Black Narcissus and Pinewood

This post by Sarah Street starts a new strand, ‘Film in Focus’, in which we examine a number of film productions from the perspective of studio studies. When planning Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1947), Michael Powell was clear that he wanted to create the palace located high in the Himalayas entirely in a film studio: ‘The atmosphere on this film is everything, and we must create and control it from the start. Wind, the altitude, the beauty of the setting – it must all be under our control’ (Powell 1986: 562-3). Throughout the Second World War Pinewood was requisitioned by the Government for flour storage, the minting of currency and as the base for the Army Film and Photographic Unit. In 1946, when Black Narcissus was filmed there, the studio had only recently been de-requisitioned, and was beginning the process of post-war recovery. The studios officially reopened in April 1946 for films produced by the ‘Independent Group’, including Powell and Pressburger’s company The Archers (Kinematograph Weekly, 11 April 1946: 6). Black Narcissus was a milestone in the application of Technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff, and also a technical feat that has influenced many filmmakers.

Images from the 1947 film reveal practical aspects of studio ingenuity, in particular how the set designs of Alfred Junge were realized for the screen. Surviving documentation on the making of Black Narcissus reveals some of the techniques that were necessary to create an unsettling atmosphere which, as the character Mr Dean remarks in the film, is extremely ‘exaggerated’. The inspiration for the palace at the fictional place of Mopu came from Rumer Godden’s novel (1939) in which the location is described very precisely as being high up and ‘full in the wind, it had no shelter. Its roof came down close to the ground and it had no open verandahs; every space had a thick glass pane. To step into the house was to step into stillness, into warmth even when it was damp and unlit; but after a moment a coldness crept about your shins. The wind could not be kept out of the house; it came up through the boards of the floor and found passages between the roof and the ceiling cloths; at Mopu Palace you lived with the sound of the wind and a coldness always about your ears and ankles’ (p. 21). In the film, the wind is certainly made a feature of, how it invades the palace and seems to be an unrelentless presence that contributes to the environment that so unsettles the nuns as they try to establish a school and dispensary in the palace that was a former harem. Junge’s designs created the initial visualizations of the palace set and bell tower, seen here in sketch form and then as shot at Pinewood. The total budget for sets was £78,176, whereas for actors it was £50,465, indicating the high priority given to that area of expertise (Street 2005: 18).

Other iconic shots, such as the high angle shot of the dining table seen early on in the film as Sister Clodagh’s mission is being outlined to her by Mother Dorothea, are also possible to trace from Junge’s original sketch to filming and to the final appearance of the shot on screen. Many other sketches were produced by artist Ivor Beddoes. 

The dining table scene in the film

The shots in the film that feature the terrifying precipice were illusions created by the matte artist Percy C. Day. Many of the locations were scenes painted on glass. Jack Cardiff explained how they would ‘matte out the NG [no good] parts of the frame with black card very exactly and then rephotograph the painted glass with mountains and clouds as a second exposure of the film’ (Bowyer 2003: 73). These techniques made it possible to work with the challenging demands of lighting for Technicolor since glass shots and matte painting facilitated the manufacture of exteriors in the studio where light conditions could be more highly controlled than on location. Day wrote that such relatively simple forms of special effect were nevertheless very important: ‘For even though nothing of outstanding photographic originality is aimed at, the fundamental purpose of the shot is achieved in that what would have proved a tricky and dangerous shot was rendered one of simplicity’ (Kinematograph Weekly Studio Supplement, 2 Oct 1947: xvii). For Black Narcissus Day used a new method which meant tests did not have to be shot in the first instance, enabling the film to be developed and printed straight away. He explained: ‘When the required takes have been selected, a decision is made where the matte shall be placed, always bearing in mind that it must not encroach on any part of the image where there is action, and also considering whether there is any addition in the way of movement, such as clouds, which play an important part in outdoor scenes. The matte line should follow dark shapes, such as shadows. Having decided on these points, the image is painted on to glass to match the image of the film projected upon it, following the line where the two have to be photographed to complete the whole’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 29 Jan 1948: 27-8). The illustrations below show Junge’s drawing as the basis for Day’s matte technique, and the same scene in the final film. 

The shot as seen in the film

Junge’s drawings included the wall paintings that do much to ensure the continued presence of the palace’s past use as a harem, even when its purpose has been completely changed into a convent. These images of the designs and how they were filmed on set, erected for the camera’s viewpoint and then how they appeared in the final film, also show the cycle of invention that contemporary studio practices enabled.

The high winds necessitated the use of a machine with a large propellor, as seen here in these images of it being set up for a shot. For smaller gusts, a simple hand-held device was used.

Producer J. Arthur Rank and Rumer Godden both visited the set when the film was in production. The set was also visited by twenty-three Indian soldiers who attended the post-war victory celebrations in London. A report noted that Michael Powell and stars Deborah Kerr and David Farrar ‘chatted to the men to get a first-hand account of life in the Himalayas, and were told the set and costume designs were remarkable in their authenticity’ (Illustrated Leicester Chronicle, 27 July 1946: 3). 

Black Narcissus featured birds, as first seen when we are introduced to the character Angu Ayah (May Hallatt). On set there was a ‘bird trainer’, Captain Charles William Robert Knight, a well-known British falconer who appeared with his golden eagle ‘Mr Ramshaw’ in I Know Where I’m Going! (Powell and Pressburger, 1945). His expertise must have corrected a search reported in Kinematograph Weekly for ‘an old and raggy parrot’ to appear in Black Narcissus to which pet store proprietors resolutely replied that old parrots rarely looked ‘raggy’, only birds in season (3 June 1946: 32). 

Even though the recent TV mini-series production of Black Narcissus (DNA Films, directed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, 2020) was partly shot on location in Nepal, Pinewood was also used to create some of the most iconic sets, such as the bell tower that features so prominently in the story’s climax when Sister Ruth falls to her death after struggling at the tower with Sister Clodagh. This version of Godden’s novel was filmed using digital cinematography. Jack Cardiff’s approach was however influential in its visualization, with many shots striking very similar compositions and affective resonances in a spirit of homage. The bell tower, for example, was constructed at Pinewood, just as it was in 1946, and the sky behind it was based on shots taken on location in Napal but enhanced by effects work by Union VFX, an independent visual effects facility. 

The bell tower set and background in the 2020 version

In this way the heightened sensibilities and emotions that so pervaded Powell and Pressburger’s film have been re-visited. Revealing how the effects were achieved, as well as the stages of their development highlights the collaborative nature of filmmaking practices, the chains of responsibility and creative engagement required to respond to a production’s challenges. It also reveals the continuities between methods and approaches, in spite of the different technologies and personnel involved. Then, as now, Pinewood was central to their expression of artifice, ingenuity and creativity.

References

Black Narcissus, DVD Criterion Collection 93, 2000.

Justin Bowyer, Conversations with Jack Cardiff, London, Batsford, 2001.

Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus, first published 1939, Pan Books edition, 1994.

Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, London: Heinemann, 1986.

Sarah Street, Black Narcissus, London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.

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