Black Narcissus (1947)
Dir: Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger
Cinematographer: Jack Cardiff
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Written by: Micheal Powell / Emeric Pressburger based on the novel by Rumer Godden
Awards: Alfred Junge: Best Art Direction Academy Award
Jack Cardiff: Best Cinematography Academy Award
Release: Available on DVD
I recently had the chance to see a newly restored print of this film and I must say that watching it on DVD on any size screen or television, can not possibly do true justice to the film. One of many films that Powell and Pressburger directed together, this is by far my favorite. This is perhaps even my favorite special effects film of all time, even though it was made almost 50 years ago.
The story follows 5 Anglican Nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), as they take over a Himalayan mountain palace in order to turn it into a school and hospital for the natives who live in the valley below. In addition to having to battle the cultural differences and the elements that come along with living at 9,000 feet in elevation, they have to face their own demons. Their relationships are made even more complicated by the introduction of Mr. Dean (David Farrar), their hunky link to the General who gave them the palace. Rounding out the cast are; a crazy caretaker (May Hallat), a young general (Sabu), and a confused teen Kanchi (Jean Simmons) to create the story on which the story is built.
The first time I saw this film, it was poorly projected on a screen in a classroom and I was blown away by the stunning visuals of this film. Even then, the visual elements of the film were spectacular, though only when projected from a 35mm did I realize how amazing they really were. The fact that the film takes place in the Himalayan mountains lends itself to large mountain landscapes and sweeping views of the valley below. However, what Alfred Junge managed to pull off in the art design of this film is something short of an absolute miracle. His influences are found in everything from the created mountain range to the very walls of the palace.
The most impressive thing of all is that the film was shot almost entirely at Pinewood Studios in Middlesex, England. The only scenes not filmed at the indoor studio were the valley scenes that were shot in the garden of a retired English General. Working with Powell, Pressberger and Cardif, Junge used a combination of rear projection, glass painting and matting to create the mountains and the palace. I have never seen any film that used these elements in a more effective and realistic manner. Something that apparently the Academy agreed with when they presented Junge with the Academy Award for Best Art Direction.
In addition to the special effects designed by Junge, Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and lighting design was some of the best work I have ever seen. The film was shot using Technicolor standards, though they often pushed the boundary of what Technicolor was capable of. In fact, they pushed it so far, that the Technicolor lab would frequently call the filmmakers and tell them that the previous days work was ruined and had to be re-shot. The one aspect of the color of the film that probably troubled the Technicolor technicians the most was the way that they allowed the colors to bleed into each other and create seamless pools of light and color.
The detail of color and lighting design is even reflected in the nun’s white habits. In fact, the nuns habits were never white but instead shades of cream that were made with a specific fabric that picked up the light of the room and allowed them to change ever so slightly in tint from shot to shot. In his autobiography Powell writes about how he and Pressburger wanted this film to be a symphony of sight and sound, something that they were definitely able to accomplish through sophisticated parings of picture and sound. I recommend seeing this film in any way that you can. While the visuals are best on film on the sliver screen, they are not completely lost on your screen at home.