The Abiding Charms of “Black Narcissus”
to the issue 8 page
In conversation with the movie-mad -- and I’m one of them -- nothing gives more pleasure than to toss out a directorial name and wait for the response. No quicker way to find out whether you and the person you’re talking to are a match. I frequently drop into the mix Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Reactions are strong, evoking as those names do a whole spellbound fantastical world, very British, yes, but very available too: “I Know Where I'm Going!”, “The Thief of Bagdhad,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, “A Matter of Life and Death,” “Black Narcissus,” “The Red Shoes”. What is distinctive in these films is their free-and-easy dismissal of the prevailing realist codes, their trafficking in refined spectacle and deep fantasy. And add to that a painterly -- never vulgar -- Technicolor palate. Of the pictures I’ve named, only“I Know Where I’m Going!” is in the customary British black and white of the Forties and Fifties. 'Painterly' is certainly the keyword when talking about “Black Narcissus,” released in 1947. Its very first shot after the credits is a quotation from Vermeer, and other 17th-century Dutch masters (Saanredam, for example) have plainly educated Powell's marvelous atmospheric eye.