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Tag Archives: Jenny Laird

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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Wanted for Murder (Nov. 2, 1946)

Lawrence Huntington’s Wanted for Murder, which was originally released on June 17, 1946, in the U.K., premiered in the United States on November 2, 1946. It’s an effective chiller with a dependable cast and an excellent screenplay by Rodney Ackland and Emeric Pressburger, based on the stage play by Percy Robinson and Terence de Marney.

The film boasts a terrific sense of place, with scenes filmed in Hampstead Fairground, Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, and the center of London (which, when necessary, appears as rear screen projection stock footage, a technique that can be distractingly fake-looking but here is done fairly skillfully). There are also several atmospheric nighttime murder sequences in Hampstead Heath, Regent’s Park, and Hyde Park.

Particularly effective is the music by Mischa Spoliansky, whose pop-orchestral tune “A Voice in the Night” is a motif that follows the murderer around like his shadow, and which you’ll be hard-pressed not to hum after seeing this picture.

Eric Portman plays middle-class mummy’s boy Victor James Colebrooke, a man who feels haunted by the specter of his late father, William Colebrooke, an executioner to Queen Victoria whose eerie likeness stands in Madame Tussaud’s.

Colebrooke is a handsome, superficially charming gentleman who drink Hendrick’s Gin, lives at home with his mother and a servant, and whose single-breasted suits often sport a white boutonniere and a pocket square. He’s the embodiment of the British fascination with “the murderer next door” — the outwardly ordinary man whose wife’s remains are bricked up in the basement or who strangles working girls on the weekend.

Wispy brunette Dulcie Gray plays Anne Fielding, a young woman who works in a gramophone shop and is dating Colebrooke. A starry-eyed young bus conductor named Jack Williams (Derek Farr) finds her waiting at the fairgrounds and mashes her as hard as he can. She’s attracted to him, but Colebrooke is manipulative and possessive.

Rounding out the fine cast are Roland Culver as Chief Insp. Conway and Stanley Holloway as Sgt. Sullivan, the two Scotland Yard detectives who are on the trail of the killer. Their scenes are some of the film’s most light-hearted, but they are never less than professional, and are dogged in their pursuit of the strangler.

When the first murder occurs, the audience doesn’t know who the killer is, but we strongly suspect Colebrooke. It’s not long before the film removes any doubt about his guilt, which allows for a more interesting and creepy character study than in a whodunnit, where the murderer’s identity is a secret up until the climax.

Most of the film is a game of cat and mouse, with the detectives fairly certain Colebrooke is guilty, but unable to gather anything but circumstantial evidence.

Meanwhile, Colebrooke goes about his dastardly business at night in the parks, telling young women he takes out on dates and strangles that his name is “Tom Mahon.”

Colebrooke blames his sickness on his father, whose killings were all committed in the course of his duty, but whose grim pride in his work earned him the nickname “The Happy Hangman.” The Freudian-minded viewer might blame his overbearing, possessive mother, but the film itself doesn’t draw any such trite conclusions. His father is just a picture on the wall or — in one scene — a disturbingly realistic wax figure, and his mother isn’t a bad person, even encouraging him to find a nice girl and marry her.

Wanted for Murder is a first-rate thriller. Although the adjective hadn’t been invented when it was made, I’d go so far as to call it “Hitchcockian.”