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When I think of BLACK NARCISSUS ($40), I immediately think of the beauty of the film’s Technicolor cinematography. Along with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, BLACK NARCISSUS is without a doubt amongst the most spectacular looking British IB Technicolor movies of all time. BLACK NARCISSUS was even acknowledged for its beauty at the time of its release, with master Technicolor cinematographer Jack Cardiff earning both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his work on the film. The use of color in BLACK NARCISSUS is something of a study in contrasts, as the film depicts the sterile, almost colorless world from which the film’s protagonists originate, then it thrusts them into an exotic colorful environment, which radically effects them. As the level of color intensifies throughout the film, the central characters become deeply affected, until the world of color eventually overwhelms them.

BLACK NARCISSUS tells the story of a small group of Anglican Nuns who are given the impossible task of setting up a school and dispensary in a mountaintop palace in India, which was once the home of the ruling general’s concubines. Deborah Kerr stars as Sister Clodagh, the nun placed in charge of this remote mission, who is ultimately responsible for its success or failure. Sister Clodagh has a small, but diverse group of nuns under her charge, almost all of whom would seem to be up to the task- all except Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), a troubled woman in desperate need of additional guidance. At first, the Nuns do everything that is required to get the dispensary and school running. However, the incessant wind that blows through their mountain location becomes a distraction, added to that are the exotic sights, sounds and smells, which begin to drive even Sister Clodagh away from her calling and into her memories of the man she loved before entering the convent. Slowly, all of the nuns begin to succumb to their strange environment, but none so much as Sister Ruth, who becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the British intermediary in the employ of The Old General (Esmond Knight), who gave them the palace that is now their home. Eventually, the situation at the mission begins to spin out of control as BLACK NARCISSUS is driven to its haunting and completely unforgettable climax. The wonderful cast of BLACK NARCISSUS also includes Sabu, Flora Robson and an incredibly young and beautiful Jean Simmons as the film’s embodiment sensuality.

BLACK NARCISSUS has made it debut on DVD under the auspices of The Criterion Collection. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff personally supervised the new digital transfer, which is quite beautiful to look at. Framed properly at 1.33:1 the image is fairly crisp and well defined. Fog filters were applied to the film’s original photography, so there are some sequences in the film that are intentionally hazy. Colors are strongly rendered and would appear to be a close approximation of an original British Technicolor print of the film. As I mentioned above, the colors in the film start off in a subdued manner and gradually build in intensity to the film’s colorful climax. Flesh tones are sometimes intentionally pale, but they are accurate. All of the hues are completely stable, including the intense reds that show up late in the film. Blacks are accurately rendered, and the level of shadow detail is good for a color film from 1947. Film grain is somewhat noticeable at various points throughout the film, but is never distracting. There are some minor blemishes that crop up occasionally, however they are easily ignored on this movie that is more than a half a century old. Digital compression artifacts rarely make their presence known on this DVD. The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack does have the frequency limitations of a film more than half a century old, but it never sounds distorted. There is a bit of hiss present and a slight brittleness to the sound, but it nothing out of the ordinary for a track of this vintage. Dialogue is always crisp and fully intelligible. English subtitles have been encoded onto the DVD.

The basic interactive menus provide access to the standard scene selection and set up features. The DVD’s supplements are also accessible through the menu system. A running audio commentary with the late Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese, which was present on Criterion’s Laserdisc version of BLACK NARCISSUS, has been included here. The commentary is fairly informative and insightful, although Powell does not impart as many details as someone would about a film that they had recently directed. Listening to the differences in the way the two directors speak is a somewhat amusing, since Powell’s deliberateness only intensifies Scorsese’s hyperactive speaking manner. Also on the DVD is a new 27-minute documentary entitled Painting With Light, which details Jack Cardiff’s work on BLACK NARCISSUS. The documentary is great, especially since it allows film buffs to meet one the greatest cinematographers of all time. Filling out the supplements is an extensive collection of stills, some of which show scenes not in the completed film, plus a theatrical trailer.

As I stated above BLACK NARCISSUS is one of the most hauntingly beautiful British Technicolor movies of all time. The Criterion Collection has certainly produced a DVD worthy of this important film, which features an impressive new transfer and terrific supplements. Movie buffs will definitely want to add this DVD to their collections. Highly recommended.

One final note, seeing Powell and Pressburger’s BLACK NARCISSUS on DVD makes me long for my own copy of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (aka STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN). Hopefully this release will encourage Columbia TriStar to issue A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH on DVD or license the film to The Criterion Collection, so that they may produce another great collector’s edition.


Black Narcissus - Criterion Collection


DVD reviews are Copyright © 2001 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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