Like the scent of wafting perfume uncorked by a character in the film, change is in the air for a group of nuns from The Order of the Servants of Mary in Calcutta. The “Old General,” Toda Rai (Esmond Knight), has requested the presence of the sisters at his ancient Palace of Mopu, nestled high in the Himalayas more than 8,000’ above his village. It is the Old General’s plan to make the palace, the former home of his father’s many concubines, into a school and hospital for his people. The deserted palace has fallen into decay, thanks to the eccentric caretaker, Angu Ayah (May Hallatt), who spends most of her time living in the past, raising exotic birds and dancing to the long-silenced music of the concubines.
Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is in charge of this new order of nuns, including stoic Briony (Judith Furse), green-thumbed Philippa (Flora Robson), and troubled, young Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who make the long, uphill journey guided by the Old General’s assistant, an attractive Englishman, Mr. Dean (David Farrar). Cynical Dean does his best to help the sisters acclimate to their grand new location amidst the cool mountain breezes, and it’s clear Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth are more than a little intrigued by the aloof gentleman.
As the weeks progress, the sisters find it hard to keep focused as they succumb to the allure of their exotic surroundings and the masculine presence of Dean and a recent newcomer, “The Young General” (Sabu), who has asked the women to share their knowledge of English and of Christ. Clodagh is having trouble shaking the memories of her doomed romance from years before she came into the fold. Confused Philippa has planted no vegetables, only exotic flowers. Kanchi (Jean Simmons), a local girl whom the sisters have taken in, has become amorously obsessed with the New General. While these tensions brew through the palace, it is Ruth who has grown frighteningly disturbed, pulling away into the shadows in which she plots her escape from Mopu and revenge on the oppressive order she resents.
In 1947, British directing team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, also known to audiences as The Archers, began work on their sixth feature partnership, a film version of Rumer Godden’s novel Black Narcissus. The unusual story seemed to require extensive location work in India, and no one was more surprised than production designer Alfred Junge and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, BSC, when Powell and Pressburger announced the film would be shot entirely at Pinewood Studios and neighboring locations in the English countryside.
Cardiff, working with the three-strip Technicolor process, was aware of Powell and Pressburger’s penchant for vivid, often expressionistic light, and that they were fans of the fantastic light in Disney animation. Cardiff’s approach to Black Narcissus was also heavily influenced by the paintings of Vermeer. Working closely with Junge, matte painter and process-shot stylist W. Percy Day, and miniature model maker Jack Higgins, Cardiff created a wholly credible Himalayan mountaintop and surrounding village within the confines of Pinewood Studios. His beautifully rendered lighting is now considered the hallmark of the three-strip Technicolor process, and his work on the film brought him the Academy Award.
The Criterion Collection recently released Black Narcissus on Blu-ray, and although the film has had a strong history on home video, this new image transfer seems to be definitive. With bold, often incandescent colors and excellent details in shadows, this 1080p transfer is extraordinary. Colors are exceptionally rich, with well-balanced contrast and little hint of chroma noise in even the brightest primaries. Black levels appear deep and solid, and the overall image is crisp, offering incredible detail. Although some mild film grain is visible, it is appropriate and adds to the film-like image quality. Black Narcissus has never looked this good on home screens, and this disc is certainly a high-water mark for digital reproductions of Technicolor. The monaural sound is clean and serviceable, with little difference in character from Criterion’s standard-definition DVD, issued in 2000.
This disc includes an array of excellent supplements. Hailing from the original Criterion laserdisc in 1988 is the absorbing audio commentary by Powell and Martin Scorsese, a longtime Powell and Pressburger fan. “Painting with Light,” an excellent 30-minute documentary featuring Cardiff, also makes an encore appearance from the 2000 DVD. Also included are the theatrical trailer, a 25-minute making-of documentary from 2000, and 25 minutes of interviews with director Bertrand Tavernier, a longtime friend of Powell, who gives anecdotal information about the production. Also included is a booklet containing a thoughtful essay by Kent Jones.
More than 60 years have passed since Black Narcissus made its auspicious and controversial debut, yet the film continues to be unique for both its unusual narrative and its luminous cinematography. The warm scent of Black Narcissus returns to home screens once again in this definitive package, which will give the film’s many fans reason to rejoice.