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The Criterion Collection presents
Black Narcissus (1947)

Sister Clodagh: We all need discipline. You said yourself, they're like children. Without discipline, we should all behave like children.
Mr. Dean: Don't you like children?

- Deborah Kerr, David Farrar

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: February 26, 2001

Stars: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrar
Other Stars: Flora Robson, Esmond Knight, Jean Simmons, Kathleen Byron, Jenny Laird, Judith Furese, May Hallatt
Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Manufacturer: Modern Videofilm, L.A.
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (minor violence, sensuality)
Run Time: 01h:40m:38s
Release Date: January 30, 2001
UPC: 037429152126
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A-A-B- A+

DVD Review

Conflicts of many kinds are present in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus, set against the beauty and danger of the Himalayas. These include the shock of Anglo-Catholic nuns set in the midst of the mountains among natives who speak no English, the struggle between flesh and the spirit, between medicine and superstition, between vows and longing for a different life, and between the monied classes and the impoverished.

Deborah Kerr stars as Irish Sister Clodagh, a young nun who is sent to start a school and hospital in Mopu, in the mountains of India. She takes with her four other nuns of differing skills, but they no sooner arrive than they run afoul of the customs of the country. The resident holy man is on their grounds and will not be moved, the children will not attend the school without being paid to do so, and the general's son (Sabu) insists upon being educated even though he is a man and technically forbidden within the nunnery.

Before long, the sisters have fallen under an influence which shakes their community to the core. The film suggests a number of possibilities for the source of this influence, such as the British Agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the fact that the palace in which the nunnery is installed was once a harem, or it may just be the constant wind through the mountains and the crystal-clear air. Whichever one accepts as the cause (or it may be all of them), the restrained sisters soon are a seething mass of passions and sexual jealousies, with an underlying eroticism which culminates in Sister Ruth (Katherine Byron) going quite dangerously mad.

The presence and attitudes of Mr. Dean may well be the primary culprit here, for he is often seen in varying states of undress. As he speaks to Sister Clodagh trying to convince her and the others to pack up and leave, he twice gives a sidelong glance down at the nun's body, emphasizing the temptations and appeals of the flesh. Farrar gives a fine performance in this role, feigning indifference while still caring deeply about the native peoples and the well-being of the nuns.

Kerr sparkles as Sister Clodagh, haunted by her memories of her life before she took up the cloister. Byron is spectacular (and aided greatly by the lighting and Jack Cardiff's photography) as the unbalanced Sister Ruth. May Hallatt is excellent as the caretaker of the palace, Angu Ayah; unlike most 1940s comic relief, she manages to actually be quite funny indeed. A 17-year-old Jean Simmons sizzles as the erotic temptress Kanchi, who is unwillingly taken in by the nuns.

But the real star of this film is the visuals. There is almost always something fascinating on the screen to look at. Even though filmed entirely at Pinewood Studios, the backgrounds are incredibly convincing painted mattes which make one feel quite firmly planted in the Himalayas. When combined with elaborate camera angles, there is a feeling of vertiginous height and, quite appropriately, the feeling of living directly on the edge of the abyss. As Sister Ruth becomes more feverishly disturbed, the camera comes in closer and closer to her sweat-beaded face until finally just her deranged eyes fill the screen.

This immediate predecessor to Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes is a visual feast and a tour de force of acting which is not to be missed.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This motion picture features one fabulously gorgeous image after another, and Criterion's restoration does Cardiff's photography quite proud. Colors are eyepopping, blacks are rich and the painting of light and shadow is truly extraordinary throughout. There is excellent detail to be seen in the closeups, particularly of Sister Ruth as she descends into madness. There is an occasional slight jitter from side to side, seen in the opening credits, some closeups of Sister Clodagh and the last shot of the palace as it disappears into the mist. This is really the only drawback to an extraordinarily beautiful transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: As is too often true with British films of fifty years ago and more, there is a fair amount of noise and hiss to be heard on the audio track. The music tends to sound tinny and lacking in depth. These are, however, clearly problems with the source material rather than the audio transfer. Thus the grade is not as low as it might be otherwise. The sound is the original mono.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Director Michael Powell, with Martin Scorsese
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:06m:56s

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo archive
  2. Color bars
Extras Review: Criterion gives us a splendid special edition of this film, the highlight of which is the 1988 commentary recorded by director Michael Powell in tandem with Martin Scorsese. The commentary is screen-specific. Powell gives a few behind-the-scenes stories, but the content mostly is confined to pointing out notable shots and performances. This isn't the most enlightening commentary, but it's certainly interesting to hear Powell talk. Scorsese is less useful, often indicating shots which he claims inspired sequences in his own films. However, he is certainly enthusiastic.

Much more interesting is a new documentary on the cinematography of the film, Painting with Light. This 27-minute film includes interviews with the Oscar®-winning cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, and discussions of the technical aspects of three-strip Technicolor and the problems involved in getting the proper look for the film. This is certainly a welcome addition considering how very important the visuals are in this picture. The heavily speckled and damaged clips from the film included here make it clear how much restoration work has been done, for which we should all be appreciative.

A set of over 150 stills is included in a photo archive. These photos, selected from Powell's own collection, include production stills, behind-the-scenes photos and a few glimpses of deleted sequences. It's a shame that these deleted scenes apparently no longer exist, since they appear to add a dimension to the story and fill in some continuity (for instance, we there learn where Sister Ruth got her mukluks).

Rounding out the package is a lengthy theatrical trailer in decent condition, but nowhere near as pristine as the main feature.

Extras Grade: A+


Final Comments

A splendid visual experience and a moving portrayal of human emotion and clash of cultures, given a terrific presentation by Criterion. One of the most gorgeous films I've ever seen, Black Narcissus is very highly recommended.


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