Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Notes handed out at NFT screening
Directors/screenwriters: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger (from the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden). Cinematographers (in Technicolor): Jack Cardiff, (camera operators) Ted Scaife, Stan Sayers. Production designer: Alfred Junge. Editor: Reginald Mills. Music composer and conductor: Brian Easdale (conducting the London Symphony Orchestra). Costume designer: Hein Heckroth. Sound: Stanley Lambourne. Dubbing: Gordon K. McCallum. Process shots: W. Percy Day. Assistant art director: Arthur Lawson. Assistant director: Sydney S. Streeter.
Cast: Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh), Sabu (The Young General), David Farrar (Mr. Dean), Flora Robson (Sister Philippa), Esmond Knight (The Old General), Jean Simmons (Kanchi), Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth), Jenny Laird (Sister Honey), Judith Furse (Sister Briony), May Hallatt (Angu Ayah), Shaun Noble (Con), Eddie Whaley Jr. (Joseph Anthony), Nancy Roberts (Mother Dorothea), Ley On (Phuba).
Producers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger. Assistant producer: George R. Busby. Production company: The Archers. Original distributor: General Film Distributors. Length: 100 mins. First shown (London): 24 April 1947.
This print, made specially for the Treasures from the National Film Archive series, derives from the original colour separations donated by Rank through General Film Distributors in 1949.
BRIAN EASDALE (1909- ), born in Manchester, studied at the Royal College of Music, London. He wrote the music for short films from 1936, including Men in Danger (1938) and Spring Offensive (1940). He moved to features when he began his association with Powell and Pressburger on Black Narcissus, continuing it with The Red Shoes (1948), The Small Back Room (1949), Gone to Earth and The Elusive Pimpernel (both 1950), The Battle of the River Plate (1956), plus Pressburger's production of Miracle in Soho (1957) and Powell's productions of Peeping Tom (1960) and The Queen's Guards (1961). Other films he scored include Outcast of the Islands (1951) and The Green Scarf (1954). Also a composer of chamber music and songs, he wrote Missa coventrensis (1962) for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral.
KATHLEEN BYRON (1922- ) born in London, began her film career with The Young Mr. Pitt (1 942) after studying acting at the Old Vic. She worked for the Archers on her second film, The Silver Fleet (1943), followed by A Matter of Life and Death (1946). After Black Narcissus, she gained the female lead in Powell and Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949). After a memorable appearance as a scheming villainess in Madness of the Heart (1949), her later work was in minor, supporting roles, often in horror and historical films including The House in the Square (1951), Young Bess (1953, her only Hollywood film [Until Saving Private Ryan(1998)]), Night of the Eagle (1962), The Abdication (1972) and The Elephant Man (1980).
Michael Powell (quoted in Powell, Pressburger and Others, BFI, 1978): "Black Narcissus I would describe as a well-made film. There again the atmosphere carefully and meticulously built up from the first decision never to go to India, which was the most important decision. These films are nearly always pastiche or hotchpotch - you know, real Southern India in the studio - so I said: 'This won't do, such a delicate story, we've got to create a whole atmosphere here.' Faces fell all round - they wanted to go to India but afterwards they enjoyed themselves thoroughly - we had a great team by then... The composer was in charge of all the sound effects. This was Brian Easdale's first picture with us: he'd been in India and loved working on propaganda pictures there. He was recommended to me by Carol Reed."
In his autobiography, A Life in Movies (1986, Heinemann), Powell noted: "Owing to my decision not to shoot in India and try and combine real location photography with studio scenes, I was left free to compose a soundtrack which would be an organic whole of dialogue, sound effects, and music, very much in the way that an opera is composed. [...] In Black Narcissus, I started out almost as a documentary director and ended up as a producer of opera, even though the excerpt from the opera was only about twelve minutes long. Never mind! It was opera in the sense that music, emotion, image and voices all blended together into a new and splendid whole. By music, of course, I mean not only sounds produced by musical instruments, but the human voice itself. Although neither Deborah nor Joseph nor Sister Ruth used their voices for anything but screams, music dictated their movements and revealed their thoughts and intentions. The sequence started with little Joseph ... bringing a cup of tea to Sister Clodagh as the colours of dawn spread over the snows of the Himalayas, and ends with Sister Ruth falling to her death. It was planned step by step, bar by bar, by Brian and myself. I wanted to get the maximum of suspense out of the cat-and-mouse play between the two women and we succeeded. The crew were amazed when Brian and I appeared with stopwatches and exact timings when we started to shoot the sequence. I insisted on rehearsing and shooting to a piano track and consulting Brian with a musical score in my hand over each set-up. But it worked! [...] Giving the nuns off-white robes, or rather the colour of oatmeal, was an inspiration. Their robes gave a key to the picture to which all other colours had to conform. The actresses had very little make-up, and what there was, unless they had weatherbeaten faces like Sister Philippa, was white and bloodless. This made the scene when Sister Ruth confronts her Sister Superior with red lipstick all the more shocking. It is 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 Films and Filming (January 1982), Douglas McVay commented: "Thematically, the piece is the first panel in an unofficial Powell triptych of studies in erotic obsession and fatality (the other panels being Gone to Earth and Peeping Tom). And in Black Narcissus, unlike the two later pictures, the sexual lure is inextricably bound up with the geographical ethos and its historical associations; the erotic is largely the product of the exotic. The story's title - referring to a scent worn by a young Indian aristocrat, the General - mirrors the Oriental seductiveness of the milieu. The perfume sensually affects the European nuns, who try to turn into a convent a duke's love nest (abandoned, after only a brief tenure, by monks themselves too unsettled by the voluptuous ambience); to make into a house of God a former harem. The blatant if elegant causality of the murals left in the residence serves as a constant, inescapable and tormenting reminder to the sisters of the past pleasures enjoyed there - and, by extension, also acts as a reminder of the past possibilities of personal sexual fulfilment which they have abandoned by embracing their religious vocation. It is the tension between past and present. flesh and spirit, inclination and duty, as it assails two of the nuns, Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh, which provides the narrative with its core."
In The Daily Telegraph (19 October 1987), Jeffrey Richards wrote: "[Black Narcissus] questions the attempt to westernise the East. It is constructed not around action and adventure but atmosphere and psychology. [...] Powell and Pressburger evidently see the nuns' celibacy as a denial of their essential femininity. By contrast, they provide two examples of strongly defined masculinity and femininity: on the one hand, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), barelegged, naked to the waist, tough and macho, on the other hand, the bronzed, honey-eyed dancing girl Kanchi (Jean Simmons), all womanly wiles and beguiling sensuality. The native society in the Himalayas is one of robust warrior men and unashamedly sensual women who are not about to be changed by the pale, celibate outsiders. So the nuns' attempt to bring in Western ways is doomed. [...]The values and culture of the East win, and the West retires hurt, questioning its own outlook and stance, as the nuns leave just as the rains begin to fall."
In her second volume of autobiography, A House with Four Rooms (1989, Macmillan), Rumer Godden declared: "There is not an atom of truth in the film of Black Narcissus - famous as it has become. [...] It was, almost magically, redeemed by Jack Cardiff's marvellous photography - he even managed to get a sense of altitude and I have never had a more marvellous cast with the exception of Sabu of Elephant Boy fame; he had charm but to cast a thick-set, snub-nosed Southern Indian coolie boy as a young Rajput prince seemed deliberately blind. [...] Jean Simmons at sixteen, perfectly fulfilled my description of Kanchi, the young Nepalese girl - 'like a basket of fruit piled high, luscious and ready to eat.' [...] Fa's [Godden's father's] comments were wry. 'Why are those fellows dressed up in those pantomime clothes?' he asked of Esmond Knight's and Sabu's brocaded coats, turbans and glittering aigrettes. A rajah or Maharajah only wore such things for a durbar, a wedding or a State ball ... 'Who gave that poor man a Shetland pony to ride?' Fa watched David Farrar's long legs trailing, his feet on the ground. 'Ssh! It's supposed to be a Tibetan palfrey.' Fa snorted. [...] 'The most beautiful, and sensitive film I have ever seen,' has been the theme of dozens and dozens of letters; if you have never seen the Himalayas I am sure it has a Shangri-la magic."