Ranking: #63/111

Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (Britain) 

Genre: Psycho-Social Drama/Fable

Black Narcissus is one of the greatest British studio films ever made. Visually majestic and thematically rich, it’s both emotive and evocative. I was engrossed from the opening to the close. The famed pairing of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger give us a masterclass in how to construct a gorgeous and atmospheric setting in which their story can come to full life on the screen.

In some ways, the setting is the main character in the film; it seems to exert a strange, bewitching effect on all who visit it. There is some theatrical acting in parts which threatens to tip the saga over into a two-dimensional melodrama, but somehow the mysterious, vaguely threatening atmosphere of the place helps to keep up the narrative suspense. In other words, the film maintains its overall subtlety and artistic wholeness despite the occasional overacting.

This psychological drama takes place in an outpost 8,000 ft up in Mopu, India (although as a studio film, it took place on a set at Pinewood Studios, not on location). It is always windy there and it has an other-worldly aura about it.  There’s even a holy man who sits in silence above the palace from day to day.

It was a stunning technical achievement to create this setting on a movie set. The mountains of the Himalayas were painted on glass! In addition, some scale models were used for some shots of the convent. Co-director Powell explained that colour was a vital element in the success of the film and that they were able to have complete control of the colour effects by shooting most of the movie in a studio. “Sometimes in a film its theme or its colour are more important than the plot,” he explained. And the movie is, on one level, a Technicolor festival.

The visual metaphor of the precipice that is so prominent from these heights, and on which the iconic bell-tower is located, seems to represent the threat of destruction. It’s certainly a place of extremes (“there is something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated’), where “you can see too far”, where obsessions can breed, where you can so easily get vertigo. Here, then, is the very dividing line between civilisation and the untamed forces of nature.

In this exotic, decaying setting, reminiscent somehow of the failed era of colonialism, a battle develops between good and evil, between Spirit and Flesh. This battle is seen in the contrast between Sister Superior Clodagh, magnificently portrayed by Deborah Kerr, and volatile Sister Ruth, portrayed with mesmerising intensity by Kathleen Byron. After fallen in love with Mr Dean, the agent of the Indian general who owns the remotely, uniquely situated property, Sister Ruth renounces the celibate life of the convent, puts on a dress and make-up, and tries to seduce Dean. Failing in this, she later tries to push Sister Superior off the bell tower in the film’s climax.

Black Narcissus is a highly imaginative movie that still has a spell-binding effect today.