Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Dramatic Mattes of "Black Narcissus"

One of the loveliest talents that has graced the screen in the last century was the immortal Deborah Kerr. Kerr did, eventually, receive an honorary Oscar, (but you know how I feel about that). During her long and fruitful career, this incredible lady was never honored properly for the incredible roles that she played on the screen, though she was nominated six times. She was the Lady with a capital "L" that you fell in love with because she had those intangible qualities such as her easy grace, simple beauty, and sharp wit that were so special. Like many film lovers, I fell in love with Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember, when she played beautifully tragic Terry McKay opposite Cary Grant's Nicky. But I truly appreciated her artistic scope after watching Black Narcissus (1947).
That dramatic "bell-ringing" angle in Black Narcissus (1947)
Black Narcissus was the creative effort of the famed British film-making collaborators Powell and. Pressburger, often known by their creative nickname "the Archers." The Archers wrote and directed some of the greatest films of the 1940s. I watched a few of their films a few years ago for the first time and was just struck by how deeply beautiful some of these films were. But, by far, my favorite is Black Narcissus: the deeply emotionally-turbulent drama about a group of nuns attempting to establish a school and convent in the high Himalayas, where even the steeliest virtue is under constant attack from the social, cultural, and even physical conditions of the land. With its innovative use of color and the bold internal tensions that beset the characters, many critics consider Black Narcissus to be one of the finest and earliest examples of eroticism in film.
Those magnificent mountains in the background which set off drama so
realistically, but once again, artistically. 

Powell and Pressburger's artistic geniuses are truly evident in this film. It is a film of constant conflict and they used the setting masterfully to juxtapose to the immediate conflict of the nuns with their environment. With their heavy, plain, white robes, the nuns look like they belong in Medieval Europe, certainly not in modern South Asia. They are immediately in conflict with the physical setting preparing the audience for the subtler internal conflicts that will follow.
The alluringly virtuous Sr. Clodagh (Deborah Kerr)
No character is more in opposition to the setting than the main character, Sister Clodagh played by Deborah Kerr. Her character's steely virtue cannot hide Kerr's natural beauty. Move over Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn because, I'm sorry,  no nun has ever been lovelier than Deborah Kerr. With her easy British grace and firm, but gentle leadership, the whole time you are watching the film you can't help but think how out of place she is in the rugged and wild high Himalayas. But of course, that's the point. She is under attack from all fronts, and the drama is to see how successful she will be.

Sr Ruth (Kathleen Byron) ringing the bells: Before and After

The setting is essential for establishing this atmosphere of conflict and juxtaposition. Shockingly, of course, the set is merely a lot of movie magic. The entire film was shot on Pinewood Studios in Britain, not in Southeast Asia. Which means, of course, that the sets were the work of an artistic genius. I mean, so many of the scenes are so stunningly beautiful and magnificent, it is hard to believe that the film is not shot on location. Which is the magic of matte design, of course.
W. Percy Day
self portrait
The genius responsible for these mattes is one of the great names in film-effects history, Walter Percy "Pop" Day. Day is often considered one of the originators of the use of the "modern" matte painting (shooting in front of a black screen and adding the backdrop in later) and certainly one of the masters. In fact, he trained a number of the premier matte painters that followed him, including his stepson, Peter Ellenshaw, who worked with him on Black Narcissus. Ellenshaw spoke incredibly highly of his mentor and considered him one of his own personal and artistic guiding influences, even though they had a falling out eventually. Day was a pioneer in film's visual special effects, a masterful worker, and a truly talented artist. His mastery comes out in works like Black Narcissus, a film which did, actually, receive the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for the brilliant color photography, which worked because of the brilliant mattes. (I know I said I was going to do anti-Oscars posts, but I don't care, Black Narcissus is too good).
That final dramatic scene- breathtaking beautiful... and contrived

See, it is people like "Pop" Day who are the true artists in film, not the actors. Oh, don't get me wrong, I started this post as a tribute to Deborah Kerr, but I realized half-way through that without Day's terrifically lovely mattes behind her, Kerr's performance would lose some of its flair and some of its magnitude. That's the true power of art in film- when a film is less without the art. One of the reasons people love Black Narcissus is because it is a visual delight. And indeed, it is. But, especially in the 1940s, visual delights didn't come easy or quick, and we have to thank and pay tribute to those who made those breathtaking moments possible.
As for Miss Kerr, don't worry about her- I have another post planned just about her to make it all better. If you are on the East Coast, reader, stay safe in the snow and maybe catch up on your "Art of Film" reading!

"Matte Shot" Blog

"Ellenshaw Exhibit" on TCM Blog


  1. How could you not mention the film's cinematographer Jack Cardiff. He specialized in Technicolor photography and is considered one of the greatest cinematographers who ever lived. He photographed several of the Archers' motion pictures.

  2. How could you not mention the film's cinematographer Jack Cardiff. He specialized in Technicolor photography and is considered one of the greatest cinematographers who ever lived. He photographed several of the Archers' motion pictures.


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