Black Narcissus: Criterion Collection

January 28, 2012 9 Min Read

Review by: Fusion3600

Plot: What’s it about?

A band of nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) are assigned to establish a school, which seems simple enough, but this is no normal place. The nuns have been sent to an isolated region of the Himalayas, which allows the massive snowcapped mountains to provide a desolate backdrop for the new school. As if the barren choice of location wasn’t enough to discourage the nuns, it seems the building they’ve been given has a sordid past, one it doesn’t seem to want to release. The place used to be a brothel, where scores of people indulged in all sorts of orgies and other sexual escapades and now, these nuns are charged with turning into something much different, which won’t be an easy task in the least. As time passes, it seems as though this building begins to have an effect on the women, as they start to have thoughts not allowed by their status as nuns. Sister Clodagh begins to have thoughts about the man she left behind, Sister Ruth starts to lust after an English man, and on the whole, it is as though the place is bent on not transforming. Can the nuns overcome their own fears and desires in an effort to turn the place into a school, or will this temptation prove to be too much, even for them?

I was very pleased when I learned Black Narcissus would be released as part of The Criterion Collection, so when this disc arrived, I was quick to give it a spin. It has been a while since I’d seen the film, but I remembered the lush visuals, solid storyline, and of course, the good performances. I most remembered the visuals here, which I could just soak in for the entire running time, which is a real compliment. But with Jack Cardiff as cinematographer and Alfred Junge as production designer, would you expect anything less? Both men took home Oscars for their efforts here and if anyone deserved them, it was these two fellows. I often rewatch films and just take in the visuals and here, I could that over and again, the work here is that impressive. But you don’t want to leave out the other elements, as they’re also worthwhile and above the watermark on most counts. I think the writing and acting often take a backseat to the visuals, but then again, I can’t imagine much of anything that could compete in this case. I must admit, I am not all that taken by the ending, but the film is very good and well worth a look. This disc has some nice supplements and a gorgeous transfer, so I am able to recommend it without any hesitation in the least.

I love the work of Jack Cardiff, both in this film and the rest of his resume, as he always seem to deliver the goods. Like anyone, I am sure he has some efforts he wishes to leave behind him, but even so, Cardiff is among the greatest cinematographers of all time, hands down. I prefer his work toward the start of his career, but even in some of his less than high profile later efforts, his trademark touch can still be seen. It isn’t often I take the time to discuss this position in these reviews, but in this case, it would have been a crime not to. More of Cardiff’s cinematography can be seen in films such as The African Queen, A Matter Of Life and Death, Pandora and The Flying Dutchman, The Red Shoes, and Girl On A Motorcycle. The cast of Black Narcissus includes Esmond Knight (Peeping Tom, A Canterbury Tale), David Farrar (Lilacs In The Spring, A Royal Divorce), Judith Furse (The Iron Maiden, Mad About Men), Flora Robson (Clash of the Titans, Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines), Jean Simmons (Spartacus, Rough Night In Jericho), Deborah Kerr (The King and I, The Prisoner of Zenda), and of course, Sabu (Arabian Nights, Savage Drums).

Video: How does it look?

Black Narcissus is presented in the original full frame aspect ratio. In the case of a film as beautiful as this one, I think the transfer needs to be graded by a tougher standard, as the visuals are so vital to the film’s effectiveness. Even by that tougher standard, this transfer passes with ease and I am very impressed here. I knew Criterion would include a wonderful presentation, but I was blown away and I think fans of the film will be as well. It all starts with a very clean source print, which allows all the other elements to prosper and that is just what they do here. The gorgeous colors seem to be bathed in richness here, which gives the entire picture swabs of bright colors, with no bleeds or smears in the least. I also saw no problems with contrast, which seems stark and well defined, not much to complain about. This is a film that demands a terrific transfer and thanks to Criterion, it now has one.

Audio: How does it sound?

This disc uses a mono track, which seems to be adequate, given the audio needs of this material. This movie makes no real demands for dynamic audio, so the mono effort here never slips much, though it isn’t too impressive either. But it is clean and crisp, with minimal age related flaws, so I can’t complain too much in the end. The music sounds good and the dialogue is smooth, so I think this track will please most viewers, if not all of them. This disc also contains English subtitles, which are always nice to have on deck.

Supplements: What are the extras?

As soon as I viewed the film, I enabled the audio commentary track, which features director Michael Powell and filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Powell talks most of the time and offers some insight, which is a real treat to listen to. At times, Scorsese discusses his admiration for the films of Powell & Pressburger, as well as add some analysis of his own. There are some pauses at times, but given the circumstances, I am just satisfied to have the comments we have from Powell, who is now deceased. You can also browse a selection of production photos, which include some shots from footage that was removed from the final version. I loved the twenty-seven minute “Painting With Light” segment, which takes a look at the work of Jack Cardiff and also Black Narcissus. With the visuals so important to this film, I was very pleased to find Cardiff given some attention on this release. This disc also houses the film’s theatrical trailer and the usual color bars, to fine tune your television.

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