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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Black Narcissus (1947)
By Henry Coombs
13th February 2000
I've just found out about one final scene that was shot but didn't appear in the film as we know it - with Sister Clodagh back in Calcutta, face-to-face with the Mother Superior. Powell writes in his autobiography: `If that was how we had it originally, I think we were bloody fools to cut it and substitute it for ... Anyway, I wish we had kept the scene, and I wish it were in my collection now. The present ending is the only conventional touch in the whole film.'
Exactly so. I felt that there was something dissatisfying about the way the film ends, and now I have a better idea what it is. It emphasises the wrong thing; and it's too open-ended with regard to the RIGHT thing. A number of the Archers' films - including some of the best - only really coalesce in the final scenes anyway, and this one doesn't quite complete the process. A good story, but not great.
The art direction and the music ARE great, though, which might be what's making my slight, vague, nagging sense of disappointment all the keener. When I heard that this was a convincing depiction of the Himalayas filmed entirely in England, I thought, `Yeah, yeah. Anyone could do that. There'll be lots of snow. Snow is the same everywhere.' But no! Not a snowflake in sight. (Except for a brief flashback set in Ireland, which doesn't count.) It's lush and colourful and STILL looks as if it couldn't possibly have been made in the British Isles. And even when there's no direct visual cues we still feel as if the old palace must be genuinely old, and kilometres above sea level. (By the way, those two parrots we see are both Australian: a sulphur-crested cockatoo, and a gangan. But they're part of the prince's private collection, so I expect he imported them.) Authenticity isn't the point anyway. Otherworldly is more the intent. It may be the most beautiful film you'll ever see. I know, there are sure to be many rivals: I said `may'. Brian Easdale's music is the art direction all over again. It's beautiful, a good deal less Indian than it appears to be, and very, very good.
The oddest Powell-Pressburger film I've yet seen, and not entirely satisfying; but it IS an experience you won't forget.
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