred to another convent, where she will serve in a position with fewer responsibilities. "It is what I need," she says, echoing Sister Philippa. She makes one final request: that he tend to Ruth's grave. She holds out her hand, palm up, and he cradles it in his; they say good bye. As the caravan moves off, the rains come, first in scattered drops, then harder. Face dripping, Dean looks back, and the rain becomes a downpour that hides everything.
Note: The film was originally going to end with a scene between the Mother Superior and Sister Clodagh, in which Sister Clodagh learns that her hard-won humility has opened her heart in a way that pleases Mother Dorothea. It included the line that Mother Dorothes writes to Clodagh in the novel: "...I seem to find a new Clodagh, one whom I had long prayed to meet." However, either Powell or Pressburger was so pleased by the shot of the coming of the rain that he chose to end the film there. 
Black Narcissus was released only a few months before India achieved independence from Britain in August 1947. Film critic Dave Kehr has suggested that the final images of the film, as the nuns abandon the Himalayas and proceed down the mountain, could have been interpreted by British viewers in 1947 as 'a last farewell to their fading empire'; he suggests that for the film-makers, it is not an image of defeat 'but of a respectful, rational retreat from something that England never owned and never understood'. The story in the film quite closely follows that of the book, which was written in 1939.
Black Narcissus was adapted from writer Rumer Godden's 1939 novel of the same name. Michael Powell was introduced to the novel by actress Mary Morris, who had appeared in the films he did with Emeric Pressburger, The Spy in Black (1939) and The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Godden had adapted her novel for a stage production for Lee Strasberg in the United States, but allowed Pressburger to write his own screenplay adaptation with Powell.
Kathleen Byron was among the first to be cast in the film, in the role of the crazed Sister Ruth. Pressburger described Byron as having a "dreamy voice and great eyes like a lynx," which he felt appropriate for the mentally-disturbed character. In the role of the leading Sister Superior, Sister Clodagh, Deborah Kerr was cast. Pressburger chose Kerr for the role at the behest of Powell, who felt she was too young for the part. At one point, Powell considered Greta Garbo for the part. Kerr was paid £16,000 for fifty-five days of work.
David Farrar was cast as Mr. Dean, the virile British agent who becomes the object of Sister Ruth's obsession. Farrar was paid £4,500 for forty-five days of shooting. Flora Robson appears as Sister Philippa, a gardening nun in the convent.
Of the three principal Indian roles, only the Young General was played by an ethnic Indian, Sabu; the roles of Kanchi and the Old General were performed by white actors in make-up. The role of Kanchi was played by Jean Simmons. Kanchi, 17, is described by Godden as "a basket of fruit, piled high and luscious and ready to eat. Though she looks shyly down, there is something steady and unabashed about her; the fruit is there to be eaten, she does not mean it to rot." Godden approved of Simmons' casting, remarking that she "perfectly fulfilled my description." The Indian extras were cast from workers at the docks in Rotherhithe.
Filming of Black Narcissus began on 16 May 1946, and completed on 22 August. The film was shot primarily at Pinewood Studios but some scenes were shot in Leonardslee Gardens, West Sussex, the home of an Indian army retiree which had appropriate trees and plants for the Indian setting. While Powell at the time had been known for his love of location shooting, with Black Narcissus, he became fascinated with the idea of shooting as much of the filming in-studio as possible.
The film is famous for making extensive use of matte paintings and large scale landscape paintings (credited to W. Percy Day) to suggest the mountainous environment of the Himalayas as well as some scale models for motion shots of the convent. Powell said later: "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 colour control to the very end. Sometimes in a film its theme or its colour are more important than the plot."
For the costumes, Alfred Junge, the art director, had three main colour schemes. The nuns were always in the white habits that he designed from a medley of medieval types. These white robes of heavy material stressed the nuns' other-worldliness amid the exotic native surroundings. The chief native characters were robed in brilliant colours, particularly the General and his young nephew, in jewels and in rich silks. Other native characters brought into the film merely as 'atmosphere' were clad in more sombre colours with the usual native dress of the Nepalese, Bhutanese and Tibetan peoples toned down to prevent overloading the eye with brilliance.
According to Robert Horton, Powell set the climactic sequence, a murder attempt on the cliffs of the cloister, to a pre-existing musical track, staging it as though it were a piece of visual choreography. Also, there was some personal, behind-the-scenes tension, as Kerr was the director's ex-lover and Byron his current one. "It was a situation not uncommon in show business, I was told," Powell later wrote, "but it was new to me."
Originally the film was intended to end with an additional scene in which Sister Clodagh sobs and blames herself for the convent's failure to Mother Dorothea. Mother Dorothea touches and speaks to Sister Clodagh welcomingly as the latter's tears continue to fall. When they filmed the scene with the rainfall on the leaves in what was to have been the penultimate scene, Powell was so impressed with it that he decided to designate that the last scene and to scrap the Mother Dorothea closing scene. It was filmed but it is not known whether it was printed.
Black Narcissus had its world premiere at the Odeon Theatre in London on 4 May 1947. According to trade papers, the film was a "notable box office attraction" at British cinemas in 1947. It premiered in the United States on 13 August 1947 in New York City at the Fulton Theatre.
In the United States, the Catholic National Legion of Decency condemned the film as "an affront to religion and religious life" for characterizing it as "an escape for the abnormal, the neurotic and the frustrated." The version of the film originally shown in the United States had scenes depicting flashbacks of Sister Clodagh's life before becoming a nun edited out at the behest of the Legion of Decency.
The Guardian noted that the film possesses "good acting and skillfully built-up atmosphere," also praising the cinematography. Philip Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times gave the film high praise, deeming it an "exquisite cinematic jewel," continuing: "I can't say how authentic Black Narcissus is, but the lotus land to which it carries us is uniquely unforgettable." Jane Corby of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the film as a "peculiar recital of religious life" and praised the cinematography, but felt that the "mixed atmosphere of religious seclusion and romantic vagaries is very confusing."
|Academy Awards||Best Cinematography||Jack Cardiff||Won|||
|Best Art Direction||Alfred Junge||Won|
|Golden Globe Awards||Best Cinematography||Jack Cardiff||Won|
|New York Film Critics Circle||Best Actress||Deborah Kerr||Won|
The Criterion Collection, an American home media distribution company, released Black Narcissus on laserdisc in the early 1990s, and issued it on DVD in 2002. Noel Murray, writing for The A.V. Club, deemed the 2002 DVD as a "crackerjack release," noting it was a direct copy of the old laserdisc.
In 2008, ITV DVD released a restored version of the film on Blu-ray in the United Kingdom. The Criterion Collection subsequently issued the restored version on DVD and Blu-ray on 20 July 2010. Network Distributing released another Blu-ray edition in the United Kingdom in 2014.
Black Narcissus achieved acclaim for its pioneering technical mastery and shocked audiences at the time of release with its vibrant colour and the themes of the film. Audiences gasped at some of the scenes, notably the shot of the vibrant pink flowers which shown on the big screen was a spectacle at the time. The film's clever use of lighting and techniques have had a profound impact on later film makers, notably Martin Scorsese who used the extreme close-ups of the nuns as the inspiration for the treatment of Tom Cruise's character around the pool table in The Color of Money. Martin Scorsese has said that the film is one of the earliest erotic films, the last quarter of the film in particular. The film was one of his favourites as a boy and Scorsese has stated that one of the greatest experiences he has had with film is viewing Black Narcissus projected on a massive screen at the Director's Guild in 1983. In Michael Powell's own view, this was the most erotic film he ever made. "It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image from beginning to end. It is a film full of wonderful performances and passion just below the surface, which finally, at the end of the film, erupts".
In The Great British Picture Show, the writer George Perry stated, "Archers films looked better than they were - the location photography in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff in Black Narcissus was a great deal better than the story and lifted the film above the threatening banality". In contrast, the critic Ian Christie wrote in the Radio Times in the 1980s that "unusually for a British film from the emotionally frozen forties the melodrama works so well it almost seems as if Powell and Pressburger survived the slings and barbs of contemporary criticism to find their ideal audience in the 1980s".Marina Warner, introducing the film on BBC2 (on a nun-themed film evening, with Thérèse), called it a masterpiece.
The film's resonance with populations exploring previously stifled sexual desires and expression extends beyond its contemporary milieu of women in the post-war era. Black Narcissus also influenced the themes and aesthetic of the groundbreaking gay experimental film Pink Narcissus, which portrays a series of pornographic vignettes in vivid colour as the fantasies of a prostitute between visits from his keeper. Although Pink Narcissus was lost in obscurity for some time, in recent years it has resurfaced as a cult classic, due in part to the vivid, fantastical aesthetic inspired by Black Narcissus. 
The look and cinematography of the 2013 Disney film Frozen was influenced by Black Narcissus. While working on the look and nature of the film's cinematography, Frozen art director Michael Giaimo was greatly influenced by Jack Cardiff's work in Black Narcissus.