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Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival Days 3 and 4–The Nitrate Prints: LAURA (1944) and BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)

The 8th annual TCM Classic Film Festival is coming to a close, and what a weekend it’s been. When I return home tomorrow I will write a wrap-up post summarizing my experience, but I would be remiss if I didn’t write a post today discussing the nitrate prints that festivalgoers were treated to at the Egyptian Theatre these past few days.

Nitrate film stock is known for the shimmering quality it lends to the picture, and for its unique accentuation of line, shadow, and light. It was used in the film industry through 1952, and then due to safety issues owing to its extreme flammability (it holds its own source of oxygen, and keeps burning when thrown in water), it was no longer produced. Many nitrate films were destroyed when the stock went out of production, but we’re lucky that many were also rescued. When one watches a nitrate film, one is essentially watching an “original,” the film equivalent of holding an original photograph. Very few theaters are licensed to show nitrate nowadays, because of the heightened risk of fire. In the Bay Area, where I live, only the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto is equipped to show it.

Going into the festival, one of my most anticipated screenings was Black Narcissus (1947) on nitrate. One of the most beautifully photographed movies of all time, with some of the most vibrant colors we’ve ever seen on film, I knew that it was going to be a magnificent viewing experience. What I was not particularly prepared for, however, was Laura (1944).

I debated whether or not I should go to Laura. It was programmed opposite Twentieth Century, one of my all-time favorites starring one of my all-time favorite actresses, Carole Lombard. It pained me to choose, but ultimately I decided that nitrate needed to take priority.

I’ve seen Laura many times, but was not prepared for what happened when I saw when Gene Tierney onscreen. The nitrate accentuated the lines and shadows of her face, her big, expressive eyes, and the porcelain skin under her jet-black hair. Tierney, whom I consider to be one of the most beautiful faces ever to grace the screen, was so exquisite on nitrate that tears fell from my eyes.

I must stop for a moment to discuss the print. I had a discussion with a few people afterward who were distracted by the pops and scratches on the nitrate print, which had come from the Academy as a “for your consideration” copy for the 1945 Academy Awards. The print did pop and some key lines were covered up. For me, that didn’t matter. We were there (at least I was there) to get the visual of the nitrate. Granted, I have seen this movie before and don’t necessarily need to hear the lines, but I came up with this comparison. When you look at an antique, made by a prominent designer who is known for a certain style, you don’t factor in the fact that it might have scratches on it in your analysis of the style. You look at the style in and of itself, and while the scratches might be an inconvenience, it’s really not what you’re there to look at. That’s my view of the nitrate print of Laura. I saw what I was looking for, and the rest came with the territory of looking at an old film.

With Black Narcissus, none of this was an issue. The print was beautiful, the nitrate was beautiful. Black Narcissus is a movie that has sent a chill up my spine since the first time I saw it. The story of British nuns trying to run a convent in the Himalayas, dealing with cultural differences and a dangerously unstable member of their order, the photography is breathtaking, and the ending is, to this day, considered to be one of the scariest moments in the history of British cinema.

One of the standout nitrate moments for me in Black Narcissus were when Deborah Kerr’s character, Sister Clodagh, has a flashback to when she was a young girl in love in her native Ireland.

The sparkling of the sea in the background, combined with the lines in Deborah Kerr’s hair and the serene, muted colors, brought me to tears during this scene.

The frightening penultimate scene of the movie became even scarier, if that’s possible, as the nitrate highlighted the character’s gaunt, red-tinted eyes and sick pallor.

And finally, at the end, the shot of the green leaves as the rain falls on them.

If you have never seen a film on nitrate, you owe it to yourself to find a theater near you that screens nitrate film. Or better yet, come to the TCM Classic Film Festival next year. There are only a select few theaters in the country that have a license to show nitrate, and The Egyptian Theatre’s retrofit to nitrate capabilities means that the TCM Festival will likely be showing nitrate from now on. It is one of the greatest filmgoing experiences you can have.

I’ll wrap up after I return home tomorrow. See you then, and thanks for reading!

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Religious Thematic Elements in “Black Narcissus” (1947).

Shot in striking Technicolor against the breathtaking backdrop of the Himalayan mountains, Black Narcissus is a tale of temptation, sensuality, jealousy, and crisis within an order of British nuns doing missionary work in rural India. The stark, bleak and often disturbing nature of the story and the cloistered environment of the convent is directly contrasted by the beauty of the outdoor surroundings, and the sensuality of the story has as much to do with the magnificent land as it has with the physical temptation of the Brisith agent Dean, around whom most of the story revolves. The film was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, taken from a 1939 novel by Rumer Godden. Black Narcissus plays out very much like a novel, with supreme use of symbolism and metaphor that casts serious doubt on the institution of Catholicism, a huge risk for a movie made under the Hays Code.

The story concerns itself with a group of Anglican nuns who journey to India in order to set up a hospital and school, with the ultimate intention to convert the native population to Catholicism. They have to deal with the dominant Hindu culture and the ethereal presence of a mystical old wise man on their property, whom they want to move, but none of the locals dare move him. This, to me, signifies the connection of the locals to their land and their resistance to give up the old ways to Catholicism. Interestingly, the scene where Sister Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) tries to get him to move, she is the one portrayed as the ignorant character–and not the other way around. Under the Hays Code (which codified Catholic morality into moviemaking), this was daring decision on the part of Powell and Pressburger.

Soon, a British agent by the name of Mr. Dean becomes a regular visitor to the convent, much to the chagrin of the nuns, who consider him obscene and offensive, especially when he shows up drunk to Christmas mass. He  does, however, charm one nun by the name of Sister Ruth, and the Sister Superior Clodagh becomes worried about his appeal to her and Sister Ruth’s increasingly strange behavior. There is one scene in which Sister Clodagh calls Sister Ruth into her room, and begins to question her about her state. The scene occurs about an hour into the film, and is the beginning of the very disturbing turns this movie takes.

As Sister Ruth is questioned, little by little she begins to shake, and her mouth turns upward into a demonic smile while her eyes remain fixed on Sister Clodagh. It is an intensely disturbing image, and she looks as though she is possessed, either by a demon or by the demons of her own mind. Juxtaposed with the white, virginal habit surrounding her face, it is not only a shock to the viewer’s sensibilities, but is a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of the penetration of evil into the world of the convent.

From that scene forward, Sister Ruth is often shot in hues of red, symbolizing the idea that Sister Ruth is demonic, an incarnation of the devil. As the film progresses and she becomes stranger and stranger, more red is used. For fear of giving anything away, here is one of the final scenes of the movie:

The conclusion is a violent  descent into madness on the part of Sister Ruth, which closes with a final collision of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Himalayan mountains. I will not say any more than that about the ending, because it is an absolutely stunning finale that you have to see in order to take in its full effect.

Though the film took place in India, the production was entirely British–with backdrop paintings of the Himalayas substituting for location shots. The majority of filming took place at Pinewood Studios, with some mountain scenes shot in West Sussex. Nonetheless, the film succeeds masterfully in its depiction of the mountains, and the Technicolor is among the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen. I often say that the two most beautifully shot Technicolor movies I’ve ever seen are Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes–both British movies that make heavy use of the color red in their filming.

Deborah Kerr ringing the convent bell in “Black Narcissus.”

Moira Shearer in “The Red Shoes” (1948).

I leave you with the trailer. To say that Black Narcissus is a masterpiece is a vast understatement. It is a truly magnificent piece of filmmaking that I think everyone interested in film should see. Some scenes are not easy to stomach, but it was a film ahead of its time, and many of those scenes look like they came out of a modern-day thriller, instead of a British drama made 65 years ago. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to.

Thanks for reading!