Thursday, 19 February 2009

“Black Narcissus”. A Review of the 2008 BLU-RAY reissue of the 1947 Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger film classic.

“He Seems A Difficult Man…You Won’t Get Much Help From Him…”

As the muscle-bound-creep whacks the iconic "J. Arthur Rank" gong in the opening credits of "Black Narcissus" - your heart sinks. The print is truly awful. But that soon disappears when you lay eyes on the restored palette of the actual film itself. The remaining credits are steady, clean and amazingly free of scratches and grain. It's a relief to say that this odd - and still strangely unsettling film (based on Rumer Godden's book) - is a triumph on Blu-Ray.

The effect of seeing the painted studio backdrops doubling as the Himalayan mountains and the nun's make up on their supposed unadorned angelic faces is slightly disconcerting at first, but once you get used to it - scene after scene impresses you with the lovely detail - especially if you've a large screen to do the thing justice. I used the 'Smart' mode on my Sony to get it out of its 'square' mode and fill the screen and it wasn't in the least bit stretched or out of place.

Highlights include when the camera first settles on the young and flirtatious Kanchi (played superbly by Jean Simmons) sat on her suitcase outside Sister Cloddagh's mountain convent (played by Deborah Kerr) in her racy Indian attire, you actually see' how beautiful and striking Simmons was. Or when Kathleen Byron as the lusting Sister Ruth (pictured below) keeps flicking her eyes and thoughts at the semi naked David Farrar as Mr. Dean - you see both of their faces and expressions - and for the first time you actually 'feel' the wild spark coursing through their reserved but tempted British veins. You can imagine how bold this must have been at the cinema in May 1947. Then Byron's beautiful yet deadly face as she emerges wild-eyed at the end of the movie from the convent doors in her civilian clothes - Deborah Kerr on the bell...pretty potent stuff still...

Admittedly, some parts of the scenery seem weak - the washed-out blue of the palace walls, the now obvious matt drawings doubling as the sheer mountain drop by the famous bell... But with the wind and the superb scale of the set, you're almost completely fooled into believing that these out-of-place nuns actually are in sweaty and difficult India - absolutely all of it filmed in Pinewood without every leaving England (except one outside shot).

The audio is old though - and sounds it - but it's acceptable. There's also a 30-minute plus making of called "The Profile Of..." which features interviews and insightful stuff from Kathleen Byron on the abrasive directing ways of Powell and the strong yet serene Kerr, who knew just how to handle him and his bullying.

Having watched a few dogs on Blu-Ray of old films, it's nice to see one that actually benefits from the format. It's absolutely not as good as the BR versions of "Cool Hand Luke", "2001: A Space Odyssey", "Zulu" or the early Bond films like "Dr. No" or "From Russia With Love" (where truly exceptional restoration work has taken place), but it's the best this film has ever looked - and for fans of "Black Narcissus" - it's a must buy.

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Spines of Exceptional CD Remasters

Spines of Exceptional CD Remasters

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