The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, April 9, 2012

Black Narcissus

For hundreds and thousands of years, missionaries have tried to spread their beliefs and principles to the unexposed, those who are unaware and might or might not be willing to change. Film has explored the life and goals of missionaries countless times -- some better and less pretentious than others, but I've watched one that defies description and any predecessor or anything since, 1947's Black Narcissus.

An order of sisters has received an invitation from an Indian general (Esmond Knight) to come to his region and work at a convent and work with the people. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), a young nun, has been chosen to lead the new convent and is sent to the isolated mission/convent in the Himalayas with four nuns traveling with her, all of them with special skills designed to make the transition easier. The five nuns arrive to find a world unlike anything they've experienced with Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the only white man around for miles, a sort of unofficial guide for them. Clodagh and the sisters settle in, but nothing seems to work for them. Their intentions are pure, but it seems they are doomed to failure from the start.

This is maybe the most beautifully shot movie in the history of movies. Let's get that out there early and let that sink in. Visually stunning, breathtakingly beautiful and frightening at the same time with the credit going to cinematographer and future director Jack Cardiff. Full of color -- from the whites and blues of the nuns' clothes to the vibrant colors of the Indian villagers -- almost every single shot could be freeze-framed and placed on your wall as a work of art. The mission built into the side of a cliff is almost other-worldly (even if the sets were in a studio with liberal and spot-on uses of matte paintings). The wind never stops blowing and the air is always clear at this mission that seems to float above the world. Call it over-analyzing, but it almost serves like a purgatory of sorts for these nuns where a decision must be made on which direction to take. More on the visuals to come.

What originally caught my eye when I read the description at TCM's website was actually a picture....this ONE. Besides the chill that went up my back when I saw it, I knew this wasn't going to be a typical "clean," white-washed missionary story of the 1940s. A character study of nuns and the Indian villagers, yes, but this movie is not that simply described. This movie has all the tension and scares of a Gothic horror movie. We're talking an incredibly uncomfortable movie to watch. With some major spoilers, check out the pictures at THIS review. I thought the movie was going one way, and then it goes another, turning on a dime. I started to question exactly where it was going, what it was building to and was genuinely surprised where it ended up. The last 20 minutes are a straight horror film from the choir singing (with composer Brian Easdale's score) to Cardiff's unsettling visuals.

The visuals, the uniquely dark storytelling, all of that has helped make Black Narcissus a classic over the 60-plus years. However the acting is just as worthy in bringing up even if it's somewhat overshadowed by the visuals and that sense of impending, building doom. Just 26 years old at the time, Deborah Kerr does an amazing job as Sister Clodagh, a young nun who's joined the order because of an incident from her past. Wearing her immaculate white uniform, her face wrapped up tightly, Kerr looks angelic in the part. She doesn't resent her posting, fully committing herself to making it work, but she immediately sees that basically everything in front of her is working against her. Farrar's Dean is an interesting counter, a somewhat mysterious Englishman who's drifted east to India. Why exactly? We never find out. A tortured soul just the same, he serves as a sounding board for Kerr's Clodagh.

Sister Clodagh's nuns include Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), the oldest of the nuns and one struggling with her reasoning for her faith, Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), the youngest and most naive of the group, Sister Briony (Judith Furse), the strongest physically and the healer, and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), the most fragile one who starts to become unhinged mentally. As a group, they're uniformly solid, but it is Byron (with the creepiest, most unsettling eyes EVER) who steals the show. Star of The Jungle Book, Sabu plays the Young General, the son of the older General, a young man trying to learn as much as he can through the sisters. Eddie Whalely Jr. plays Joseph, the Indian boy working with the sisters as a translator, and May Hallatt as Ayah, the somewhat off live-in caretaker of the cliff-side mission. Also making an appearance without saying a word in a key part is the very white Jean Simmons (with heavy makeup) as Kanchi, the Indian girl with a reputation.

I very much enjoyed this movie, or at least as much as you're supposed to enjoy a creepy, moving and unsettling story of five nuns working a mission in the Himalayas. Maybe 'enjoy' isn't the right word. I think we're supposed to appreciate a movie like this more than anything. I don't know if I got the dark message 'Narcissus' worked toward or if I missed something, but it is a movie unlike any I've seen.

Black Narcissus <---TCM trailer/clips (1947): ****/****


  1. Nice review Tim. You liked Black Narcissus a bit more than me - I found it a bit thin on story as Powell and Pressburger tend to be. As you say though, the atmosphere and imagery is something truly remarkable. And yeah, I wouldn't want to meet Kathleen Byron in a dark alley (let alone a mountaintop!).

    I've really gotten into Powell and Pressburger the past year or two and rarely have they disappointed. Their films are just so unique in style, themes and overall presentation that they really can't be compared to anything else. I don't know if you seen other of their movies; if not, I'd highly recommend delving into their oeuvre. A Matter of Life and Death is probably my favorite.

  2. While I'm familiar with both their names, this was the first I'd seen of them. Obviously came away quite impressed. The Red Shoes is on my list of movies to watch now.

    I tend to agree with the thin story angle. For about an hour, I wasn't quite sure where the story was going, what the message or objective was. To be honest, I'm still not perfectly clear on it, but I certainly enjoyed going along for the ride. ;)

  3. Hmm, you did review 49th Parallel awhile back. I liked it a lot more than you apparently.

  4. Just too heavy-handed for me, even for a propaganda film oddly enough.