Black Narcissus (1947)

January 12, 2009

An amazing film.  This is a true horror film.  It is a haunted house story, with the place of the ghosts taken by human fallibility. 

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is placed in charge of a newly-opened convent high in the Himalayas and the repsonsibility is clearly too great to bear from the outset.  Her responses are confused and well-meaning but desperate.  Once we begin to learn of her life before taking up her vows, it becomes clear that her faith is not as strong as might have been presumed.  Indeed of all of the Nuns, only Sister Briony (Judith Furse) appears to have the same faith and devotion at the end of the film that she did at the start.

The stand-out acting performance, though, is given by Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth- cracking under the pressure of her orders, the isolation and suppressed lust.  She is magnificent and, in a flash of her eyes at Sister Clodagh, registers so much hatred and jealousy that it speaks more than mere words could.

I specified that hers was the stand-out acting performance, as the stand-out performance here must surely go to cinematographer Jack Cardiff.  Using (well-designed) sets, he frames an epic film beautifully.

Powell and Pressburger have created here a dramatic, engrossing and thoroughly believable psychological thriller that is years ahead of contemporary standards of daring and innovation.  As the film progresses, each layer of intrigue builds relentlessly.  This is an absolute masterclass in film-making.

Like many great films, I’ve little doubt that this would improve with repeated viewings (even if some of the casually racist sentiments expressed by the characters are distasteful).  10/10.

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They’re a Weird Mob (1966)

December 27, 2008

And, to be fair, that’s a weird film.

It’s not surreal or intricate or confusingly plotted or visually curious, it’s weird because I don’t know why anyone would ever make a film like it.  It’s a culture-clash comedy between a charming Italian immigrant and his rough and ready Sydney-based workmates, with a minor love-interest angle to keep the ladies happy.  I’m not preaching sexism, it’s that kind of film.

Walter Chiari is utterly engaging as the fish-out-of-water Italian and his charm sustained me through the first hour but there was always the nagging thought in my head “when is the story going to start?”.  It never did.  In the end I resigned myself to the fact that, following the furore caused by his magnificent ‘Peeping Tom’, Michael Powell had decided to never risk offending anyone again.  What follows, therefore, is a near-two hour advertisement for Australia as a place of easy manners, friendly locals, and a hard-working, hard-drinking culture where men are men and women aren’t.  If you want an easy-going film that uses stereotypes and language-barrier gags as shorthand means of dispensing with character development and narrative construction, then this film is the one for you.

Michael Powell’s visual brilliance is kept under wraps but for a couple of moments as he plays it safe and for laughs.  He is a fantastic director, but this must stand as his poorest film that I’ve seen.  It isn’t bad, just inconsequential and more than a little dull.  3/10.