Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Black Narcissus

In this series, we choose our favorite single image from a pre-determined movie. It can be because it's the most beautiful, resonant, telling or unusual. It can be deemed the "best shot" for any reason really, beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

Today... nuns in the Himalayas in Black Narcissus (1947). I had never seen Black Narcissus before this week and that sort of virginity is sacrilege. Lose it if you haven't. Watch this film.

The movie tells the story of a new convent in the Himalayas. Sister Clodagh is the superior. She's played by Deborah Kerr, who is absolutely deserving here of one of her other Best Actress noms. Her Mother Superior, who doesn't think she's ready, gives her a ragtag team of nuns to take with her into the mountains. They're character-pegged so quickly it's like Clodagh is Snow White and these are her Seven Four Dwarves: Sister Briony "you'll need her for her strength" (a shot of a large woman lifting a large pitcher), Sister Philippa "for the garden" (a shot of a nun examining a tomato), Sister Honey "she's popular and you'll need to be popular" (a shot of a nun giggling, delighted that the other nuns are swarming) and Sister Ruth (a shot of an empty seat). A pause before the confession, "yes, she's a problem." Tell it like it is Mother Superior. If Black Narcissus were made today, they'd each have their own character poster to collect. Everyone would want Sister Ruth's because she's a problem. Boy, is she a problem.

Once the sisters have hit the Himalayas they struggle with adapting to the strange culture and social attitudes. It's not just the altitude. It doesn't help that their strongest ally is the tall dark and handsome Mr Dean (David Farrar) -- there's one particular amusing shot of this hairy man, shirtless, in a sea of white habits -- who reminds Clodagh and Ruth of other lives they could have led.

I don't want to spoil the movie but let's just say that things don't go as well as Clodagh had hoped and everyone starts to unravel. Nobody is ever exactly forthcoming about what they're feeling but the actresses and the color are evocative enough to externalize these interior ruptures. I love this shot late in the movie when Clodagh is frightened.

You can see how expressively cinematographer Jack Cardiff has lit the chapel (he won an Oscar for this film) but it also reminds us that it's a highly vertical film. Everything from candles to Mr. Dean to the architecture and mountains is tall and thin, thrusting upward or downward. In this shot Clodagh has seen a frightening red figure above. The red light is spilling downward turning the chapel pink, spoiling Clodagh's (blue) cool. She's worried. And she should be.

But here's my choice for Best Shot.

This image, about a half hour into the film, ends the first flashback to Clodagh's life before the nunnery. Now, dissolves aren't revolutionary and flashbacks are often used to contrast past with present. But the brilliance here is that the choice is so thematically resonant, so unsettlingly inexact and so emotionally spot on. In a movie made today they'd probably morph the images during the dissolve and they'd lose the dissonance. This dissolve is not just the past contrasted with present, it's identity versus identity. The more familiar sight of this gorgeous colorful actress playing a woman in love dissolves very slowly back into this colorless austere nun she's become who doesn't even seem to love god that much. Here's the brilliant kick: the dialogue (from the flashback) during this deliberately extended dissolve goes like so...
"I don't want to go away. I want to stay here like this for the rest of my life."
It sounds like the truth but it looks exactly like a lie.

Now the woman she once was is starting to bleed back into her current pent up self. Sister Clodagh is losing control.


The Convent of the Holy 'Hit Me' Order
Check out these amazing participating articles.
There's so much to say about this film. I didn't even have space to talk about one of the dirtiest images I've ever seen in a 1940s film in which Jean Simmons al... well, see the movie!
 Other Films in This Series


Anonymous said...

oof, missed it!


I can adjust the post if you post something :)

Nick Duval said...

My favorite shots (or at least the most memorable) are pretty obvious: the famous one where the camera looks down off of the cliff, and the one where the nun shows her red hair. I also admire some of the aerial shots looking at the church and its surrounding area.

I also like that sequence where they used a blue screen. Revolutionary for the time. That wasn't really a shot, but it is worth mentioning.

Michael said...

I'll participate one of these days through twitter.. these write-ups are great! I love this new series.


Michael -- aren't they? I hope everyone is clicking on the links. The Holy Hit Me Order was very inspired!

Colin Low said...

Sorry I'm late to the party! But what a party; I love all the other choices as well. Interesting that all of these are interior, psychological shots, when the other big hoo-hah about Black Narcissus is its blend of models, paintings and sets for that epic exterior.


Nick -- it's that verticality really. it's impressive how sustained it is. the whole production is really in synch with itself aesthetically.

can't wait to see it on the big screen the first chance i get.


Nick -- it's that verticality really. it's impressive how sustained it is. the whole production is really in synch with itself aesthetically.

can't wait to see it on the big screen the first chance i get.

entertainment news said...

I love the sequence when they used the blue scree. It was my favorite one..I also love lot of shots at church ..

Rose said...

God, this movie is so good it hurts. Literally. Even thinking about it makes me ache to see it again. All Powell and Pressburger movies are like that. Has there ever been a more successful cinematic pair? I'd be hard-pressed to think of one. Who could top Black Narcissus, Red Shoes, Stairway to Heaven, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Tales of Hoffman, I Know Where I'm Going, AND Canterbury Tale. Unbelievable.

On a side note, I can't imagine how controversial it must have been at the time. Nuns having sexual thoughts in the 40s??? Tsk tsk tsk.

Also, Deborah Kerr might be my favorite cinematic nun - this movie, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, small nun cameo in the original Casino Royale : P

Anonymous said...

I'll beat you on the virginity thing - I have never seen the last ten minutes of this movie, and I'm taking my time before Tuesday when I have to return the DVD to the video store. :S

Leehee said...

What a movie, indeed. I first saw it as a young girl and was so moved by it... I have to rewatch it now, it's been too long.
And Nathaniel, I'm SO glad you changed your mind about Deborah Kerr (one of my all time favorites)! I remember when you were asking for people's opinions of her after "Seperate Tables". I just think she was so incredibly wonderful! And the shot you chose is stunning, the heart of the movie in my opinion. :-)

Anonymous said...

I'll beat you on the virginity thing - I slept during the 90 minute mark of the movie. For some reason, the movie channels here only show the great classics at midnight/2AM.

joe burns said...

Really interesting. I have to see it soon!

mirko said...

that's a movie full of great shots

one of my favorite is Jean Simmons close up before her dancing scene. I know that it could sound uncorrected appreciate a british gal who plays an indian exotic type but I think Simmons gave us an interesting and unusual perf, since she channels lust and passion with her speechless role

Black Narcissus is a great melodrama, visually stunning and full of great chances for her female cast. Kerr is better here than in her oscar nominated perfs (what a curious Academy gave her six nominations, overlooking two of her strongest achievements: this one and THE INNOCENTS) and Kathleen Byron is wonderful as the nun who goes crazy (she also was overlooked in the supporting actress category...but this actress could have at least a chance to get her due whenever there will be HIT ME WITH OUR BEST SHOT: SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, since she's in one of most iconic shot of Spielberg's)

James T said...

I don't want to rain on anyone's parade but even though I liked the movie, I don't understand where the big love comes from except for Kerr's performance and the short dialogue:
-"Are you sure there isn't any question you're dying to ask me?"


Colin Low said...

@James T: I know what you mean, but as I intimated in my post, Kerr's performance IS Black Narcissus; I rarely see any movies that value the nobility and toughness of what a head nun has to go through, so this movie was a welcome correction. (Otherwise, all the other caricatures: ew.)

Andrew R. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deus Ex Machina said...

I just wanted to share a drawing of this exact same image i made when i saw the movie for the first time.
I hope the link works, its from an album in facebook. but i was so spellbound by it i had to do it.