For the third episode of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, the awesome new series hosted over at the Film Experience, Nathaniel R has selected Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s outstanding 1947 masterpiece Black Narcissus, one of the most beautiful of all Technicolor features, thanks to the talents of the greatly-missed Jack Cardiff.
I’m trying to get my entry in bright and early, not only because I adore the movie and the cinematography, but for a more pragmatic reason. Even though every image presents its own argument for being the most beautiful, skillfully-composed, thematically resonant, and just all-around great shot, the one image that always grabs me, every time I watch or think about Black Narcissus, happens to also be one of the the most iconic images from the entire movie. So even if I’m not the only one to select it, I’m hoping to be the first.
SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE POST. AND IF YOU NEED THE SPOILER WARNING, WHY THE HELL HAVEN’T YOU SEEN BLACK NARCISSUS YET, ANYWAY? It’s the moment to which all of the narrative has been thrusting towards: a collection of British nuns, high on a mountain in India, being slowly driven towards a form of insanity by the world around them that they can neither contain nor understand (it’s all a bit hokey and Orientalist, but effective nonetheless). We’ve known for some time that Sister Ruth is the one to look out for, but here she has finally abandoned the stark whiteness that has defined all of the nuns to that point – their habits are white, and the filmmakers had pale nude lipstick put on the actresses, to strip all possible color from their faces – for the most sultry, violent color of them all: red. A red captured by Cardiff’s lens with a burning, unholy potency. As the movie has been leading up to this instant, so does the rest of the movie – in which the nuns’ mission is finally abandoned, for India got too much into their skin for their holiness to withstand it – consist of nothing but reverberations from this single, shattering reveal.
My actual favorite shot comes just a few seconds later; but since it’s not the precise moment of the reveal, it will have to settle for being first runner-up: