In 1960, director Michael Powell enraged British audiences with "Peeping Tom", a sympathetic look at a psychotic killer and the kinky upbringing which contributed to his adult illness. The fact that Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" was wildly successful that same year didn't matter. Contemporary critics resented such an in-depth view of the dark side of human nature from a staid and genteel filmmaker like Michael Powell.
If they'd really looked at Powell's earlier films with Emeric Pressburger, they might not have been so shocked. For all its elegant beauty, 1947's "Black Narcissus" might be the most subversive movie ever made about nuns. Based on a Rumer Godden novel about five nursing sisters who are sent to the Himalayas to convert an abandoned palace into a school and hospital, the resulting film focuses on the personality changes of women in isolation. The catalyst for their change is provided by Mr. Dean, the dashingly virile estate agent portrayed by David Farrar. He reminds Deborah Kerr's Sister Clodagh of her sensual girlhood in Ireland, but he represents something far move intense for bitter Sister Ruth, played to the hilt by Kathleen Byron.
In the safety of their own country surrounded by other nuns, the women might have been spared the unrelieved temptations provided by nostalgia, lust, and envy. Powell & Pressburger show how their inability to cope with those temptations is due more to their reluctance to face themselves than to any lack of religious conviction. Although they are sent to the Himalayas to help the people there, they find that the people distract them from their vocations. Moreover, Sisters Clodagh and Ruth wind up competing for the attention of the preoccupied Mr. Dean. The scene in which the lonely Sister Ruth finally descends into madness is accomplished with a bit of music, a tube of lipstick and superb direction, yet the effect is as shocking as if she'd stripped to her knickers. "Black Narcissus", like "Peeping Tom", is available on home video and is well worth a reappraisal or fresh discovery.
© 2008 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 10/1/08
UK - 1947