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Tag Archives: Sabu

Man-Eater of Kumaon (July 1, 1948)

Jim Corbett was the archetypal “great white hunter.”

He was born Edward James Corbett in 1875 in Nainital, in the Kumaon region of northern India (now known as Uttarakhand), and was the eighth of 13 children. Corbett would go on to work for the Bengal and North Western Railway. He also attained the rank of colonel in the British Indian Army.

Between 1907 and 1938, Corbett killed a documented 33 man-eating tigers and leopards (the first tiger he brought down was responsible for more than 400 deaths). Despite his fearsome reputation as a hunter, Corbett was committed to conserving endangered Bengal tigers and their natural habitats, and India’s first national park was renamed in his honor in 1957.

His book The Man-Eaters of Kumaon was published in 1944 and was a great success, so it was natural that a Hollywood movie would soon arrive that bore little resemblance to it.

That movie is Man-Eater of Kumaon, and it stars Wendell Corey as Dr. John Collins, a successful but disillusioned physician who has given up the Manhattan rat race for the thrill of big game hunting. Dr. Collins bears no resemblance to Jim Corbett, and he’s not meant to. For better or for worse, the screenplay by Jeanne Bartlett and Lewis Meltzer is mostly an invention, and not directly based on any of Corbett’s stories.

The director, Byron Haskin, was a Hollywood veteran, and the film looks great despite obviously having been filmed on soundstages and at the Corriganville ranch in Simi Valley, California. William C. Mellor’s cinematography is dramatically lighted and ominously shadowed, and the nighttime scenes look especially good. The story and dialogue are overly serious to the point of ridiculousness, however, and Wendell Corey has neither the acting chops nor the charisma to carry a mediocre film.

Corey’s facial expressions range from glum to deeply depressed, and voiceover narration strings together much of the film. More than one scene involves Corey smoking a cigarette, pacing back and forth, and looking pensive as the narrator explains to the audience what he is feeling.

Indian actor Sabu plays a young man named Narain, and he acquits himself well, but he doesn’t have very much to do. (Sabu does get top billing over Corey, although I’m pretty sure Corey has more screen time.) Morris Carnovsky’s performance as the village elder Ganga Ram is overly mannered and soporific, but part of the blame can be placed on the stilted dialogue. Joanne Page, who plays Narain’s wife Lali, acts her part well, but she isn’t given much to do either.

The most interesting thing about Man-Eater of Kumaon is the Bengal tiger who is shot by Corey at the beginning of the film. Throughout the film the tiger is wounded and tracking the man who has harmed him, leaving a path of death and terror in his wake. (As one character in the film says, “A tiger will not forget the man who wounded him.”) The footage of the tiger is really spectacular, and it seems to be mostly original, unlike most jungle adventure pictures, which rely heavily on stock footage.

Man-Eater of Kumaon is currently streaming on Netflix, and you can watch the first seven minutes on YouTube by clicking on the line below:

Black Narcissus (May 26, 1947)

A lot of people make a big deal of the fact that Black Narcissus was released the same year that India became an independent nation. The film, which was written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is a sensuous, beautifully lensed Technicolor production. (Black Narcissus won two Academy Awards. Alfred Junge took home the award for best art direction and set direction in the color category and Jack Cardiff won the Oscar for best color cinematography.)

The reason a lot of people make a big deal of its 1947 release is because a major theme of Black Narcissus is the inability of the British heart and mind to penetrate the mysteries of the Indian subcontinent. Deborah Kerr plays a young Anglican nun, Sister Clodagh, who is appointed Sister Superior of the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary, Calcutta. Not only does the convent occupy an abandoned harem high in the Himalaya mountains, but Sister Clodagh will be the youngest Sister Superior in the history of her order.

The plot of Black Narcissus isn’t as important as the mood the film creates, its scenery, or its overwhelming sense of lush sensuality.

Michael Powell wrote of Black Narcissus that it was the most erotic film he ever made. “It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image, from the beginning to the end.”

None of this is to say that the eroticism of Black Narcissus is the only thing that makes it worth watching. It’s a fine character study and a well-acted story of the clash between fantasy and reality. But its visual textures, breathtaking scenery, and exquisite attention to detail are overwhelming.

Remarkably, Powell and Pressburger — who produced films together under the name “The Archers” — created all of their majestic Himalaya settings on the soundstages of Pinewood Studios. Usually matte paintings call attention to themselves and fool no one. In Black Narcissus they are seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film and are good enough to create a sense of vertigo in the scenes in which Sister Clodagh rings the enormous bell that hangs near the precipice on one side of the convent.

Black Narcissus is not a perfect film. While the performances are generally good, especially from Kerr as Sister Clodagh, David Farrar as the insouciant and charming British agent Mr. Dean, and Kathleen Byron as the unhinged Sister Ruth, the native characters are mostly played by British actors, which doesn’t always work. The 18-year-old English actress Jean Simmons is beautiful and beguiling as the dancing girl, Kanchi, but her light-colored eyes clash with her brown face makeup. Much less effective is May Hallatt as the deranged Angu Ayah, a servant inherited by the convent. Her screeching Cockney line delivery was so confusing that for most of the picture I wasn’t sure where her character was supposed to be from. (The only Indian actor in the film, Sabu, who plays the Young General, is from southern India, not northern India, where the film takes place.)

But these are minor quibbles. Black Narcissus is a stunningly beautiful film that I look forward to seeing again some day. Despite its sometimes outlandish story and its melodramatic elements, it’s a meticulously crafted piece of art from the greatest British directors of all time.

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