After opening a convent in the Himalayas, five nuns encounter conflict and tension - both with the natives and also within their own group - as they attempt to adapt to their remote, exotic surroundings.
Joan Webster is an ambitious and stubborn middle-class English woman determined to move forward since her childhood. She meets her father in a fancy restaurant to tell him that she will ... See full summary »
A 'Land Girl', an American GI, and a British soldier find themselves together in a small Kent town on the road to Canterbury. The town is being plagued by a mysterious "glue-man", who pours... See full summary »
Sister Clodah is dispatched with four other nuns to establish a new convent far in the Himalayas. It's a difficult journey and their new house is a ramshackle old building on the edge of a cliff that had been abandoned by a religious Brotherhood many years before. They soon establish a school and an infirmary though the local General's agent, Mr. Dean, warns them against treating the deathly ill as they would no doubt be blamed if the patient doesn't recover. The location, the culture and the mountain air all begin to have a strange effect on the Sisters. Sister Clodagh, who is also on her first assignment as Sister Superior, begins to remember a romance she had as a young woman before entering the sisterhood. Another however, becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean, which leads to tragedy. Written by
Through Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's deal with Rank, the film was assured solid distribution in the United States, because Rank had entered into an agreement with Universal Studios in 1946 which resulted in the distribution arm Universal-International. As it turned out, the film only had spotty distribution in America, due to censorship problems. Powell later observed, "...they couldn't leave a picture with nuns in it alone." Powell and Pressburger were actually aware of the potential for censorship trouble in America before the film was shot. In April of 1945, a rough draft of the script was submitted to Joseph Breen at the Production Code Administration. Breen outlined his initial concerns to Rank: "While the story is not quite clear and concise, to us it has about it a flavour of sex sin in connection with certain of the nuns, which, in our judgement, is not good." The Breen office, however, passed the finished film in June 1947, but on the condition that a foreword was added making it clear that the nuns were Anglo, rather than Roman Catholic. Indeed, it was with the Catholic Legion of Decency that Rank encountered the most problems. The Legion of Decency launched a campaign against the film's release as early as April 1946, when the Archbishop of Calcutta began writing about the production. Predictably, when the film was reviewed by the Catholic weekly The Tidings, published in Los Angeles, the judgement was harsh: "It is a long time since the American public has been handed such a perverted specimen of bad taste, vicious inaccuracies and ludicrous improbabilities." When the Legion of Decency screened the film, it was given a "C" classification, or "Condemned." Street reported that "out of thirteen Fathers, eight gave it a 'C' rating, the rest recommending A2, unobjectionable for adults." See more »
During a shot of the Himalayan mountains, stagehands can be seen standing and walking about behind the scrim on which the mountains are painted. See more »
The Old General:
Do you see that crate? Sausages! They will eat sausages. Europeans eat sausages wherever they go.
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Opening credits:- Convent of the Order of the Servants Calcutta See more »
Black Narcissus is a story of ghosts, wind, faith, frustration, sexual tension and madness.
I have seen Black Narcissus in three different ways. First I saw it in a movie theater when I was 7 or 8 with my mother. I remembered it as being beautiful to look at and rather strange, and I fell in love with the idea of The Roof of The World.
I next encountered Black Narcissus as an older adult. I purchased Black Narcissus in VHS format. I devoured the film scene by scene.
The film is ravishing, spectral and profound. The idea of someone being given a trust much heavier to bare than their abilities can handle opens the door to all sorts of possibilities. The suggestion that all the nun's had lives before they became nuns and not all of them are suited to "The Life" adds depth and tension. The introduction of a bare-chested, handsome man in shorts adds lust and temptation to the mix.
One of the best characters in the film is one that no other poster has mentioned. The marvelous character actress who plays the role of Aiyah, the caretaker of "The General's House of Women." A woman who is already slightly mad when the film begins. A woman who lives in the glorious past of the place. She conjures ghosts. She casts shadows. She has a voice as harsh as a parrot's. She is priceless and wonderful in every scene, for she is not just mad, but wise. She is the key to "The House of Women".
In the Alfred Hitchcock film of Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers, the mad housekeeper of Manderly, asks the new Mrs. DeWinter: "Do you believe that the dead come back to watch the living?" In Black Narcissus, the viewer gets the feeling that just around the next turn or at the top of the stairs is one of "The General's Women", watching these odd women who live without men.
A previous poster mentioned the superb sense of "place" in the film and I agree. The Palace is a player. It has a personality and a mystery of its own. So is the ever-present wind. Jack Cardiff, the genius who performed miracles with light and painted backdrops to photograph a film set in the Himalayas without ever leaving England, can't be praised highly enough.
The cast is splendid. Deborah Kerr's tortured Sister Clodagha registers every emotion, every longing, every doubt and every fear with her eyes and the set of her chin. Dame Flora Robson, better known as Elizabeth I in so many films, portrays Sister Philippa, the nun in spiritual crisis. Her, "I think it is this place. You can see too far. I think you either have to give in to it, like Mr. Dean, or leave", neatly sums up the entire film. When she can't bring herself to plant vegetables instead of the flowers she loves, she knows she MUST leave or lose herself and all she has worked for, forever. Judith Furse, the capable and sturdy Sister Brione has no such concerns. Hers is an unquestioning faith. Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, (the extra burden the Mother Superior foists on Sister Clodagha as a test of her dedication and skill at managing a small but dynamic group of women),is excellent in her demanding role as the nun who cracks.
A beautiful young Jean Simmons is sensuous as Kanchi who seduces Sabu who is very good as the young Prince, who has set himself to learn just about everything and who thinks the nun's shunning men "Isn't very nice. After all, Christ was a man..." He is named Black Narcissus by Sister Ruth.
David Ferrar as Mr. Dean may have "given in to the place" but he is still civilized enough to empathize with Sister Clodagha and resist Sister Ruth's advances. He has predicted that the nuns will last "until the rains come..."
Black Narcissus is filled with magic images and haunting echos. The "flowering of the snows" scene is breathtaking. The chapel scene frightening and tense. The "Bell" scene horrifying. The final view of "The House of Women", viewed by Sister Clodagha from the valley below is heart-stopping: A mist rises slowly and inch by inch blots out the Palace, until it is only a dream in your mind's eye. Then, a large leaf is seen. One drop falls. Then another, like tears of regret. A black umbrella is opened. Mr. Dean sits on his pony and runs his hand through his thick black hair. He had said the nuns would be gone with the first rain, and he was right.
Brian Easdale's brilliant score underlines the changing moods and the mounting terror, but never overwhelms the action.
My most recent encounter with Black Narcissus is the new Criterion DVD. The commentary and behind-the-scenes photographs and the marvelous documentary, Painting with Light, is as extraordinary as the film. It is a revelation. The sharper image doesn't bother me as much as it does a previous poster, but I do, when I have friends over to watch Black Narcissus, start with the VHS film and then put on the DVD for the special features. That way I get the best of both worlds.
If you love great films, great acting or just stunning cinematography, purchase Black Narcissus. It will haunt you forever.
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