Monday, July 25, 2016

BLOODLINE 1979

I think one of the main reasons Wait Until Dark was so upsetting to me as a kid was because the person at the receiving end of Alan Arkin’s homicidal abuse was Audrey Hepburn. MY Audrey Hepburn! The sweet, elegant, refined, ceaselessly classy, Audrey Hepburn! I didn’t even think of her as the character in the film. In fact, even today, were you ask me the name of her character, I couldn’t say. All I could tell you is that Eliza Doolittle is blind; Sabrina doesn’t know she has a doll full of heroine; and a mean man in a leather jacket chases Holly Golightly around with a switchblade.
Wait Until Dark - 1967
Like many, I fell in love with Audrey Hepburn the first time I saw her on the screen. And it never bothered me one whit that I rarely, if ever, expected her to be anything but her own glorious self from film to film. Hepburn’s screen persona and personal identity were both so intrinsically interlinked in my mind; actress and image remained one in the same. I simply counted on her bringing the same charming, immensely likeable personality to whatever role she played—like an insurance policy of goodwill. It got so that no matter what a film’s shortcomings, Hepburn’s reliably enchanting presence assured me of at least a couple of blissful hours spent in the glow of her one-of-a-kind, movie star incandescence.
Two for the Road - 1967
I grew up during the early days of movie-star overexposure (talk shows, game shows, TV specials), so part of Hepburn’s appeal was scarcity. Not only did she not make many films (contributing to my youthful perception that when she did deign to appear in a movie, it HAD to be special), but Hepburn took a lengthy hiatus from acting precisely at the time I discovered her. I was in the fourth grade when she starred in two of what would become my absolute top favorite Audrey Hepburn films: Two for the Road and Wait Until Dark (both 1967) —only to abruptly drop from sight to raise a family. I was in college when she returned to the screen for Robin and Marian (1976).

I was overjoyed at the prospect of Audrey Hepburn’s comeback (“I hate that word!” – Norma Desmond) but Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag. Hepburn was wonderful as ever, indeed, she’s really rather remarkable, and her scenes with Sean Connery are heartachingly good and never fail to move me to tears. But I always saw Hepburn as a true original and a “star”…someone worthy of a the kind of even-handed role Katherine Hepburn shared with Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter. In the Richard Lester film, Hepburn’s Maid Marian (to me, anyway) was just a shade above being a secondary part; responsible for shouldering all the emotional weight, hers was a mature, glorified but nonetheless typical “girlfriend” role in a male action/adventure film.
Robin & Marian  - 1976
Although it would be three more years before Hepburn would grace the screen again (during which time there was talk of her starring in Out of Africa in the role that eventually went to Meryl Streep), when her name was announced for the lead role in the screen adaptation of Sidney Sheldon’s 1977 bestseller Bloodline, this time out I was genuinely (if injudiciously) stoked. At last Hepburn was to star in a film more worthy of her stature and reputation: a glamorous, big-budget, international romantic suspense thriller!

And while saner minds might have considered Sidney Sheldon’s name attached to the project to be a red flag of no small significance, I allowed myself to be distracted by the possibilities posed by the film’s sizable, international cast of (mostly) genuine movie stars; Hepburn being reunited with director Terence Young (who guided Hepburn to her 5th Academy Award nomination with Wait Until Dark); and the opportunity to her sporting chic frocks by her favorite designer, Hubert de Givenchy (Robin & Marian’s 16thcentury nun’s habit didn’t cut it for me).
Bolstered by the popularity of the bestseller, the draw of Hepburn’s 2nd screen comeback (ahem,…return), and an inordinate amount of publicity centered around the age discrepancy between the novel’s heroine (23) and Hepburn herself (50 playing 35);  Bloodline was set to be a major release from Paramount for the summer  of ’79.

Alas, despite its tony pedigree, Bloodline proved to be rather anemic at the boxoffice. Audiences, as they say, stayed away in droves, a result perhaps of finding the film’s rather distasteful (and nonsensical) porno snuff film subplot to be as cruel a mistreatment of Audrey Hepburn as anything Alan Arkin dished out.

For those not around in the late-70s (or who were, but not as immersed in smut as yours truly), Bloodline's distinctive, ribboned throated female with the overemphasized red lips, poster graphic (figuring significantly in the film's bafflingly superfluous porno subplot) referenced - inadvertently perhaps - a then-popular line of porn mags and videos known as Swedish Erotica. That company's trademark was to feature "models" with deeply scarlet lips, wearing only a smile and a colorful scarf tied around the neck. The lovely platinum blonde with the hard countenance above is Seka, one of the company's most popular performers.
I know this because one of my earliest jobs when I moved to LA was working at Adam & Eve's Adult Books (Nudist Magazines! Art Films!), located right next to where I lived at the time: The Villa Elaine Apartments on Vine Street. I sold a lot those Swedish Erotica porno loops. Film is film, yes?...Vive le cinéma! (screencap is from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls)



SIDNEY SHELDON'S BLOODLINE
Audrey Hepburn as Elizabeth Roffe
Ben Gazzara as Rhys Williams
James Mason as Sir Alec Nichols
Romy Schneider as Helene Roffe-Martin
Omar Sharif as Ivo Palazzi
Irene Papas as Simonetta  Palazzi
Maurice Ronet as Charles Martin
Michelle Phillips as Vivian Nichols
Gert Frobe as Inspector Max Hornung

Beautiful Elizabeth Roffe (the cardinal rule for trash novels is that all heroines must be beautiful) is the doting only child born to disappointed-she-wasn’t-a-boy pharmaceutical magnate Sam Roffe. When Mr. Roffe dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances, inexperienced but quick-to-learn Elizabeth instantly inherits a global, multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical dynasty. A financially beleaguered company suffering a recent streak (read: suspicious) of bad luck.
Although pressured by her stock-holding relatives to sell the company and go public, headstrong Elizabeth (thanks to the help of her father’s faithful secretary and a monumentally boring flashback to her great grandfather’s humble beginnings in Krakow, Poland) decides, in spite of her inexperience, to run the business herself. A decision which doesn’t set well with her relatives, a virtual “It’s a Small World” sampling of sinister multinationality, each grappling with various degrees of financial hardship.
Putting the Bored in Boardroom
Even The Muppet Movie didn't have this many scenes set behind desks 
As though to make it easier for ‘merican audiences to follow along, the extended Roffe family conveniently plays to familiar national stereotypes: Italian Ivo (Sharif) is a philandering bumbler being blackmailed by his heavy-accented, hot-tempered, black-bra-wearing mistress (Claudia Mori). Paris-based Helene (Schneider) is patronizing and rude, while her browbeaten husband (Ronet) sinks money into a failing (what else?) vineyard. British MP Alec (Mason), in a state of near-ruin due to his much-younger wife’s gambling addiction, nevertheless maintains a stiff-upper-lip formality and cool head. And good ol' American Rhys Williams (Gazzara) is a direct, straight-shootin’ sorta guy who’s only flaw seems to be having a weakness for the ladies.

With so many family members standing to financially benefit from the company’s dissolution, it’s only a matter of time before Elizabeth discovers that not only wasn’t her father’s death accidental, but her resistance to selling the company has placed her own life in danger. As factory mishaps multiply, close calls escalate, and some bald dude keeps strangling anonymous women, the questions mount: Who can be trusted? Are bloodlines thicker than mountain climbing rope, brake lines, or elevator cables? And just who is that Boris Badenov lookalike orchestrating those repugnant snuff films?
More importantly, how the hell did MY Audrey Hepburn get mixed up in this mess?

Apt Metaphor
Audrey Hepburn trapped in a runaway vehicle that's careening out of control

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Whether it be Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins, or Jackie Collins; I love a good, glossy trash movie. But Bloodline really puts my blind adoration to the test. It’s a film comprised of all the standard ingredients, but everything just feels a little off.
There’s the large cast of recognizable names. Excellent actors all, but just a wee bit past their prime. The curious side effect being (as the average age falls within the 49 – 60 range) is that it often appears as though everybody had a “must sit down” clause in their contracts. There’s a hell of a lot of sitting going on in this movie. It’s hard to get worked up over the identity of the murderer when no one in the cast looks like they have the energy for it. 
Beatrice Straight as loyal secretary Kate Erling
Then there’s the promise of exotic, far off locations. Bloodline spent a sizable chunk of its $12-million-budget flying cast and crew to New York, London, Paris, Rome, Munich, Sardinia, and Copenhagen; so why does most of it look like it was shot on a studio backlot? There’s a scene shot in a European red-light district that has all the authenticity and grit of the San Francisco backstreets Patty Duke stumbled around in Valley of the Dolls
Lastly, there’s the opportunity for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the cutthroat world of big business. Harold Robbins’ The Betsy had the automotive industry; Jacqueline Susann’s The Love Machine had the television industry; Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline takes place in the cutthroat world of pharmaceuticals (the sleeping pill jokes practically write themselves). This obviously posed a challenge to screenwriter Laird Koenig, for his idea of creating dramatic tension is to have characters declare “Let’s call a meeting!”  with the frequency (and similar purpose) of a teenager yelling “Surf’s up!” in a Beach Party movie. 
What little momentum Bloodline has comes to a screeching halt as Gazzara takes Hepburn
on a 3-hour-tour of a Roffe pharmaceutical plant (or does it only feel that way?). The scene is
accompanied by composer Ennio Morricone's nod to disco and Giorgio Moroder which had me
wishing I had a few Roffe aspirins at my disposal

I’ve not read enough Sidney Sheldon to know if this is substandard for his usual brand of schlock (I’ve only read Bloodline and The Other Side of Midnight, and of the two, Bloodline feels surely lacking), but I’ve always felt the novel would have been better off adapted as a TV movie or miniseries starring Jacklyn Smith. A plot like Bloodline's would stand to benefit from the built-in lowered expectations. As it is, with Audrey Hepburn and so many esteemed actors attached to the project, the film not only acquires a prestige it can’t possibly live up to (not with THAT source material); but it also takes on a the kind of self-serious air that’s poison to escapist trash like this. 
I found Hepburn's Givenchy wardrobe to be more exciting than the film

PERFORMANCES
Sad to say, but Bloodline is something of an embarrassment for everyone involved (except Omar Sharif, who gleefully sinks to the level of the material and in doing so, somehow salvages himself).
But my dear Audrey Hepburn is particularly ill-served. I’ve read that she was very unhappy during the filming (her marriage was falling apart), was feeling rusty and insecure about her talent, and even sought to bail on the movie once she learned of the nudity/porn/snuff-film angle (perhaps she was too busy counting the zeroes on her $1 million paycheck to be bothered with reading the novel or script beforehand). All this goes a long way toward explaining why she really doesn’t seem to be present in this film.
I’m usually delighted watching Hepburn in her anything, but it’s no fun watching someone who seems to be having so little.
One good thing to come out of Bloodline was an affair between Gazzara (recently divorced from Janice Rule) & Hepburn (still married to Andrea Dotti) which lasted through to their next film together, Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed (1981).
True to form, the couple's real-life sparks fail to show up on the screen in Bloodline ,sealing the film's fate as a romantic suspense thriller with no romantic chemistry, minimal suspense, and negligible thrills. (As leading men go, Gazzara is as bland and colorless a co-star as Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was in Wait Until Dark. Terence Young can sure pick 'em.)

Hepburn was a legendarily lovely woman, but even her iconic beauty was no match for this unflattering, matronly "Church Lady" curly perm that appeared to be all the rage during the late '70s-early '80s. Here it is doing absolutely no favors for (clockwise ) Hepburn, Mary Tyler Moore (Ordinary People -1980), Maureen Stapleton (Interiors - 1978), Dustin Hoffman...who actually looks pretty good (Tootsie - 1982), Ali MacGraw (Just Tell Me What You Want  - 1980), and Marsha Mason (Chapter Two - 1979).
*Special thanks to the readers who jogged my memory


THE STUFF OF DREAMS NIGHTMARES
Spoiler Alert: Read no further. Crucial plot points are revealed for the purpose of discussion. 
The most consistent complaint leveled at Bloodline is that the very focus of its print and poster ads, what earned it its R-rating, the one story element which stands as the most distasteful part of the film ----makes absolutely no sense and has no bearing on the central mystery. 
From the time of Bloodline’s release, the subplot involving a serial killer strangling prostitutes, filming their deaths, and then discarding their bodies in the river (each with a red ribbon around their neck), has been a bad taste deal-breaker. Whatever narrow chances Bloodline might have had as a sophisticated thriller or even a camp classic were forever jeopardized by the ugliness of these scenes. Scenes made all the more odious due to the fact that they appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with anything.
Family Feud
"According to my father, one of them is deliberately trying to ruin the company."

Well, that’s not entirely true. Bloodline is a movie that has all the earmarks of having been hacked to pieces. A fact evident in characters and relationships never being fleshed out or explained, storylines and plot points left dangling, and a general air of abrupt abbreviation. The theatrical release runs nearly two hours, but when it was broadcast on television, there was 40 minutes of unseen footage available to use. Forty minutes!
A serious casualty of all this cutting (I can only assume) is that it’s never made clear what the hell the serial killer angle has to do with someone out to sabotage Roffe Pharmaceuticals.

What’s missing from the film is expounded upon in the novel (albeit cursorily), so for those who have no wish to subject themselves to Sidney Sheldon for the sake of making sense of the nonsensical, here goes: (Remember folks, spoilers ahead). 
Now, Voyeur
The man behind these filmed murders is seen reflected in the dresser mirror

Sir Alec is sexually impotent, and as a result, his vain, much-younger wife is blatantly (and serially) unfaithful, Her incessant gambling and wanton spending brings the mob down on their heads (threatening to nail her knees to the floor), prompting Alec to resort to sabotage and murder to secure his share of Roffe industries.
On a wholly unrelated note, Alec. unwilling to divorce his wife yet hating her for her infidelities, can only achieve sexual gratification when vicariously “punishing” women whom he makes up to look like her (the red ribbon bit. The first time they made love, she was wearing a red ribbon around her neck). So Sir Alec pays a maniac to act out his revenge fantasy on anonymous women while he watches from the sidelines and a cameraman films their strangulation deaths. Are you sick yet?


STUFF OF FANTASY
For all its flaws, Bloodline has a place in this cinema diary of mine because I was so absolutely caught up with the hype at the time. It was one of those films you get so worked up over seeing that when it proves to be a bit of a disappointment, you don't really admit it to yourself (in a way you don't really know it). I recall sitting through it twice on opening night, and then returning the following week. Was it because I liked it that much? Not really. Was I THAT excited to see Audrey Hepburn on the screen again? Well, of course!
One clunker in a career of gems doesn't stop her from being MY Audrey Hepburn.



BONUS MATERIAL
On April 13, 1979 Grauman's Chinese Theater added two ugly, boxy cineplexes to the original theater built in 1926. Bloodline was one of a package of Paramount releases premiering at one of the new theaters that summer. I saw Bloodline on opening night Friday, June 29th, which also happened to be the opening day of the latest Bond film Moonraker, and the Bill Murray summer camp comedy Meatballs. I watched Bloodline with an audience comprised of older couples and a few folks turned away from sold-out Bond screenings.
Premiere features were: Hurricane, Old Boyfriends, and in the main theater, Superman 

Here's the trailer for Bloodline's 1986 television broadcast. Even in this 30-second clip are scenes not in the theatrical release. Michelle Phillips was appearing on the ABC TV series Hotel at the time, accounting for her prominent billing.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, July 16, 2016

BLACK NARCISSUS 1947

No I won’t be a nun
No I cannot be a nun
For I am so fond of pleasure that I cannot be a nun.
                                                                                    19th century British Music Hall song

It’s impossible for me to imagine what effect Michael Powell’s astonishing film Black Narcissus would have had on me had I been aware of it back when I was still a kid in Catholic school; back when I still found solace in religious dogma, when elaborate church ritual held me in a sense of wonder, and when nuns were still these mysterious, almost mythic, beings. But on the occasion of seeing this breathtaking, sensually overwhelming film for the very first time just last month (!), my adult self was captivated by how lyrically evocative this dramatization of the age-old conflict of passion vs. pious repression turned out to be (decades before Ken Russell’s The Devils).
Coming to this now-classic movie with considerable maturity, a hefty dose of Catholic disillusion, yet little to no foreknowledge of even the film's storyline and theme, I was left awestruck by the operatic scope of its opulent visuals and delighted by the brashness of its over-emphatic emotionalism.
British director Michael Powell (Peeping Tom - 1960) applies a rapturously lush gloss and striking visual distinction to his Oscar-nominated 1947 screen adaptation of Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel. There seems to be something overheated and audacious about the entire enterprise, which, like the harem-house turned convent perched atop the Himalayan mountainscape that serves as the film’s primary locale and chief metaphor, allows Black Narcissus to recklessly skirt along the edges of high melodrama, camp overstatement, and visual poetry. If it was Powell’s goal to submerge the audience in a barrage of sensual excess parallel to that experienced by the white-clad nuns in the film—to indeed create a film as visually heady as the fragrance of the Black Narcissus flower—then he succeeded beyond all reasonable expectation.
Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh
Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth
David Farrar as Mr. Dean
Jean Simmons as  Kanchi
Sabu as Dilip Rai, The Young General
Flora Robson as Sister Philippa

Five Anglican nuns in British-occupied India are sent by their somewhat dubious Mother Superior (Nancy Roberts) to establish a mission school and dispensary in a remote area high in the Kanchenjunga Mountains. The designated site, donated to the convent by a philanthropic peacock of a General named Toda Rai (Esmond Knight) in the interest of serving his subjects in nearby Darjeeling, is a desolate edifice perched dizzyingly atop a mountain shelf and known as The Palace of Mopu. The deserted palace, which overlooks a vast mountainscape the locals call “The Bare Goddess,” was previously known as “The House of Women” and stood as a harem residence for the General’s father to house his many concubines.
May Hallat as Angu Aya

Angu Aya, the estate’s longtime caretaker, is correct in citing that the arrival of the nuns preserves the palace’s status as a house of women, the difference in the main being that these particular women “…won’t be any fun.” 

Sister Clodagh (Kerr), a young nun of rather severe and inflexible nature with a killer side-eye, is assigned as head of the convent which is to be rechristened “The House of Saint Faith.” She’s given reluctant, cynical assist from the General’s agent, Mr. Dean (Farrar), an Englishman gone conspicuously “native” yet still capable of wielding colonial superciliousness like a champ. 
The nuns’ external struggles in adapting to the people of the village—whose exotic “otherness” they find challenging; and coping with the elements—the incessantly blowing winds, too pure water, and rarefied air produce negative health effects; are compounded (if not dwarfed) by the intensity of their inner conflicts. Mopu’s color-saturated vistas and perfumed splendors of flora and fauna conspire to distract the nuns from their sense of practical and spiritual purpose, inflaming hidden passions and bringing about the recollection of the very things a life of devout asceticism was intended to blot out.
As Mr. Dean observes: "There's something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated." 
Sister Ruth in rapt attention 

The natural elements of Mopu are at perpetual odds with the nuns’ emotional self-regulation and the control they attempt to exert over both the land and its people, resulting in the environment itself proving to have a progressively detrimental and disruptive effect on the convent as a whole. This conflict plays out in the infatuation the already agitated and unstable Sister Ruth (Byron) develops on Mr. Dean. Too, in the distracting effect the introduction of the flamboyantly-attired Young General (Sabu) has on the all-girls school, specifically Hindu hotbox, Kanchi (Simmons), an orphan girl who’s as serene in her sexuality as the nuns are restrained in theirs. 
The Prince and the Beggar-maid
The intoxicating perfume the Young General wears gives the film its name 
As repressed passions and jealousies intensify, Black Narcissus’s fevered melodramatic structure by turns takes on the shape of: a love story. a humanity vs. ecology war film, an imperialist allegory, an ecclesiastical horror movie. Sometimes all at once.

My oft-stated fondness for Le Cinema Baroque (where nothing exceeds like excess) instantly brands Black Narcissus a lifelong favorite; but I’m equally fond of any film which attempts to explore that curious need we humans have to suppress that which is most natural in us, and to so often do so by hiding behind religious dogma.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Having grown up attending Catholic schools, I have to say that the pomp and circumstance of church ritual superbly primed me for the extravagant visual onslaught that is Black Narcissus. It’s a thing of beauty the way Jack Cardiff’s (Death on the Nile) Oscar-winning, deeply-saturated, old-school Technicolor cinematography so adroitly conveys the vastly shifting moods and escalating tensions at the center of Black Narcissus; a strikingly stylized look at sexual repression and madness among a group of passion-seized nuns.
There are moments when the screen bursts with the joyful colorfulness of a musical (these hills are alive and virtually crawling with nuns, but here Julie Andrews would be in way over her head); other times, the film is gripped by the moody high-contrast shadows of German Expressionism and film noir (reinforced tremendously by the sweep of Brian Easdale’s goosebump-inducing musical score). 
Sister Philippa worries that the exotic beauty of  the mountain
distracts her from her sense of religious purpose
Perhaps because the nuns I encountered during grade school bore so little resemblance to the serene, well-meaning nuns portrayed by Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn on The Late Show (mine were strictly of the stern, prison warden variety), I derived an inordinate amount of pleasure from Black Narcissus’ then-controversial depiction of nuns as beings susceptible (perhaps more than most) to the character flaws of pride and ego, basic human desires, and crisis of faith.
In fact, the demystification of the whole nun mystique is one of my favorite things about the film. The scenes depicting Sister Clodagh lost in memory of her earlier life as a girl in Ireland are poignant and very moving. I can’t often relate to the idea of nuns “hearing the call” of religious service, but in this instance (and as played so winsomely by Deborah Kerr), it touches me to contemplate how a young woman’s heart can be so broken and pride so wounded that she would seek to bury her pain behind the emotional shelter of a cloistered existence, and try to lose her memory of herself in a life of devout service.
Sister Clodagh was once no stranger to vanity and allure of jewels and self-adornment

PERFORMANCES
Very much late to the party in this regard, but much like my late-in-life appreciation of Joan Crawford, I’ve really turned a major corner when it comes to Deborah Kerr, who is fast becoming one of my favorite classic film actresses. I had the grave misfortune of having my earliest exposure to the actress in some of what must arguably be her worst films: Marriage on the Rocks (1965) and Prudence & the Pill (1968). I’m no big fan of The King and I, either, so the larger part of my life, Kerr fell into that limbo of actresses whose work I largely avoided.
It took a reader of this blog recommending Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) to turn the tide for me. Her performance in that film is tremendous. Seriously one of the very finest examples of screen acting I’ve ever seen. Ever. She is absolutely brilliant, and on the strength of that movie alone I’ve come to reevaluate the work of this woefully underappreciated actress (by me, certainly, but her outstanding work in The Innocents got nary a nod from The Academy).  
There’s not a moment when Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh is on the screen that she doesn’t command. The dramatic arc of her character is sharply and heartbreakingly delineated, and Kerr's is precisely the kind of performance of which I’m most fond; the inner life of a character read easily through the eyes. You can actually see what her character is thinking, just as you can plainly read the emotions subtly playing across Kerr's face. I’ve said it before, but playing repressed, emotionally inhibited characters must be as challenging for an actor as comedy; for with no big, showy displays of technique, an actor must credibly fashion a dimensional, complex character of sympathy and depth.
Kerr, while embodying the “stiff-necked, obstinate” characteristics attributed to her character, also shows Sister Clodagh to be a woman who’s imperious, sensitive, funny, wise, over-proud, kind, petty, overwhelmed, and in the end…so very human. For me, nothing I have so far seen of Deborah Kerr’s work can touch her performance in The Innocents, but her movingly unforgettable and finely-realized Sister Clodagh is right up there in being one of my favorites.
Kathleen Byron is mesmerizing as the neurotic and passion-inflamed Sister Ruth. As the unfettered sexual Id to Sister Clodagh's circumspect Ego, Byron's physical resemblance to Deborah Kerr informs the film's themes dramatizing the environment's ability to affect the dual natures of the nuns.
The naked ferocity of Byron's emotionalism suits Black Narcissus' grandiloquent visual style. Plus, once she really starts to lose it, she's absolutely terrifying!


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I cite Black Narcissus as one of the most sumptuously beautiful films ever made, betraying nary a single note of overstatement. In its current digitally restored form, it’s truly something to behold. Breathtaking doesn’t even cover it.
But to a large extent the effectiveness of the film’s visual style (production designer Alfred Junge won the film’s only other Oscar) is that it isn’t pretty for the sake of being pretty; its extravagant look is in direct service to the plot.
For me, this meant that, much in the way the vistas distract the nuns from their work, Black Narcissus’s Technicolor gorgeousness helped to shroud the film’s indulgence in racial stereotypes and soften the narrative’s colonial fantasy elements (the Western infantilization and fetishizing of the exotic “other”).
Eddie Whaley Jr as Joseph Anthony
The nuns are forced to rely on the interpreting skills of a youngster
in order to communicate with the "childlike" natives
One of the more astounding things about Black Narcissus is that, while set in India, it was filmed entirely in England. Sabu is the only cast member of actual Indian descent, meanwhile, brownface and quaint cultural stereotyping abounds. The film was released the very year India won its freedom from British imperialist rule, a historical fact that goes a long way toward making the film’s, shall I say, archaic attitude towards the childlike “natives” feel more like an indictment rather than an endorsement.

As the convent’s plans to westernize the people of Mopu collapses under the inability of the nuns to either understand or adapt to the land they inhabit, it’s not difficult to project a subtheme of anti-imperialism running below Black Narcissus’ surface. 
A critic keenly noted that the peaked cowls of the nuns' gleaming white habits
echo the steep mountain peaks overlooking The House of St. Faith

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
While I'll always wonder what my younger, far more impressionable, still film-besotted self would have made of Black Narcissus, I'm glad my first exposure to this film wasn't in grainy black and white on a tiny TV-set with commercial interruptions; nor was it by way of a scratchy, faded copy at a revival theater. 
I'm still very much caught up in the daze of first discovery (I've only seen it twice); but even so, I don't hesitate in labeling it (to me, anyway) a genuine masterpiece. Not perfect, but an authentic work of stylized aesthetic beauty. It's great that when I finally got around to seeing Black Narcissus, it was by way of a pristine, full-length, digitally restored version, yet I know in my heart that this particular cinema gemstone would have fueled a million dreams and fantasies for me as a boy. But I guess we all discover the right things at the right time.



BONUS MATERIAL
Painting with Light (2007) - A fascinating documentary on the making of Black Narcissus featuring interviews with cinematographer Jack Cardiff and actress Kathleen Byron.
Available on YouTube HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson