Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Nitrate Experience, BLACK NARCISSUS at TCMFF 2017

Kathleen Byron and Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus, a production of The Archers

One of the truly sublime experiences (and there were many) of this year's TCM Classic Film Festival was the joy of viewing a nitrate print of The Archers' (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) great masterpiece Black Narcissus (1947) on the big screen at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre.

Black Narcissus is a film that dazzles, one of the most spectacular examples of mid-century Technicolor films ever produced. I could hardly imagine that its often voluptuous, frequently Vermeer-like imagery could possibly look any better than I had previously seen. Little did I know that I would be transported to a realm of color that could be called other-worldly. The adjective "awesome" has been entirely worn out for decades, and so I'll simply say that the impact of seeing the film's lush Technicolor photography on nitrate-based film stock was awe-inspiring.  

A climactic scene from Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus, the story of a group of nuns who are sent high into the Himalayas to open a convent school but are undone by the alien and seductive atmosphere, was filmed by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Cardiff would win the 1947 Oscar for color cinematography for his efforts and go on to film The Archers' next great masterpiece, The Red  Shoes (1948). He would later take on Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949), Huston's The African Queen (1951), Albert Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa (1954) and Laurence Olivier's The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), among many other films.

A Vermeer-influenced scene from Black Narcissus

Jean Simmons in Black Narcissus

Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus

Color films printed on nitrate-based stock seem "illuminated" onscreen. Colors appear richer and more saturated and seem to almost shimmer. Nitrate, then, was the ideal medium for an artist of Jack Cardiff's standing as one of the finest, most influential color cinematographers in the world. Cardiff began his career in movies as a child actor but had moved behind the camera by the time color began to evolve. He became a Technicolor consultant in 1937 and was camera operator on Britain's first three-strip Technicolor film the same year. He developed a thorough knowledge and understanding of Technicolor while working for the company, and became a total expert on the process.

As a director of photography and cinematographer, he became much in demand. When he was hired on The Prince and the Showgirl, Marilyn Monroe, whose production company produced the film, announced, "He's the best cameraman in the world, and I've got him!" Years later, when Ava Gardner was preparing to meet with the head of Simon & Schuster who insisted on seeing her before publishing a book about her, she insisted that her friend Jack Cardiff first rearrange and adjust the lighting in her living room, where the meeting would take place, to better enhance her face, which had been affected by a stroke.

Jack Cardiff lived until 2009 and age 94. His storied film career covered seven decades and included a foray into directing. His 1960 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers received seven Oscar nominations, including a Best Director nod. But it is the two classics he filmed back-to-back for Powell and Pressburger in 1947 and 1948, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, that endure as his great masterworks.

The following segment, part of a 2010 feature documentary about his life, offers a glimpse into the making of Black Narcissus and Cardiff's role in its production.


Black Narcissus won 1947 Academy Awards for Best Color Cinematography (Jack Cardiff) and Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration (Alfred Junge). In 2001, Jack Cardiff received an honorary Oscar for his contribution to film as "a master of light and color." This was the first honorary Oscar ever given to a cinematographer.