PALACE OF EXCESS: POWELL & PRESSBURGER’S BLACK NARCISSUS

Published on: December 24th, 2012

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
– William Blake

“Everything about it was phoney. The outside shots were done in a Surrey garden, and the Himalayas were just muslin mounted on poles.”
– Rumer Godden

The author of the 1939 novel which inspired Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) was not an admirer of the film. “I saw it only once but never again.” Godden fumed. “It’s an absolute travesty of the book, I cannot bear it. Micky Powell said that he saw it as a fairy tale, whereas for me it was true. The whole thing was an abomination.”

While Godden’s is by no means a lone voice of criticism, reactions to the seventh of the writing-directing duo’s fifteen features made under the banner of The Archers – starting with Contraband (1940) and ending with Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) – have generally tended towards the more approving, even euphoric end of the scale.

Indeed, the British Film Institute’s 1999 poll ranked Black Narcissus as the nation’s 44th greatest  cinematic achievement. Powell and Pressburger’s previous and following projects ranked significantly higher – The Red Shoes (1948) at number nine and A Matter of Life and Death (1946) at 20 – but this tale of extreme passions in the Himalayas did edge out their 1943 enterprise The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp by one place, while there was  –  surprisingly – no place in the top hundred for what many would regard as the pair’s masterpiece, A Canterbury Tale (1944).

If anything, the reputation of Black Narcissus – a story of well-meaning Brits encountering problems in India, released only months before the country gained independence – has only grown in the 13 years that have elapsed since the BFI survey. Academics have pored over its colonial contexts and its gender representations – it’s amusing to observe the ways in which hunky male lead David Farrar appears in various stages of provocative undress.

James Gray, Guy Maddin, Wes Anderson and Neil Labute meanwhile have little in common other than their being male writer-directors from North America, but each have singled out Black Narcissus as a particular favourite.  “The fevered colors and close-ups are as close to a cinematic wet dream as I ever need to have,” enthused Labute. Embracing the artificiality which Godden so despised, Anderson praise Powell and Pressburger as “artisans who were creating something for us that is very related to theater. Black Narcissus, for example, is set in the Himalayas, but it was a movie that was made at Pinewood entirely. All the mountain ranges were painted on glass.”

Maddin, meanwhile, provided a memorable mini-synopsis of the picture when selecting among his top ten works available from the most prestigious US video-distribution company, The Criterion Collection: “A bunch of nuns move into a wind-addled old pleasure dome in the Himalayas and have trouble remembering their vows. The air is set aquivering by the most innocuous male approach to their world… And even I have trouble keeping my priest’s collar straight as the unspoken pressures build up to boiler-breaking levels. Technicolor at its most eye-popping!”

The “bunch of nuns” comprise five sisters dispatched from the Calcutta convent of the (real-life) Order of the Servants of Mary. The opening scenes show the convent’s stern supremo Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts) informing Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) that she is to take charge of the order’s new outpost, located in a clifftop palace previously used by local potentate as a harem for his concubines. Told that she will be the “youngest Sister Superior in our order,” Clodagh can’t hide a quick spasm of pride at such a promotion. But Dorothea sound a note of caution: “I don’t think you’re ready for it,” she bluntly warns – a prophecy which subsequent events bear out, in what emerges as a steady-eyed indictment of inexperienced leadership.

Arriving at at the Palace of Mopu, Clodagh and her quartet of Sisters struggle to adapt to their new environment, where they are to provide teaching and medical services to the local peasants. Headstrong, unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), racked by “violent pains” and evident mental disorder, proves a particular handful for Clodagh – especially when the representative of the Palace’s ruler is around. Known only as Mr Dean (Farrar), this strapping Man’s Man delights in teasing the sisters with fortright flirtation, little realising the impact his capricious behaviour will have upon Clodagh and, particularly, Ruth (though the latter stages fascinatingly reveal that Dean is far from the rampant sexual libertine which he has adopted as his colonial ‘persona’.)

Adapting Godden’s novel, Powell and Pressburger adhere quite closely to the original text but with certain important variations. Most telling is an important scene near the climax when a erotically-frenzied Ruth, having left the Order (which, in the film, requires an annual renewal of vows), visits Mr Dean’s residence with carnal pleasure on her mind. In the book, she’s still clad in her austere nun’s garments – but one of the film’s most powerful effects is when Clodagh suddenly discovers her  dressed in a burgundy dress, her face made up and her hair styled as if ready for an evening out in Piccadilly.

Such audaciously bold deployment of colour is crucial to Black Narcissus,  Powell and Pressburger having used the technique only sparingly in their previous movie A Matter of Life and Death – a wartime fantasy much of which takes place in a Heaven that exists entirely in black-and-white. Indeed, one of the celestial beings remarks that he’s “starved of Technicolor” up there – and Black Narcissus thus  offers a rare feast after such famine.

The Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation had been founded in 1914 by four men, including Herb Kalmus – whose ex-wife Natalie is credited as the film’s “Colour Co-Ordinator.” But Natalie Kalmus’s notoriously rigid monitoring of the Technicolor process was resisted at every step by Powell, who instructed his cinematographer Jack Cardiff to experiment with saturation and extremity – the results earning Cardiff his first Academy Award.

Joining him on the AMPAS roll of honour was production designer Alfred Junge, whose contributions were deemed so important that he received a separate title-card all of his own. Once Powell had decided not to make the film on location, the work of Junge became absolutely crucial – and he succeeded to such a degree that many viewers can’t believe that not a frame of Black Narcissus was shot in India rather than on the sets at Pinewood studios in Buckinghamshire, just 20 miles from the Houses of Parliament.

A small number of exteriors were shot at Leonardslee Gardens in West Sussex (in her rage, Godden became a little blurry on geography) where the abundant rhododendrons were reckoned ideal to impart a Himalayan ambience. But otherwise Black Narcissus is a wonder of matte effects, models and trompe l’oeil – as Dave Kehr notes, Junge takes us into “the curved, multi-levelled, spatially indefinite chambers of the old palace” as “British certainty and sterility cedes more and more to Eastern mysticism and sensuality… The ground literally opens beneath the feet of the characters, inviting them to take the plunge–to abandon their twin faiths, in God and the British Empire, and turn themselves over to ancient and more dangerous powers.”

Those “powers” have a supernatural connotation, and Black Narcissus, while essentially a tale of forbidden,  barely-acknowledged romance between Mr Dean and  Clodagh (part Brief Encounter, part Garden of Allah) also plays knowingly with the conventions of the Gothic horror film – the stain of Ruth’s vermillion lipstick commences a blood-hued lineage that can be traced through such “excessive” spectacles as Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1964), Ken Russell’s convent-horror The Devils (1971), the kaleido-fugue climax of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) and even Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977.)


The draughty precipice-poised palace is “haunted” by the presences of its former residents, the concubines’ chattering voices being heard by scatty housekeeper Angu Ayah (May Hallatt) in the opening sequences, and spilling over onto the soundtrack. Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth is gradually “possessed” by sexual desire, physical symptoms such as a sweat-beaded forehead developing to such a degree in the latter stages that she starts to resemble a vampire or member of the walking dead.

Powell, a particular fan of the 1940s RKO horror-movie cycle produced by Val Lewton, homages  the Jacques Tourneur-directed I Walked With A Zombie (1943) during the late sequence when Ruth makes her way through a misty, hazard-laden swamp – amid the beating of native drums and the ominous noise of predatory fauna – on her way to Mr Dean’s house. Like many of the most effective passages in Black Narcissus, it’s a wordless affair which relies instead on sound and visuals for its overwhelmingly sensual impact.

Powell had regarded the arrival of sound as a negative development in cinema: “And then, when nation was talking to nation in the most direct and simple way, the blow fell. Synchronised sound had arrived.” An admirer of Walt Disney, whom he felt was able to transcend the culturally limiting reliance upon the spoken word, Powell was by the time of Black Narcissus moving towards what he described as “composed” film, assembled in a manner more usually associated with music. The idea was to create “an organic whole of dialogue, sound effects and music” – indeed, for the extended climax in which the Clodagh/Ruth enmity reaches a homicidal pitch, Powell experimented by using a stopwatch in order to synchronise the action with a pre-recorded version of Brian Easdale’s score.

This emphasis on movement, colour and music was to flower further in the less narrative-based examples of Powell and Pressburger collaborations – the ballet-themed The Red Shoes, and the opera/operetta-inspired Tales of Hoffman (1951) and Oh! Rosalinda (1955). Black Narcissus is thus a vital transitional film in the duo’s career, not least because it was the first time they’d brought an existing novel to the screen – several more literary adaptations were to follow.

But the film remains a remarkable achievement taken simply on its own terms, six and a half decades after its first release. Compared with the genteel Herbert Wilcox – Anna Neagle affairs which dominated the British box office at the time (I Live In Grosvenor Square, Piccadilly Incident, The Courtneys of Curzon Street), Black Narcissus deals with sexual matters with a transgressive frankness that seems far ahead of its time. Operating in the aftermath of a shattering war, Powell and Pressburger realised that a period of crisis was for them a time of enormous opportunity, a chance to shake up the staid British film industry and inject radical concepts and visions from overseas.

Because while Black Narcissus may have been entirely shot in the Home Counties, its provenance as a “British film” tells only part of the story: Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew from Miskolc; Junge was from Görlitz in Silesia (now Germany’s most easterly town); costume-designer Hein Heckroth was from Giessen in Hesse. Cast from their native lands by the turbulent tides of 20th century history, they joined together in Britain alongside locals Powell, Cardiff and Easdale, to create this singular and bizarre parable of isolation, repression and torment.

by Neil Young
7th December 2012
written for the Slovenian Cinematheque (Slovenska kinoteka) and reproduced with permission