In this modern age of CGI and digital jiggery-pokery, where post-production effects are so advanced that things like light and colour can be altered after the event, it’s sometimes worth looking back at the old-fashioned art of cinematography and seeing just how stunning some of the more traditional stuff was, and you probably won’t find a better example of it than Jack Cardiff’s work on Black Narcissus. The British DP has a glittering CV, but this is the sort of thing they use as a textbook, and for very good reasons – if you struggle to define exactly what a “good eye” means (as I often do), or require a cast iron ace card to lay on the table to demonstrate masterful use of colour, composition and photography, then just tell someone to watch this film. Combined with set decorator Alfred Junge’s sumptuous production design, this is comfortably one of the most visually stunning films ever made.

A tale of simmering tension amongst sexually frustrated nuns in the Himalayas, it’s hard to believe it was shot at Pinewood Studios and in West Sussex, such is the richness and visual depth of its realised world. Some of the matte painting work has dated a little, but when the shots are kept simple it looks as vibrant and colourful as anywhere in India, which is saying something. As the nuns glide around in serene white habits, they are surrounded by an explosion of colour amongst the locals, their physical appearance matching their emotionally repressed states. It’s not at any point excessive though – in fact it’s remarkable how a film so blatantly about sex has nothing directly sexual in it. Everything is suggested; it’s the classic “show, don’t tell” ethos – arguably the very key to film as a visual storytelling medium.

BLACK NARCISSUS
Jack Cardiff's cinematography - some of the best ever committed to film10
Alfred Junge's production design - ditto10
Telling a story using just visuals 90% of the time10
A timely metaphor for the British withdrawal from India10
Lots of caucasian actors sadly in brownface3
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • n/a
9Overall Score

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