Looking Back At BLACK NARCISSUS (1947) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)

Tony’s up on the mountain.

Nuns and lust!

Relax, you haven’t tuned into some X-rated pay-per-view channel. What you have got in Black Narcissus though is an odd, tense psychodrama of paternalistic religious imperialism, and what happens when unready nuns get a whiff of so-called ‘exoticism,’ lustful stirrings and a touch of neurosis in the Himalayas.

You’re in, aren’t you?

Black Narcissus began life as a novel by Rumer Godden in 1939. It’s important to be clear that the original book, as with the relatively recent TV adaptation, is significantly less problematic than this 1947 movie version.

Problematic? Mmmmyes, we’ll get to that in a minute.

But essentially what we have here is an order of Anglican nuns, invited to set up a hospital-cum-school for the locals in the extremely elevated former palace of a maharaja, (complete with erotic artwork on the walls!), on top of a mountain in the Himalayas.

What could even possibly go wrong with that?
In a sense, Black Narcissus is a psychological, rather than supernatural, forerunner of tales like Stephen King’s The Shining. It combines a strong location with properties and memories of its own, an isolating device – here, the religious vows of the nuns, rather than a lot of snow and ice (although it IS set in the Himalayas, so you’re not exactly short-changed for snow and ice!), and some people left in charge who are fundamentally psychologically unsuited to both the assignment and the place.

There’s early discussion about how the Sister Superior who will head up the project, Sister Clodagh, played by the always-remarkable Deborah Kerr, is not yet ready for command (it’s a mark of the strength of this feeling that she remains a Sister Superior while in the role, rather than being elevated to Mother Superior status).

She takes a sisterhood along with her that she herself has not chosen, including Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who is seen – at least by Sister Clodagh – as being too eager to advance, Sister Briony, the nurse (Judith Furse), Sister Philippa, who’s good with gardens, (played relatively meekly by Flora Robson), and the sweetly-nicknamed Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) who is soft-hearted and the favourite of children everywhere.

Between them, their mission is to educate the local girls in good, clean Western values – which in this instance means BRITISH values, along with the English language – and to tend to the needs of the local population with Western medicine too, all under the auspices of bringing Christianity to live among the Himalayas.
It’s doubtful from the start whether the Himalayas much want them there, and it’s probably important to remember that the book was written while Britain still ruled India as an imperial possession, and in fact the movie came out just months before the country achieved its independence.

The nuns are invited to use the palace by its current owner, a retired Indian general who acts as the local bigwig, but he has to pay people to attend the hospital and the school at first, just to establish it as a habit in their heads – for schooling and medicine (and to get some coins), go see the mad English women up the mountain.

And as far as that goes, they might yet have made a success of it. The building whispers with the erotic secrets of its past, the horizons are troublingly vast, encouraging the cloistered nuns to remember times when they were women in the world, pursued by or pursuing men and alive to the sexual part of their nature, and the plumbing’s abysmal, but you don’t become a nun for an easy life.

But then…

Then they realise it’s impossible to simply do their work in that kind of shut-away climate. For everything they need (including repairs to the plumbing), they are reliant on Mr Dean, the agent for the general. He’s English and hard-bitten and played by David Farrar in a way that suggests a British Humphrey Bogart. For a while, you half expect Sister Clodagh to drop her veil and run to be crushed in his manly embrace, to a swell of passionate music, but Black Narcissus isn’t quite that obvious.
Dean has a favour to ask of the nuns in return for his help. A local teenage girl, Kanchi, has set her mind to seduce and marry him, and he’s an old-style James Bond type who doesn’t want any truck with women, so he wants the nuns to teach her, and apart from anything else, to take the edge off her full-beam sexual hunger, which he fears will get her into trouble sooner rather than later if it’s left unchecked.

And then there’s the Young General. The Young General is a local who’s bling-conscious and determined to be the perfect combination of an Indian heritage and English learning. Much against Sister Clodagh’s wishes, he joins the lessons given to the local girls. It’s an element of his finery that gives the book and the film its name – he wears a perfume (a real one, available at the time) called Black Narcissus, and that scent, along with the perpetual whispering wind and the wide horizons and the altitude, begins to get under some of the nuns’ skins.

But that’s the whole waterwheel of Black Narcissus’ psycho-sexual tension. Between Mr Dean’s rugged, sweaty masculinity and the Young General’s scented gentility, the nuns are cheek by jowl with more men than they’ve grown used to. Kanchi’s frank sexuality doesn’t help them either, serving as a counterpoint to the life they’ve chosen.

And apart from all the reminiscing and the heaving sisterly bosoms, when a child in a terminal condition is brought to them, against the express wishes of all the other Westerners, Sister Honey’s heart melts and she sneaks the mother some medicine. Their fate on the mountain is sealed with that action. The medicine does not work miracles, and the nuns and their wooden saviour are seen as responsible for the child’s death.
Kanchi, placed in proximity to the Young General, needs little persuasion to switch the allegiance of her love (or at least her hormone-fuelled teenage lust) from Mr Dean to the handsome young aristocrat (played by Sabu, an actor more famous in his youth for playing Mowgli in The (non-Disney) Jungle Book).

But Sister Ruth grows more and more divorced from her duty and her calling, convinced that a handful of trifling kindnesses from Mr Dean spell a future where they are together. She’s also convinced that Sister Clodagh is a spiteful love-rival for the attentions of Dean, determined to put her down and keep her away from the man she’s convinced she loves.

If you’re looking for the Jack Torrance of the piece – keep your eye on Sister Ruth. She undergoes a physical change at least as dramatic as anything Jack Nicholson achieved in the later movie. And the pulsebeats of the change are similar to those in The Shining too – though as we say, in Black Narcissus, it’s more the memories of the building and its easy eroticism, along with some other circumstantial factors, that stir ghosts of the mind, rather than ghosts of the spirit world, to unquiet action.

And yes, before you ask, there is at least one death among the nuns by the end of the melodrama – we won’t tell you who it is, but if you’re new to Black Narcissus, let’s just say that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who directed the film, were no slouches in crafting a nail-biting narrative, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat by the end.

So what you have is a tense, taut, gradually increasing itch of unease under the skin as element is layered on element here. A quick, explosive blast is in no sense the energy of the piece. Like Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and again, like The Shining, it’s a gradual, unscratchable accumulation of elements that lead ULTIMATELY to an explosion of drama, violence and death, and it’s a deeply disturbing, but always engaging watch.
So… what’s troublesome about it?

Ah. Well, the tone is obviously paternalistic and imperialistic – as we said, India was still an imperial possession of Britain’s both when the book was written and when the movie was made, so having Dean explain that Sister Clodagh should think of the locals as being “like children,” while it’s horrendous when viewed with our modern eyes, is probably an accurate representation of the views of the English in India at the time.

What’s much more cringe-making, for all it too has a certain horrendous logic, is the fact that of the principal Indian roles in the piece, only the Young General is played by an Indian actor. It’s possible that Sabu had a recognition factor that made him a go-to for the role, and that no similar go-to Indian actors existed in Equity for the role of the Old General (who was played by the outstannnndingly white-sounding Esmond Penington Knight (we kid you not)), or for Kanchi. The most jarring thing about the movie though is undeniably the white-as-white-could-be-if-it-found-itself-buried-in-a-snowstorm Jean Simmons in the role of the young Indian temptress, Kanchi.

Both Knight and Simmons wore racial brownface throughout the movie, which, watched in the 21st century is enough to make you cringe all the way from the tips of your toes to the ends of your fingers, and it’s difficult not to impose a 21st century disgust and disappointment on the movie on those grounds. But if you’re going to watch Black Narcissus, you’re going to have to get over it being a product of its time and the attitudes of white moviemakers over what was then acceptable.

The vexing thing is that IN ALL OTHER RESPECTS, the 1947 version of Black Narcissus is still, irritatingly, a better version of the book, and a better watch all round, than the recent TV adaptation. But there are of course lots of people for whom the racial brownface will put the 1947 version beyond the realm of acceptable viewing.

We’d say give it a go. There’s LOTS of great acting and directing in Black Narcissus – it’s a masterpiece in its own right when it comes to depicting the dangers of sending highly-strung people into situations for which they’re mentally ill-prepared. Be aware in advance that the racial brownface is coming, and make your mind up to it. You’ll still cringe, both at the racial brownface, at Simmons’ ‘Indian dancing’ and just possibly at the film’s most steamy moment, involving whips and deeply suggestive shot of Simmons’ head at what can only be described as groin-height for the Young General.

But if – and we know it’s a big if – you can accept the racial brownface as a mark of the privilege of white filmmakers at the time, rather than as a modern outrage, you’ll be utterly gripped from beginning to end by the slow degradation of a supposedly civilised sisterhood, and their eventual realisation that their mission was doomed to failure by its own paternalistic condescension.

Black Narcissus can’t get away from its issues when viewed by a modern audience. But as an example of film-making and a study in pure psycho-drama, it still has lots to offer.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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