Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Welcome, Roger Ebert Readers!

If you're arriving here from Roger Ebert's incredibly gracious article about this project, welcome! If it's your first time here, here are links to some of the essays I'm happiest with:

And a big thanks to Jeff McMahon, who loaned me most of the DVDs in the photo that accompanies the article. You'll find his excellent film blog here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

#95: All That Heaven Allows

All That Heaven Allows, 1955, directed by Douglas Sirk, screenplay by Peg Fenwick, from a short story by Edna L. Lee and Harry Lee.

After a couple of weeks in Hollywood, you realize that there's a definite hierarchy of film critics in this town, and there's only a very small A-list. Don't get me wrong: creative executives read second-tier critics—your Roger Eberts, your A. O. Scotts, even Armond White—but those are for water-cooler chat; they're not serious. There's only one school of criticism that really matters, that breaks down the relative merits of filmmaking in a concise and incisive way. I mean, of course, the people writing at Box Office Mojo. Who else is going to tell the hard truths: that Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen is ten times better than There Will Be Blood, and a staggering fifty-five times better than Vertigo? Like it or not, this city is run by people who believe in Worthington's Law: More Money = Better Than. And forget about the Hollywood golden age; it has always been this way, unless you think Al Christie and the Horsley brothers had unique artistic visions that they just had to see on screen. Sure they did; they had three unique artistic visions every week: one Western, one drama, and one comedy.

That's the lay of the land. But let's say you do have an artistic vision you want to see on the screen. Let's say you want to make movies that critique the patriarchy and consumerism. And as long as we're talking, let's say you're not independently wealthy, and so you're gonna need someone else to pay for it. How do you operate in a world where the economic realities of the film industry relentlessly push everything toward the middlebrow? The problem may seem intractable, but there's actually a very simple solution. You should move to New York and write a novel instead, because you can fucking forget about anyone out here risking a dime to tell people things they don't want to hear.

If you've gotta make a movie, though, there's one other option: work in a genre that studio executives don't pay too much attention to. Take that genre's conventions and turn them up to eleven, so no one can accuse you of not making the movie you're getting paid to make. Put so much bombast into your filmmaking that inattentive viewers won't pay attention to the underlying message, but clever viewers will hear what you want to say. Then you just wait fifteen years or so for Andrew Sarris to let everyone in on the joke.

It's an interesting strategy, and it's one several filmmakers have adopted over the years. The current world-record holder for subversive, poison-pill filmmaking is Paul Verhoeven, for Robocop and especially Starship Troopers, in which Verhoeven spent $100 million of Sony's money to more or less explicitly accuse Americans of being latent Nazis waging endless war against vaginas.1 Before Verhoeven, though, nobody did this better than Douglas Sirk.

Sirk had a background in European theater, but Stateside, he landed at Universal, a total schlock factory at the time.2 To all outward appearances, Sirk's movies fit right in with Universal's slate: they're certainly weepies, and you'll find all the tropes of the genre, from long-suffering women to men who fall in love for no discernable reason. But scratch the surface and you'll find that some of Sirk's premises would not be welcome on Lifetime. He made films in which children are monsters, women are marginalized, and even lives built outside of the shallow pleasures of consumerism can quickly sour into egotism and self-righteousness. He gets away with this because his films are so defiantly over-the-top in their repeated assertions that they're just schlock. This starts with the opening shot: a very famous backlot, with no attempt to hide the California hillside in the background.

It's just a movie! Relax, studio executives!

All That Heaven Allows wouldn't be a weepie unless some woman or other was put through the meat grinder. In this case, it's a widow named Cary Scott, played by Jane Wyman:

You can pretty much guess what the meat grinder is going to be from the name of her small New England town.

The town's ire is aroused by Cary's unwillingness to fade into the kind of death-in-life we reserve for middle-aged women. Interestingly, this includes her own children, who want her to marry an older gentleman named Harvey. Here's how her daughter, Kay, describes him:

He's pleasant, amusing... and he acts his age. If there's anything I can't stand, it's an old goat. As Freud says, when we reach a certain age, sex becomes incongruous... I think Harvey understands that.

Freud never said anything of the sort, but sex with Harvey does seem like it might be incongruous. He's played by silent movie star Conrad Nagel, looking like a skeleton.

Harvey's at least twice as sterile as he looks; here's what he says to Cary right after proposing marriage.

Of course I realize I'm not very romantic or impetuous, but then you'd hardly want that sort of thing! I'm sure you feel as I do, that companionship and affection are the important things.

What a charmer. All things being equal, Cary prefers the company of her gardener, a Thoreau-reading, anti-consumerist nature lover named Ron Kirby.

A woman of independent means dating a much younger gardener; as you can imagine, this goes over like a lead balloon. The leader of the torch-and-pitchfork brigade is a woman named Mona Plash, played by Jacqueline deWit. DeWit fully commits to this performance: she's over the top, but completely nails the mixture of faux-outrage and feigned innocence that is a gossip's stock in trade. Every second she's on screen could be a still photograph captioned, "Well, I never!"

She gets all the film's best lines; there's a scene where she runs into Cary's children, returning from school. Mona knows their mother is sleeping with the gardener; what's more, she knows her children don't know. So she says exactly the right thing:

Just wait until you see your mother. She's never looked so radiant! I wish I knew her secret...

About those children. It's a rare film indeed that portrays children as unrepentant, self-absorbed monsters.3 All That Heaven Allows is one of those films; Cary's children are doozies.

When she introduces them to Ron, who by this point has proposed marriage, they throw epic tantrums. Ned threatens to cut her out of the family completely, Kay bawls her eyes out (sample line, "I told him that I don't care what people said but Mama, I do care! I care terribly!"). When Cary finally caves to all the pressure and phones her son to tell him she's doing what he wanted, his response is for the ages:

Oh, great... Say, listen, I've got a class now, so goodbye, eh?

So far, I'm making this sound like camp: deliriously over-the-top camp, subversive camp, but camp, nonetheless. And it is camp; I don't want to downplay that. I haven't even touched on the most ridiculous scenes, like making Rock Hudson out to be a modern day St. Francis of Assisi:

There's certainly nothing wrong with appreciating a film for camp value alone, but there's something more going on here. Thematically, All That Heaven Allows has a more uneasy relationship with American consumerism than most films of the period, and that's one of the things that led Sarris to write about him. But more importantly than that, Sirk approaches the tawdry pulp of his source material with the kind of visual discipline and precision one expects from Kubrick.

Some of Sirk's visual choices are the same kind of over-the-top subversion that I wrote about earlier, meant to fly under the radar and carry subtextual meaning. David Bordwell recently wrote about Sirk's use of unusually shaped furniture in Magnificent Obsession, and there's at least one example of this in All That Heaven Allows, in a scene where Ron shows Cary some seedlings he is growing. Ask yourself: why would Ron pick the tree up, to just that height?

I'll go on record and say I'm all in favor of that kind of visual joke. But more often than not, Sirk is using visuals to convey text, not subtext, and that's where he really excels. Take the way he shoots Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in their scenes together: there are almost always strong vertical lines separating them.

During a scene where they're not getting along, Sirk uses anti-naturalistic lighting to take this separation to an extreme:

But it's almost always there, even when it isn't as noticeable:

And look at the way Sirk uses the grid of the window panes in this sequence, which speaks for itself:

That first shot of the windowpanes is significant: in one of the film's first scenes, Kay tells her mother that she doesn't believe in the Egyptian custom of "walling up the widow alive in the funeral chambers of her dead husband." That's never mentioned again in the text, but in the visuals, Sirk keeps putting Cary in boxes like the one Ron forcibly enters in the sequence above. Here's another example, this time from a scene where her son tries to bully her into leaving Ron:

And when Cary is finally beaten into submission, we get a mirror image of the earlier scene with Ron:

That's all well and good, but the real reason Sirk hammers the viewer over the head with images of Cary trapped in little boxes comes near the end of the film, in one of the most thematically perfect shots in cinema. At this point in the film, Cary has called things off with Ron for her children's sake, and is looking forward to a nice holiday with her family around her. In rapid succession:

  • Her daughter announces she is engaged and will be going away to live with her husband.
  • Her son tells her he's gotten a job in Tehran.
  • Since the kids are leaving, her son tells her he thinks they should sell the house and move her into something smaller.
  • But not to worry: even though everyone in her life is deserting her, she won't be alone, because...

    They've gotten her a Christmas present that will keep her company!

The TV salesman explains it like this:

All you have to do is turn that dial and you have all the company you want, right there on the screen. Drama, comedy... life's parade at your fingertips.

As he talks, cuts to a closer shot and tracks in toward the television:

And on the words "life's parade at your fingertips," the camera stops, showing us Cary, perfectly framed in the screen, looking back at us in horror from behind the glass.

That's a perfect moment: Sirk unifies the visual and thematic elements that have been running throughout the film into a few seconds of screen time. Every other shot in the movie leads up to it. Note that this is not a moment where he's being particularly sly or sarcastic. And this is where Sirk and Verhoeven part ways: they both have some ironic detachment, but Sirk isn't entirely joking.4 Despite all the bombast and goofy melodrama All That Heaven Allows gives the audience moments where Cary Scott's suffering is raw and palpable, drawn from something real and sad and awful in our culture. Life's parade at your fingertips.


  • The most unintentionally hilarious line in the film comes in a scene where Ron tells Cary about a friend of his who discovered "that he had to make his own decisions, that he had to be a man." Cary says, "And you want me to be a man?" and Ron replies, "Only in that one way." If only you knew, Cary Scott, if only you knew.

1And people went to see Starship Troopers, despite its message. Eat your hearts out, Pasolini and Lars Von Trier.

2Except for a disastrous foray in the thirties (which got the Laemmles ousted), Universal didn't start making higher budget pictures until the early sixties, when Lew Wasserman bought them and brought his clients with him.

3Parents are drawn as monsters all the time. And there's a subset of children's literature (aptly surveyed by Daniel Zalewski for The New Yorker) dedicated to the proposition that children are schizophrenic timebombs or even literal monsters. But in the stories adults tell each other, kids usually mean well.

4No one will ever accuse Verhoeven of giving a damn about the characters in Starship Troopers.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

See It On Film: November 2009

Here are some of the films from the Criterion Collection that are showing in the Los Angeles area in the month of November. The month starts off slow but the Aero seems to be having a Criterion Laserdisc festival at the end. If you know of any listings (or shows in other geographical areas) that I've missed, please drop me a line and I'll add them.

I'm including one non-Criterion film for three reasons: it looks awesome, the director contacted me directly, and it looks awesome. That film is Strongman, which is playing at the Downtown Independent November 27–December 3. It won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary at Slamdance this year, Variety loved it, and it was financed by selling a version of the Iraq's Most Wanted deck of cards featuring members of the Bush Administration. Good enough for me; the film's trailer is here.

  • Friday, November 6, 7:30 PM: Charade, LACMA, $10.

  • Friday, November 6, Midnight: Casablanca, Nuart, $10.50.

  • November 13–14: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, double feature with Three Colors: Blue, New Beverly, $7.

  • Wednesday, November 18, 8:00: Blood of a Poet, with the world premiere of a new live score by Steven Severin, Cinefamily, $17.

  • Saturday, November 21, 7:30 PM: Citizen Kane, double feature with The Magnificent Ambersons, Aero, $9.

  • November 22–24: The Asphalt Jungle, double feature with Armored Car Robbery, New Beverly, $7.

  • November 27–December 3: Strongman, Downtown Independent.

  • November 27–December 3: M. Hulot's Holiday, Nuart, $10.50.

  • Friday, November 27, 7:30 PM: Singin' In The Rain, Aero, $9.

  • Friday, November 27, Midnight: The Royal Tenenbaums, Nuart, $10.50.

  • Saturday, November 28, 7:30 PM: A Hard Day's Night, double feature with a new print of Head, for some reason. Aero, $9.

  • Sunday, November 29, 7:30 PM: The Wizard of Oz, complete with a costume contest before the show (grand prize is a Blu-Ray disc of the movie, so don't mortgage the farm to win). Aero, $9.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

See It On Film: October 2009

Here are some of the films from the Criterion Collection that are showing in the Los Angeles area in the month of October. Not a lot going on this month as the Cinefamily and New Beverly gear up for halloween (horror is not Criterion's best-represented genre). LACMA has an Alain Resnais series. If you know of any listings (or shows in other geographical areas) that I've missed, please drop me a line and I'll add them.

  • October 2, 7:30: Last Year at Marienbad, LACMA, $10.

  • October 2–October 8: Rashomon, Nuart, $10.50.

  • October 3, 9:30: Night and Fog, LACMA, $10.

  • October 16–17: Double Feature: Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned, New Beverly, $7.

  • October 21, 8pm: Häxan, featuring a live score by Eddie Ruscha, Cinefamily, $12.

Monday, September 07, 2009

#94: I Know Where I'm Going!

I Know Where I'm Going!, 1945, written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

After having such mixed feelings about the gap between the formal and technical brilliance of Black Narcissus and its toxic cultural context,1 it was a relief to see Powell and Pressburger on less cringeworthy ground. Thematically, a lot of I Know Where I'm Going! is familiar: a Western worldview runs smack into something older and more primitive and basically falls apart. This time the part of the Raj is played by the Hebrides, so there's a lot less cultural and political baggage. Unless, of course, you're a member of the Scottish National Party, in which case it's Black Narcissus all over again.

Like Black Narcissus, this one's a genre-jumper. By the end of the film, it's a romance—after a brief stint in Jack London man v. nature territory—but the opening is straight from American screwball comedy. We're introduced to Joan Webster during the opening credits as a baby, while a stentorian voiceover tells us:

When Joan was only one year old, she already knew where she was going. Going right? Left? No. Straight on.

Later scenes during the credits characterize her as a snob and a striver: she insists that Santa bring her real silk stockings, and she has no time to waste on her schoolmates. When we first see her as an adult, the camera reduces her to a pair of legs plowing straight through a crowd:

The last time I saw a movie use its opening sequence to portray its protagonist as a relentless freight train of ambition and desire, Daniel Day-Lewis was digging for oil. Of course, screwball comedies have always relied on characters who are completely unstoppable: think of Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, or Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. It takes an incredible amount of charm to pull off a character like that without souring the tone of the film (which is why Grant and Hepburn usually got those roles). Powell and Pressburger apparently wanted to cast Deborah Kerr, but had to turn to their second choice, Wendy Hiller. It was a fortunate accident, because Hiller has the same combination of overconfidence and blithe indifference to the world around her that characterizes Hepburn's best comedic roles.

Hiller needs all the charm she can muster, because her character is pretty dreadful, at least at the start. And here's where we move away from the classic romantic comedy template: the "unstoppable force" characters are usually on the side of the angels: they're the ones that are absolutely sure that love will conquer all. It's the other character who's allowed to have all the wrong goals. Usually those goals are understandable and innocuous, no matter how misguided: authenticity, Ralph Bellamy, an intercostal clavicle, or Ralph Bellamy. Joan Webster is considerably less likeable.

In Hiller's opening scene, she's telling her father, a middle-class bank manager, that she's leaving town that very evening to be married. When he asks who the groom is, she shows him her works pass for Consolidated Chemical Industries:

You can't marry Consolidated Chemical Industries, but you can do the next best thing and marry its chairman, Sir Robert Bellinger. They're to be married in the Hebrides, as she puts it "away from... people." When her father protests that Bellinger is as old as he is, she replies, "And what's wrong with you, darling?" Like I said, pretty dreadful.

Her motives are perfectly clear and perfectly deplorable: Bellinger's her ticket into the cocooned life of the filthy rich, where timetables are planned out in advance, everything is arranged, and absolutely nothing ever has to be done for oneself. She crosses the threshold at the train station, when one of Bellinger's factotums hands her a neatly typed itinerary.

Powell and Pressburger make Joan's shallow venality abundantly clear in a dream sequence while she's on the train. After fantasizing about being literally married to Consolidated Chemical Industries, she envisions her life to come: inside a bubble made from the plastic that encases her wedding gown, surrounded by lots and lots of money.

So how do Powell and Pressburger get away with having such a horrible person as a heroine? It's not just Wendy Hiller's performance (although that's a lot of it). The tone of the first act is much more comic than the rest of it; we're continually reminded that we're in a comedy. They go so far as to have a Playtime-style visual pun, tracking in tightly on one of Bellinger's agent's stovepipe hat:

And then dissolving from the hat:

To the smokestack of the train as it prepares to leave the station.

I think the jokes are more overt here because as long as it's a comedy, we know Joan is being set up for a fall. Once fog and choppy water prevent her from reaching the island where she is to be married, I Know Where I'm Going! slows way down. There's no place in a film like Bringing Up Baby for a long mournful shot of the landscape, but Powell and Pressburger (courtesy of Erwin Hillier's cinematography) give us just that:

If the first act had moments of languor like the second act does, I don't think there's anything Wendy Hiller could have done to keep audiences from hoping she'd drown.

The change in pace gives Joan time to fall in love with the Scottish countryside, and especially with Torquil MacNeil, a Naval officer and down-on-his-luck Laird whose ancestral home is the island Joan's fiancé is renting. Roger Livesey wisely underplayed the role: he's the straight man to Joan's manic energy.

That's not to say that tone of the film changes entirely; there are a few characters straight out of drawing room comedy. The best of these is Colonel Barnstaple, an eccentric falconer, eagle trainer, ex-military man, and cook. He's played by Captain Charles William Robert Knight, M.C., F.R.P.S., F.Z.S., and it doesn't seem to be much of a stretch for him.

And although they're not onscreen much, special notice must be given to the Robinson family, upper-class British twits who provide Joan with a chilling glimpse of her future with Bellinger.

That's Catherine Lacey, Valentine Dyall (also in Brief Encounter, as Alec's sallow, insinuating friend), and Petula Clark. Yes, that Petula Clark. Her performance suggests she could have had a great career in Children of the Corn-type-roles, if things had gone differently.

Powell and Pressburger background the comedy in this section of the film to give Joan and Torquill breathing room (they could have done a great deal more with the Robinson family, for instance), and the film transitions into a straight romance. Powell apparently loved Scotland, and this section of the film pays careful attention to the local scenery and customs. The highlight is a sequence at a céilidh to celebrate a diamond wedding anniversary.

Joan being Joan, she doesn't react well at all when she realizes she's headed off course (and falling in love with Torquil). Desperate to wrap herself back up in Bellinger's money, she bribes a local boy to take her across to the island despite the weather. And this at the height of Scotland's whirlpool season!

Torquil is dense enough not to know why she's leaving. Fortunately, as is customary in movies of this type, he has a worldly-wise friend who sees what's happening, played with witchlike intensity by Pamela Brown.

Torquil rushes down to the boat and insists on going along, and once again we're in a different sort of movie. The boat sequence could be in a Jack London story, except for the mythical whirlpool (it's called Corryvrecken, and Powell and Pressburger set it up better than I did). It's tense, tight bravura filmmaking, and nothing in the film's screwball-like opening would lead you to believe this is where things were heading.

But despite all the genre-hopping, the whole thing hangs together. The film's finale is the perfect embodiment of Robert McKee's2 advice about endings: Powell and Pressburger give the audience exactly what they want, but in an way they don't expect. In a movie with a mad British falconer, a giant whirlpool, and Petula Clark, you're probably wondering what could possibly be unexpected. Well, I'm. not going to tell you.


  • Captain C.W.R. Knight was a dedicated naturalist, and trained Mr. Ramshaw, the eagle in the film. Their partnership went back to the 1920s, when Knight gave a traveling slideshow, film, and lecture presentation. I would have loved to have seen it. Mordaunt Hall reviewed it for the New York Times in the same article as his review of Clara Bow's first sound film (The Wild Party). Knight got top billing.

  • Here's how an engine usually gets fixed in a movie. It breaks down for obscure reasons, someone pokes around under the hood for a while (though our view of the engine is blocked by the hood), they say, "That oughta do'er," and slam the hood closed authoritatively, and the engine roars to life. In I Know Where I'm Going!, we see the engine flood, then see Torquil dismantle it, burn the spark plugs dry with gas:

    And reconnect everything, on camera:

    You could make this sequence without those details, but it works here the same way it does in Rififi, ratcheting up the tension by dwelling on every step Torquil has to complete to save their lives.

  • This was one of the first British films to use extensive location shooting. Powell was in love with the Hebrides, and it shows. The DVD includes some of his home movies, narrated by Powell's wife (and Scorcese's editor) Thelma Schoonmaker.

  • The IMDB (and the Criterion site) has Joan's fiancé's name as "Bellinger," but on the itinerary it's clearly "Bellenger." I've sent the DVD back; does anyone know how it's spelled in the credits?

  • For all the location shooting in this film, Roger Livesey never left London: they used a body double for the location shooting and combined rear projection and sets for the closeups. So this shot:

    uses a body double and the actual castle, but the medium shot has Livesey on a set (notice the tree that suddenly appears to Livesey's right).

    As obvious as that is when comparing one frame to the next, while the movie is playing, it's seamless—I wouldn't have noticed at all if it hadn't been pointed out.

  • Finlay Currie has a great, if brief, turn as the owner of the boat that's to take Joan across. What Danny Trejo is to inmates and drug traffickers, Currie is to sailors and pirates.

    He was equally well-cast that same year as Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations.

  • And speaking of severe looking Scotsmen, during the céilidh scene, I had one of those "Hey, it's that guy!" moments when the son of the old couple celebrating their anniversary was on screen. He's a cheerful looking guy:

    And that's why I couldn't remember where I'd seen him, because the last time I'd seen that face, it was considerably less pleasant. That's John Laurie, who played the horrible crofter in The 39 Steps. Fortunately, the DVD also features an excerpt from The Edge of the World, Michael Powell's first film about the Hebrides, in which Laurie plays a bit closer to type:

    That's the John Laurie I remember!

1If only they'd given up on recreating the subcontinent at Pinewood and set Black Narcissus in Oz. Or outer space.

2I know, I know. But he's right about this.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

See it on Film: September 2009

I saw Play Time on 70mm at the Aero a few weeks back, and it occurred to me that this site's focus on DVDs obscures the fact that virtually everything in the Criterion Collection was designed to be seen in a theater (with a few exceptions). So for those of you in Los Angeles, here are some of the films from the Criterion Collection that are showing in movie theaters during the month of September. If anyone wants to e-mail me listings for shows in other cities or venues, I'll be happy to add them to this post; I'm going to try to put this together on the first of every month.

  • September 4, 7:30 PM: Ghostbusters (there was a Criterion laserdisc, and also this movie is awesome), double feature with Ghostbusters II, featuring a discussion with Ivan Reitman, Aero, $9

  • September 5, 7:30 PM: Smiles of a Summer Night, Cinefamily, $10

  • September 10, 8 PM: A Hard Day's Night (there was a Criterion laserdisc, and also this movie is awesome), Cinefamily, $10

  • September 11–12: Double Feature: Day of Wrath and Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, New Beverly, $7

  • September 17, 7:30 PM: 2001: A Space Odyssey (laserdisc, awesome), Egyptian, $10 (in 70mm)

  • September 17, 8 PM: Gimme Shelter, Cinefamily, $10

  • September 25–26: Double Feature: Au Revoir Les Enfants and Lacombe Lucien, New Beverly, $7

  • September 25, 7:30 PM: An Autumn Afternoon, LACMA, $10

  • September 25, 8 PM: The Long Good Friday, double Feature with The Krays), Cinefamily, $12

  • September 26, 7 PM: The Magic Flute, Cinefamily, $10

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

#93: Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus, 1947, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, screenplay by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, from the novel by Rumer Godden.

Cinema's a multidisciplinary medium. In a perfect movie, all of its various elements would work together toward a unified goal: writing, acting, cinematography, editing, score, and so on. But one can't have everything; even Citizen Kane has its Achilles' heel.1 Black Narcissus is a cinematographer's movie, a director's movie, an editor's movie, a composer's movie, and an actor's movie. It's got eye-poppingly beautiful Technicolor, and at least one unforgettable performance. On the other hand, the film's politics are cringeworthy, and the structure is truly bizarre: for one hour and ninteteen minutes, it's a travelogue/drama, and then it suddenly becomes a German expressionist horror film. It's absolutely essential viewing and an astonishing technical achievement. But a lot of it is pretty hard to watch.

Here's the premise: Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, one of the whitest, palest nuns in an exceptionally white and pale order. As the movie opens, she is appointed the youngest, whitest, and palest Mother Superior in the history of the order, and charged with establishing a school and hospital in the Himalayas. I'm not exaggerating how monochromatic Clodagh and her order are—the actresses wore flesh-colored lipstick so their lips wouldn't have too much color:

The location for the hospital and school has already been decided: a local general has donated the Palace of Mopu, which looks pretty innocuous when it's just a matte painting:

Inside, however, the murals and paintings give a hint of the palace's original function: living quarters for an older general's harem. It looks to have been a stately pleasure dome right out of Coleridge's most vivid opium dreams:

It's not the first time the general's tried to get a religious order to class the joint up; we're told that an order of monks made a go of it but only lasted a few months. The palace comes complete with a supremely unhelpful housekeeper who pines for the old days (May Hallet, looking more Native American than Indian, frankly; maybe there was a mixup in the costume department):

Security, general handiwork, and leering sexual innuendo are to be provided by British Agent Mr. Dean, played by David Farrar.

If you're thinking this might be a bad place for a nunnery, you're absolutely right. If you're also thinking Edward Said would have a field day with this movie, you win the Order of the British Empire. So let's run through it: Said's basic critique of Western depictions of the East was that Westerners infantilized, feminized, and eroticized the East to justify a system of colonial oppression and explotation. Black Narcissus soft-pedals the oppression part of the equation, but it's sure got the rest of it. Infantilization? Well, Powell and Pressburger start out with footage that could be from an Encyclopaedia Britannica 16mm film—happy native peasants, working away:

The first time the nuns actually meet the natives, they wow them with a water-to-wine trick that wouldn't play at a five-year-old's birthday party:

And the dialogue makes this explicit; as Mr. Dean puts it:

Well, you must remember, they're primitive people. Like children. Unreasonable children.

That's infantilization. Next on the checklist is feminizing and debasing Eastern masculinity. And no one else in the history of cinema could play a preening man-child like Sabu, who appears here as a self-absorbed general with all the mental acuity of a precocious first-grader. A picture is worth a thousand words:

And the film's title refers to a perfume that Sabu's character wears. So there's your feminized masculinity. Last on the list: treating the East as the locus of eroticized, silenced Otherness. Well, how do you feel about Jean Simmons in brownface, eating a papaya?

She doesn't have a single line in the entire movie, except when she screams in pain as she's whipped, she's sent to the nunnery because she won't stop trying to seduce Mr. Dean, and you can get a sense of the sexual politics around her character from this shot:

That's Sabu she's crouching in front of; hardly the epitome of masculinity himself. So there were plenty of times in Black Narcissus that I found myself cringing. And yet there are moments when it seems that Powell and Pressburger are in on the sick Colonialist joke. Here's one of the local children helping the nuns give an English lesson:

The class repeats after him as he teaches them the words "cannon," "warship," "bayonet," "dagger," and "gun." That's a joke that doesn't seem to be in the novel (at least if Google Books is to be believed). And this is a film that ultimately sees the nun's attempts to civilize the natives as a doomed enterprise. So it's not a classic Colonialist film, like, say, Gunga Din. It's pessimistic about the West's ability to impose order on the East.

Of course, whether you think Western rationalism will defeat Eastern superstition and sensuality or not, as soon as you frame things that way you've given up the game. And Black Narcissus isn't shy about condescending to the East; it's not exactly flattering to decide that the local culture is so hopeless and corrosive that it will destroy any Westerners who try to engage with it.

So why has the movie endured? The cinematography certainly doesn't hurt—this is the most beautifully photographed Technicolor film I've ever seen. But I think most of the film's reputation can be credited to the last act, even though that section represents a dramatic shift in tone.

Over the course of the film, there's a very slow increase in tension between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth, mostly caused by sexual jealousy and a mutual attraction to Mr. Dean. With twenty minutes left in the movie, that tension goes completely off the rails, and Powell and Pressburger are suddenly directing a horror film. Despite any problems I might have with the tactic of using India as a blank slate to project the psychosexual conflict between two Western women, the conflict itself is pretty compelling, because of a combination of Kathleen Byron's over-the-top performance and Jack Cardiff's cinematography. To give you some idea, here's Sister Ruth's descent into psychosexual madness in photos:

We can stand around and argue all day about whether or not it's a good idea to present female desire as something akin to demonic posession, but it's still unforgettable.2 For those twenty minutes, Black Narcissus is a master class in horror filmmaking.

Unfortunately, Kathleen Byron can't keep stalking around the frame forever, and at the end we're left with a strange mixture: a technically brilliant film that has something more than a little bit rotten at its core. Dave Kehr sees the final shots of the nuns leaving as the rains break as almost a moment of valedictory realism: a farewell to the Raj. I think that analysis misses a rather large point: the nunnery may have been a disaster, but Mr. Dean isn't going anywhere. Just because you can't civilize them doesn't mean they can't pick your tea.


  • Black Narcissus opened in the UK in May of 1947; it made its way to New York on Wednesday, the 13th of August. That Thursday and Friday, Pakistan and India became independent nations. So this may have been the last film about the British Empire released before it started collapsing in earnest.

  • For the record, since I've kind of held Gunga Din up as the worst Colonialist film, I should note that whenever Sam Jaffe is off screen, I love it, warts and all. Like Black Narcissus, the good things about it are so good that they almost make up for the terrible parts. By the way, ever wonder why they cast Sam Jaffe in brownface to play the eponymous water-bearer? Sabu wasn't available. No, I'm not kidding—he really was the go-to guy for Indian stereotypes.

  • The DVD includes an excerpt from Painting with Light, a documentary about Jack Cardiff's cinematography. It contains a lot of interesting information about the early days of Technicolor. Here's Cardiff in front of a three-strip Technicolor camera (note the extra wide film magazine: it would hold three reels in parallel).

    That's a manageable size for a camera. But here's what the camera looked like when encased in the sound-damping equipment necessary to muffle the noise it made on set:

    It's positively cartoonish.

  • For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Painting with Light also includes some color footage of the 110/5 interchange, which was replaced a long time ago with a giant stack interchange.

  • The film's backdrops of the Himalayas were created from giant blow-ups of black and white photographs, which the art department colored by hand. The matte paintings are exceptionally good; here's one of the best.

  • I only knew Jean Simmons from Great Expectations and Hamlet. It's unfortunate that the first time I saw her in color, she was in brownface. But I had no idea how lovely her eyes were.

  • Scorsese has nothing but praise for Cardiff's cinematography, for obvious reasons. Here's a shot he singled out for special praise, because of the light on the water. It's from a flashback to Sister Clodagh's civillian life.

    I certainly agree that the water looks amazing. I also think this shot demonstrates just how perverse it is to cast Deborah Kerr in a Technicolor masterpiece and then hide her hair under a wimple for most of the movie.

  • David Farrar's performance as Mr. Dean is pitch-perfect: he's charming, cynical, overtly sexual, and completely corrupt. I carefully chose the still I used of him in the main essay to highlight the things that are great about his performance. Now, the things that are not so great: his wardrobe and his pony.

    So let's end with this cautionary photograph from the Journal of Poorly-Explained Haberdashery:

    People of the subcontinent, meet your ruler!

1It's Joseph Cotton's brief turn as "Crazy Ol' Grandpa Leland" in the nursing home scene.

2In our enlightened age, no one would make a movie with a character like Sabu's childlike general. But we keep churning out the Sister Ruths. It's lucrative.