The much admired Himalayan scenery was all created in the studio (with glass shots and hanging miniatures), much to the surprise of some cast and crewmembers who were anticipating a location shoot in Asia.
Jack Cardiff came up with the idea of starting the rainfall end scene by first having a few drops hit the rhubarb leaves before cueing a full-force rainstorm. He personally created the first drops with water from a cup when the scene was shot. Michael Powell was so pleased with the effect that he decided to make the scene, originally the penultimate one, the closing shot. Cardiff, however, was a great fan of the original scene (which had already been shot) that was supposed to follow this one and close the film. To this day Cardiff amusingly calls the opening drops of the rainfall "the worst idea I ever had".
The last scene in the film, of the rains beginning as Mr. Dean watches the Sisters leaving Mopu, was carefully devised. It was Jack Cardiff's idea to have a few initial drops of rain hitting the foreground flowers. Cardiff was to later regret this brainstorm, however. There was originally meant to be a concluding scene, in which Sister Clodagh returns to Calcutta and speaks with the Mother Superior. Cardiff thought that this sequence featured some of the best work of his career, but the power of the rain scenes demanded that they end the film.
Jack Cardiff drew inspiration for his shots from the great painters; he experimented with the tones of Van Gogh, for example, or the reds and greens from Rembrandt. In her British Film Guide book on Black Narcissus, Sarah Smith quotes Cardiff, who explained the influence of Vermeer and Caravaggio: "They both lit with very simple light. Many painters did, but with Vermeer and Caravaggio you were very conscious of it; they really used the shadows. Caravaggio would just have one sweeping light over everything so that you were aware of the single light." The resulting lighting was unusual for Technicolor films of the time, and initially caused concern for Technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus. She grew to appreciate the look Cardiff was creating once she saw the initial rushes, however.
Johannes Vermeer has been mentioned as an inspiration for the lighting and color palette. A tribute to this Dutch painter can be seen in the opening scene when the Mother Superior is reading a letter, while facing a window. An image used by Vermeer in some of his most famous paintings.
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."
The Legion of Decency still held great sway on filmgoing habits in America, and a Condemned film would eliminate a huge number of ticket sales. The film had already opened in New York and Los Angeles, but the ban interfered with scheduled openings in other cities, such as Detroit and Memphis. Rank was in a bad position. Parliament had just imposed a 75 percent duty on American films imported to England, and Hollywood was temporarily boycotting the British market. The few British films that could play well in America were encouraged as a goodwill gesture, so Rank was anxious that the film play in as many American cities as possible. The only option they saw was to make cuts to the film to satisfy the Legion of Decency. So, the film was edited by 900 feet or so - ten cuts in all. All of Sister Clodagh's memories of Ireland were cut, accounting for most of the offending footage. The close-up of Sister Ruth applying lipstick also fell victim to censorship, and a few lines of suggestive dialogue were also eliminated, for example Mr. Dean's line to Sister Briony, "You will be doing me a great favour when you educate the local girls." Finally, the wording of the foreword was changed so that there would be no mistaking that the order of nuns might be Catholic; now it said that "a group of Protestant nuns in mysterious India find adventure, sacrifice, and tragedy." Now satisfied, the ban was removed and the film was released with an A2 classification from the Legion.
For the scenes depicting the villagers, Michael Powell and his team had a ready supply of extras. As Powell wrote, "...when the war was just over, there was an immense floating population of Asians around London Docks, and we had no difficulty in building up a list of extras for the crowd scenes: Malays, Indians, Gurkhas, Nepalese, Hindus, Pakistanis, hundreds of them. We formed groups of different castes and races, and each group had a leader."
St Faith (Sainte Foy in French, Santa Fe in Spanish) is supposedly a French martyr executed at Agen in Gaul (France) during the period when Diocletian was persecuting the Christians. She was tortured to death in a red-hot brazier. Her shrine is at Conques, France.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
When Dean puts the coat over Sister Ruth's shoulders, Sister Ruth sneaks a quick kiss to his hand. In an interview with Kathleen Byron at National Film Theatre, she said that the kiss wasn't scripted but the hand was there and she just kissed it. She also said that in a few other places she tried to play Ruth not as a totally crazy woman (as Michael Powell often wanted) but as someone who thought herself to be sane and who, with a bit of understanding from the others, could have been helped.
Kathleen Byron strongly disagreed with Michael Powell on how Powell wanted to shoot Sister Ruth's arrival at the house of the man she loves, Dean. Byron said, "She's very happy now she's in his presence." But Powell wanted her to dart all over the place. Kathleen Byron strongly disagreed and Powell walked off the set. Jack Cardiff asked "Are we ready?" and Powell replied, "Ask her." Later, Powell decided to agree with Kathleen Byron and he shot the scene as we see in the film. When the scene was finished, Powell said it wasn't what he intended, but it was very good.