(Welcome to my weekly blog, in which I distill what made a certain older film great — or not so great — and pass it along to you.)
“The Black Narcissus,” from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (the British filmmaking duo known as “the Archers”), is a great film that sits between psychological drama and hysterical melodrama. It’s due to this combination that the film exudes a dream-like energy that I’ve yet to experience from other 1940s films, although the film does bear marks of its time.
A group of nuns, led by the young Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are to create a school and hospital in the Himalayas and convert the inhabitants. But the location isn’t the best soil for hardy Christian roots. The palace in which the nuns are to stay used be a harem, and it’s still filled with colorful, erotic murals. And the winds blow and blow, disturbing the nuns’ habits.
The Himalayas are conjured by art director Alfred Junge with matte paintings and glass in a studio, which adds to the unreality and disturbance the setting gives off. The habits of the nuns are ruffled in more ways than one: Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a white man who lives among the Indians and serves as a guide to the nuns, unsettles the women with his unabashed masculinity. He is also the apex of a repressed love triangle with Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron).
Of all the nuns, Kerr and Byron are the most memorable. Kerr does a good job portraying a nun who is struggling to keep the British stiff-upper lip. But Byron, for all of her scenery-chewing, helps imbue the film with frenetic energy. When she abandons the nun’s habit for a crimson dress and blood-red lipstick, it’s—courtesy of Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography—smoldering fire set loose. The music, composed by Brian Easdale, traces Byron’s every mad step in the last parts of the film. When she escapes the nuns to be with (the un-reciprocating) Mr. Dean, the soundtrack’s vocals reach a delirious pitch as she cackles through the dark hallways.
The rest of the actors are a mixture of brown face and varying acting ability. Farrar is both a sardonic tease and man capable of showing empathy towards Sister Clodagh’s struggles—although they both know nothing can come of it. Jean Simmons, all browned up, plays silent, typical exotic-eroticized girl Kanchi who’s just an antithesis to the chaste whiteness of the nuns. Sabu, playing the Young General, lacks the youthful, untrained energy of his earlier films. At least there’s one genuine Indian within the principal Indian roles.
Besides the use of brown face, however, the film is not so offensive when you consider the time period. Yes, the Indians are seen as superstitious, but the beliefs of the flawed nuns don’t help much either. Still, the portrayal is not wholly neutral; corrupting sensuality is inevitably attributed to the foreign, non-Christian surroundings and its people.
Despite bearing traces of racism and some uninteresting characters, “The Black Narcissus” excels as a feverish dream during the last, great thirty minutes. And those colors are just too ripe to resist.