Black Narcissus (1947): Another Archers Masterpiece

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Under their collaborative umbrella, The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed one of the most mystifying and extraordinary partnerships within the annals of British cinema history. Black Narcissus is just one of the many enchanting jewels in their collective crown.

Part of the acclaim must be heaped on Jack Cardiff because there’s little doubt; his compositions are absolutely stunning front to back. It starts with this gorgeous even intoxicating brand of Technicolor mingling the real and artificial in a manner on par with anything Hollywood was cranking out at the same time.

Whether through miniatures, grandiose matte paintings, or Pinewood Studio sets, it creates a spectacular illusion as a cinematic representation of the Himalayas. In perfect juxtaposition are the sculpted interiors with columns and facades bathed in this equally mesmerizing patchwork of glowing light and meticulous shadows. Not in the sleazy low-grade setups of film noir, but rather like the Rembrandts and Carravagios might have done it in their Baroque works.

One of the earliest images to leave an impression comes from the POV of two nuns as they gaze down at a cruciform table with nuns moving about for their daily meal.

Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh comes off somehow regal in her white habit, proud and imperious, even as she sets out assiduously to manage the task at hand. The Sister Superior divvies out her allotted help scrounging up a task force of sorts, within the convent walls, to send out into the world and form a community.

Admittedly, the veteran sister has her doubts about the youthfulness of her counterpart, chiding her pupil, “The superior of all is the servant of all.” This is her word of admonition as they head off to face the unknown set before them.

I’ve never fully considered the methodology of the habit and yet purely from a cinematic perspective, what it does is put all the focus on an individual’s face — their features and, thus, their emotions speak for them. Then, of course, hidden under the garb is their heart and this is the seat of all their actions whether sympathetic or callous. Otherwise, they might all look the same. But of course, the head and the heart are what set us all apart.

While they are nestled in the Himalayas, there is some mention of Darjeeling, India as a stepping stone to civilization, and yet otherwise they are quite secluded. Still, they make it clear they are not merely looking for a place of solitude to live out a reclusive existence.

Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the knowledgeable yet resident cynic, is meant to be their point of contact to help them settle in, but his brusque often insinuating comments lingering in the air don’t begin the relations in a cordial manner. The fact he’s a handsome, strapping young specimen creates yet another layer of unspoken tension.

He explains the local General used to keep his women there — his concubines and wives — in a place where the nuns have plans to turn into a medical dispensary with a school and a space to minister to the needs of the local populations.

But there are numerous reasons to be uneasy. The people pile into their compound with their sick and old overwhelming the newly installed outpost. There’s also the wind, altitude, and disease which have a curious joint effect on the new transplants still trying to gain their legs.

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The sisters find everything distracting, even disturbing, and Sister Clodagh, for the first time in ages, finds her mind clouded by past memories — triggering flashbacks from her former life. Could it have been a mistake to join the order? Are these her nagging regrets come back to haunt her? She yearns for the liberation of a normal life, and she’s not the only one.

Likewise, the best encouragement she can muster against the elements and spiritual forces working against them is to, “work hard, work until you’re too tired to think of anything else.” She hasn’t been equipped by any other means, and it becomes obvious she will not be able to succeed with such a plan.

At the same time, they receive requests to take in a local outcast Kanchi (a bedazzled and brown-skinned Jean Simmons) known for her meretricious ways. Also, a young prince (Sabu) inquires about being a pupil within the establishment, which normally only caters to women and children.

We see the remnants of imperialistic disdain especially in Sister Ruth (a wildly manic Kathleen Byro). Far from being all marked with the image of a higher being, she sees the indigenous people around her as lesser beings whom she deigns to help in all their ignorance. It is this relationship between the enlightened few on Christian mission and the impoverished heathens.

We must come to terms with this complicated relationship even with Sabu playing opposite the Anglo Jean Simmons in brownface. Effectively a cross-cultural attraction forms between them even as he is her social and patriarchal superior within the storyline.

The aftermath of WWII also meant many displaced people groups were readily available to serve as extras in the picture, and in this regard, the film is blessed with some genuine sense of authenticity around the edges to counteract the whitewashing represented by Simmons, Edmond Knight, and May Hallat.

The film implicitly dances around these ideas. One moment the fiery-eyed Sister Ruth dismisses the young general as vain and black like a peacock. Although she does seem utterly tantalized by his lavish clothes and his pervasive scent: the titular black narcissus.

He’s also the one who on Christmas night says with all candor, ” I am very much interested in Jesus Christ.” Sister Clodagh extends him some leniency for speaking of their Lord and Savior with such familiarity. Ironically, it is the half-drunk Mr. Dean who chastizes her in the very same moment: “He should be casual and as much a part of life as your daily bread.” Truthfully, she doesn’t like it; it hits far too close to home, especially from a man of such ill-repute.

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While not quite the same sentiment as Luis Bunuel, there is something about the movie that proves unsettling in a religious context. There’s some unseen force, whether merely ill-fortune or closer still spiritual warfare, taxing them and splintering their meager enclave apart.

The two defined poles have been made obvious. Either you give yourself up to the world like Mr. Dean or live like the Holy Man. Neither will do for the Nuns who are stuck in the middle as the emblem of Christ in this far-off land.

After, the locals are scared off by the death of one of their infants and leave the Sisters all alone, hysteria sets in. With time, the impending psychological drama fills the world with unease. It has all these unnerving undercurrents accentuated by Cardiff’s own striking palette bursting with this vibrant even violent color scheme.

Mr. Dean matter-of-factly notes there is “something in the atmosphere that makes everything feel exaggerated.” The comments feel strikingly self-reflexive of the film’s own art direction burning images deep into our retinas.

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Still, the sisters are left drifting and dreaming through the world. It matches the, at times, hypnotic often queasy psychological torment in Hitchcock’s Vertigo to the point it pulls you in and wears on the psyche. That’s before even getting to the climax, which coincidentally also relies on a bell tower. It manages so much out of the very fact it is being manufactured to create a heightened impression of reality by manipulating the audience.

Even in the final scene, as the clouds envelop the castle high above and the Nuns are led off dejectedly in their little caravan, there’s nothing but this residual innervation. They must give up their mission and be humbled knowing they will be sent to other lowly assignments having failed by the world’s standards.

While India isn’t central to this story there is this lingering sense of colonialism as missionaries were often tied up with this since they were such a staple of the British Empire. There are enough movies to suggest this is true including The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Keys of The Kingdom, and 6 Women.

The rain starts to pour down in sheets as if signaling the end of something — something being totally overrun. Could it be the British Empire collapsing right in front of us? If you were curious like me, India officially gained independence in August 0f 1947. This was after Black Narcissus‘s release in the U.K. and during its run in the U.S.

Somehow they feel interlinked even as this story bursts out of the confines of reality under the exhilarating vision of The Archers. It remains an astounding feat in cinematic magic verging on the otherworldly, positively possessed by color. Like all the most enduring films, it stays with you long after the credits roll like a bewitching fragrance.

5/5 Stars

The Night of The Iguana (1964) and The God-Shaped Hole

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It’s a Sunday morning in St. James Episcopal Church. The minister pulls his sermon from Proverbs 25:28: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” But there is an elephant in the room, an unspoken force coming between the shepherd and his sheep. He starts to stutter before he erupts in an indignant tirade lambasting his parishioners.

There’s something unsettling in seeing Richard Burton as a minister. I would have felt a similar unease with Peter Finch as a preacher (he was a surgeon in A Nun’s Story). Although it’s true, the similarly resonant actor, Richard Todd portrayed one of the most sincere clergymen ever in A Man Called Peter.

But Burton has the largest and most volatile personalities of all three.  So when he loses his train of thought during his Sunday sermon, perched from his pulpit, it’s not altogether unwarranted watching him implode on the spot. We expect as much.

It feels like Reverend Lawrence T. Shannon (Richard Burton) has inherited the lectern from Barabara Stanwyck in Miracle Women, though his conflict is more difficult to sort out. It’s as much about the watch-dog hypocrisy in his own church as it is his personal crises of conscience. We don’t know what his presumed sins are, but as the pews clear and he thunders down the aisles, he calls out the fleeing congregants, denouncing them thusly:

“You’ve turned your backs on the God of love and compassion and invented for yourselves this cruel, senile, delinquent who blames the world and all that he created for his own faults! Close your windows. Close your doors! Close your hearts – against the truth of our God! ”

Be that as it may and totally regardless of his innocence or guilt, the next moment we see Shannon, he’s fallen to a new low — taking a busload of Texas schoolteachers down through Mexico so he can serve as their tour guide past all the religious relics below the border.

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What a sorry figure he is — a tortured, broken, smarmy man just trying to get by. This portrayal is generally enhanced by the realization that Richard Burton, though he probably grew up in The Church of England, was at the very least a cultural atheist. Nor does he come off as a ministerial type. He was notorious for drinking like a fish. Meanwhile, his highly publicized off-screen tryst with Elizabeth Taylor was commanding the contemporary tabloid covers. It all fits into this conflicted, mercurial performance of his. Hardly likable but strangely compelling for all its wild instabilities.

James Garner is said to have turned down the role because “it was just too Tennessee Williams” for his taste. He’s not wrong and frankly as much as I love him to death, the part wouldn’t have fit. Burton can carry it off because his demons, whether real or imagined, are far more visible onscreen.

However, there is another pressing question. How in the world do you get the creative marriage of John Huston and Tennessee Williams? I’m not sure if you could call it a perfect match, but it’s ceaselessly interesting. It’s a new side of Mexico — in the fishing village of Puerto Vallarta — well after The Treasure of The Sierra Madre. Consequently, the setting seems a bit left-of-center for typical Williams fare even as the sordid dramatic content is much what we would expect. In the middle somewhere the two men meet.

The words from Proverbs are easily recalled as the disgraced Reverend finds himself being pursued by a loquacious young blonde (Sue Lyon continuing in her Lolita vein). She finds him easy to talk to and fascinating — his life is engaged with people’s souls and yet he’s young and virile. Charlotte takes a dip with him innocently enough and still notes she could never do this with the preacher back home in Texas.

It’s the first sign of hot coals. He wants nothing of her coquettish advances even as the acerbic chaperone Ms. Fellowes (Grayson Hall) watches him like a hawk — ruling over the girl with an iron fist of ascetic repression. It makes her a tiresome thorn in Shannon’s side; he’s about ready to go mad. Eventually, he does.

Having just about enough of their campfire songs and rigid drudgery, he shanghais the busload of priggish Baptist schoolteachers, taking them on a harrowing ride, bumping their way down the dusty backroads. He screeches to a halt, jumps out, rips out the distributor head, and proceeds to streak up the hillside with his suitcase. They might as well be in the middle of nowhere.

For the sake of this movie, they are not. The tropical Costa Verde hotel is hidden up in the forest overlooking the water, and it just happens to be run by an old friend of Shannon’s. Fred is dead, but his wife, the larger-than-life Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), is still running the place. She’s an earthy force to be reckoned with indebted to Gardner’s lively showing.

If not for her, Burton would probably steal the show, but he’s met with another gale storm of enduring cheerfulness and utter obstinance. Their impact is such you almost forget about Deborah Kerr. Sure enough, she appears on their doorstep as the peripatetic painter, Hannah Jelkes, who travels with her grandfather, a diminutive, 98-year-old poet.

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Though the other two dominate the screen, she quietly commands it. When Gardner and Burton get to shoving the drink cart at one another, it is Kerr who becomes their unofficial mediator. Because she is a voice of reason, an artist with a pensive gaze, and a surprisingly lucid perspective despite her meager lifestyle.

Later Charlotte bursts into Shannon’s room yet again causing him unwanted torment as she tries to get him to go away with her. She’s very good at stirring up men’s hearts and instigating mini scandals in the process. In another scene, a fistfight for her affections breaks out between the tour’s bus driver (Skip Ward), and some local boys replete with music, maracas, and stereotypical flourishes. Huston plays it for a laugh. It’s inconsequential if not altogether inane.

Because it is from the stage, The Night of The Iguana does seem to stall. Eventually, the bus leaves without Shannon and the second half of the story feels like an existential dialogue more than anything else. It could be a dead-end, though on the merit of our three established stars, it remains something intermittently though-provoking if not entirely compelling.

The curious thing is how the adversary melts away. True, the bus leaves with both his temptation and condemnation and yet he has pity even on his adversary. “Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her.” He recognizes her as another conflicted, constricted creature — a fellow Iguana tied up to a post.

With the bottom dropped out of his life, Shannon wants to swim to China, seemingly a handy euphemism for ending it all. He’s taken to the brink of his wits, lashing out at Maxine and anyone else who will avail him. It’s Kerr who rules the final act amid the paucity of moral rectitude. She perceives that his version of Golgotha is on a green hillside overlooking the water. His cross being strung up in a hammock on the verandah. In comparison, it seems like a fairly cushy alternative. She strips him down to who he really is.

Far from condemning him, Jelkes feels strangely sincere and genuine, particularly for Williams. She perceives that his problem revolves around “The need to believe in something or in someone — almost anyone — almost anything.” It’s Augstine or Pascal’s God-shaped hole rehashed. Likewise, she deflects his metaphors. She is not a bird but a human being. Nothing human disgusts her except if it’s unkind or violent. What extraordinary statements they are, and Kerr delivers them with a perfectly composed performance.

As each person tries to decipher their own religion or least some semblance of existential understanding, whether through legalism, drink, or sex, even cutting Iguana’s lose as a private act of personal Godship, she’s the one character who brings down the thoughts and words of the wise and makes them feel foolish.

For a film suffused with a great deal of religiosity, she’s startling unprepossessing. And yet in her words and in her humanity are the roots of something bountiful and beautiful in their very simplicity. It’s the kind of simplicity that can help loosen the Iguana from the hitching post, where we find out by sojourning, it’s possible to fill up the vacuum inside each and every one of us.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Montgomery Clift

In our ongoing series, we continue shining a light on classic actors we think more people should get to know. This week our focus is none other than Montgomery Clift!

Monty Clift was one of the unsung champions of a new brand of acting that bridged the gap between the New York stage and the soundstages of Hollywood. Before Marlon Brando, James Dean, and others, Montgomery Clift introduced moviegoing audiences to a new form of intense masculinity paired with a striking vulnerability.

His life was marred by tragedy but instead of dwelling on that let’s celebrate the extraordinary career he forged for himself with some of the great directors of his generation. Here are 4 of his greatest movies with performances to match. 

Red River (1948)

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What’s immediately apparent about Monty Clift is how particular he was about his roles. Because his film debut was nothing short of an instant classic. In this iconic sagebrusher from Howard Hawks, Clift went toe-to-toe with a vengeful John Wayne, playing an adopted son and his father who vie for control of the family herd with startling outcomes. 

The Search (1948)

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Once more Clift aligned himself with an esteemed director — this time Fred Zinnemann — and invested himself in a story with real-world urgency. He plays an American soldier who takes in a young boy orphaned by the war. They strike up a relationship while racing against the clock to reunite him with his kin. The chemistry between the two is beautiful to watch.

A Place in The Sun (1951)

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This is the film that will forever define Clift’s career slotting him opposite a dazzling Elizabeth Taylor in one of her first adult roles. The adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, directed by George Stevens, captures the emotional weight Clift was able to channel into many of his greatest roles. It’s one of the most devastating romances of American film thanks in part to Clift and Taylor.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

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Although I’m led to believe the film is slightly overrated, there’s nothing wrong with Monty who brings his continual range as a troubled soldier on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Though it’s easy for him to get overshadowed by kisses in the waves between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr or the gutsy performance of Frank Sinatra, there’s no question Clift is front and center playing opposite Donna Reed.

Worth Watching

The Heiress, I Confess, The Young Lions, Wild River, Judgement at Nuremberg, The Misfits, Freud: The Secret Passion.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

heavenknows3From John Huston comes another film about a woman of principle and a man who seems to be everything she is not. This time instead of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart aboard The African Queen in WWI, we have Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum stuck on a deserted island together during WWII.

Kerr is Sister Angela who was on the island only a few days with a priest before he passed away. Now she is alone taking care of herself in solitude. That is until castaway Marine Mr. Allison washes up on her shore in a raft. For a time it is just the two of them as the Sister offers the marine food after his long, arduous journey. But after getting rest and some nourishment, he returns the favor proving his resourcefulness at scrounging up food on the island. For a while, they live in relative ease like this.

But they are reminded that the war is still going when the Japanese set up camp on the island. The unlikely pair finds themselves living in a cave together. Allison invades the camp on the sly to acquire food for them, and they continue to manage in hiding. Once the enemy is gone, the exuberant marine gets drunk on some sake and professes his love to the novice nun. Although the situation had never quite been awkward up to that point, it quickly becomes so. Sister Angela, in a tizzy, flees out in the pouring rain and winds up getting sick as a result.

heavenknows5To add to the predicament, the Japanese forces return, and back to the cave, it is. This time Mr. Allison must kill a soldier in order to get a blanket for Sister Angela. Soon the Japanese are burning the underbrush in pursuit of the culprit. It’s dire straights certainly, but then help comes.

Mr. Allison once again proves himself and regains the faith and admiration of Sister Angela. Once the marines roll in Mr. Allison is able to leave the island on a stretcher with the faithful novice by his side. They are a strange pair, but their relationship makes this story actually engaging. In a way, the life of a marine and a nun have some similarities, although they fall at completely different ends of the spectrum. In the same way, Mitchum and Kerr are adept at playing their roles to that degree. Allison is rough around the edges, a Joe Palooka type, and yet he means well. The nun is devoted to her calling, proper, and it never seems as if she could ever approve of Mr. Allison. And yet, in the midst of all the divides that seem in place, a true bond forms. It’s an entertaining relationship and these two stars,  led by John Huston’s direction, made it thoroughly enjoyable.

4/5 Stars

An Affair to Remember (1956)

anaffairto2An Affair to Remember (1956) has always been noted as a great American romance as far as I can ever remember, and I figured out that part of that was because it gets a mention in Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Whatever the reason, I finally got around to watching it and it is certainly an enjoyable weepy. Any film with Cary Grant as a romantic lead is usually, at the very least, charming and this one is too. He is a famed man on an ocean liner who has finally gone and gotten himself hitched. It’s big news and as soon as the ship touches down he is going to meet his love.

Quite by chance, he meets Deborah Kerr’s character and they are immediately taken with each other. Soon their friendship grows into an affectionate romance, and yet they feel uncomfortable in front of the other passengers who seem to be watching their every move with interest. They both know that once the boat reaches New York things will not be the same between them for some time.anaffairto4And so it is, but they had made one last plan to meet each other at the top of the Empire State Building. Grant makes it, but Kerr is detained for a very good reason. After seeing her in an awkward situation at the theater, Grant resolves to go see her and get to the bottom of what happened. It’s a tearful, albeit happy, reunion as they come back together.

If any of this feels familiar, like a rerun, that’s because it is. Leo McCarey actually made An Affair to Remember (1956) as a scene for scene remake of his earlier film Love Affair (1939). I never thought I’d say that I like a film with Charles Boyer more than a comparable one with Cary Grant, but it’s the truth. I’m not sure if it’s because I saw it first or that the film feels more intimate, but I really enjoyed Love Affair. An Affair to Remember is certainly elegant in color and Deborah Kerr gives a fine performance, but I was personally blown away by Irene Dunne as an actress. In fact, back in the day, Dunne worked quite a bit with Cary Grant (The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, and Penny Serenade).

So my advice is, go back and give Love Affair a watch. It’s still by McCarey with much of the same story so it’s really a personal preference what film you like more.

3.5/5 Stars

Separate Tables (1958)

bdd6d-separate_tablesStarring Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Deborah Kerr, David Niven, and Wendy Hiller, the films follows the evens at an Inn in England. This relatively simply film is less about plot and more about the interactions between people. Lancaster is a troubled man who is trying to forget his past marriage. Hayworth is the attractive wife he left who has her own insecurities, Kerr is the timid daughter who always obeys her mum, and she takes a fancy for the Major. Niven is the Major, a seemingly kind older gentleman with a less desirable side. Add a few more guests and Wendy Hiller as the sensible owner of the inn and you have this movie. What first begins as separated tables eventually evolves into something else entirely.

4/5 Stars

From Here to Eternity (1953)

b0508-from_here_to_eternity_film_posterDirected by Fred Zinnemann, the film has an all star cast including Burt Lancaster, Monty Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra. Clift is a former boxer and bugler who has been transferred to a post in Hawaii. The commanding officer wants to have him fight for the company but Clift is adamant that he will not. From that point on life is made difficult for him on the base. However, he still finds time to go to a club with his friend Maggio (Sinatra) where he meets Lorean (Reed) and falls in love. At the same time the intelligent company sergeant Lancaster, finds himself falling for the commander’s wife (Kerr) who has an unhappy marriage. However, he feels he cannot become an officer effectively terminating their relationship. The dramatic events culminate in the attack on Pearl Harbor which overshadows a smaller tragedy. This movie certainly had a cast full of famous people, but I have to say it was not my favorite film. All the same there definitely are some good moments.

4/5 Stars