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.
A lot of the documents have been sent to me or have come from other web sites. The name of the web site is given where known. If I have unintentionally included an image or document that is copyrighted or that I shouldn't have done then please email me and I'll remove it.
I make no money from this site, it's purely for the love of the films.
[Any comments are by me (Steve Crook) and other members of the email list]
Submitted by Dibyaduti Purkayastha (Tipu)
Black Narcissus (1946)
A 'desi' perspective
A short note on BN, which I watched last week on my VCR after buying the tape. 'Desi' is a Hindi word. It means 'native', or 'of this country'
I shall give you my 'Indian' perspective, since this movie is based in India & the non-Indian characters in the movie are overtly affected by Indians & the Eastern philosophy. At the heart of this movie is a conflict between two religious systems, which also extends to two philosophies of life. We Orientals always took things as God-given, something that cannot easily be changed. For us, that helps to endure many of nature's, & other predators', trials. So, we developed a natural stoicism & immunity from many of the creations imposed by civilization. It is precisely this what the old king, & the order of the sisters, wanted to change. And yet, even with "all the king's men & all the king's horses", it is not possible to change what has been ingrained over centuries. You cannot make a prince forget his royal right to 'take' a girl, you cannot turn a 'harem' (house of pleasure where the king's concubines live) into a house of learning. It is as futile as making mountains bend before you, as making mighty winds drop dead at your feet. The king may get himself & his son a Western education & Saville Row suits, but the royal blood will still flow thru his veins. To live here, you have to surrender to your natural instincts - it is a form of helpless hedonism, to exist you must be yourself, not live within narrow & strict bounds of discipline. If one calls it a struggle between two civilizations, the older one wins. You can subjugate its people & subvert its political systems, but against that you cannot see you cannot win. That is the strength & the downfall of Western civilization.
(was that too political?)
While all this must be fascinating viewing (& reading) to Indophiles & anybody else interested in religion, to us who have lived through many such attempts to make you be what you are not, some of the sets & actors jar. The palace, in Godden's book, was a magnificent structure, awe-inspiring & making you aware of the king's power. The set used in this movie is too shabby to be used as a pleasure court. A few drawings on the wall do not make a harem. I sincerely believed the palace itself had affected the sisters, & a real or a better constructed harem (as you may see in some parts of India) would have been much more convincing. Next are the players. Jean Simmons & May Hallatt have two of the most important roles in the movie. They are the forces against change, bulwarks of the 'original' culture. Yet, their mannerisms, dressing style, & of course looks, are as Indian as mine is British. While Angu Ayah prances & sqwaks around in a role that required Maria Ouspenskaya's sinister visage in 'The Letter' (or any other Indian actress), Kanchi is just the opposite. She is young & restless, & waiting to be seduced by the Prince. Yet she is quite as the tomb & only stares long & hard! And yes, the mark made with ashes on the holy man's forehead is wrong. As for the mountains, where were they? Surely not those water colors in the back ground?
What I felt transcended BN to a cult classic is the acting. Everybody is magnificent. A fantastic evil lurks & when it finally blows up in Sister Ruth's madness, it sends shivers down the spine. (My wife held on to me tightly for the last fifteen minutes of the movie). She is so believable, I can now not think of her as otherwise. When I see 'Saving Private Ryan' again, I shall look at Kathleen Byron's old Mrs. Ryan, & think if Private Ryan was born after she left the order, & is he Mr. Dean's illegitimate son. Deborah Kerr is better than expected (she, alas, is always Terry Mckay in 'An Affair to Remember' to me, 'Night of the Iguana' notwithstanding) & the flashbacks give the movie the loss & poignancy before Kathleen Byron snatches it all away. She plays a control-freak very well, & is it a coincidence that Michael Powell was also reputedly a control-freak himself?
One movie BN always reminded me of was the first two 'Alien' movies. If only Sigourney Weaver had lost :-)
Back to index