A seated Nancy Roberts and Deobrah Kerr in Black Narcissus.
Everett Collection

From the quasi-mystical melodrama of The Red Shoes to the earthy fighting spirit of I Know Where I’m Going! to the all-out fantastical romantic weirdness of A Matter of Life and Death: how to determine the greatest film made by the British-based team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger? When forced to choose, I go with the mad matte-painting glory of Black Narcissus, a story of nuns driven wild with desire in the Himalayas (drawn from source material by Rumer Godden). Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh is a mother superior newly arrived in this remote, desolate locale to establish a school and hospital; Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth is one of her teachers. But can any of these virtuous women resist the allure of David Farrar’s Mr. Dean, a robust male authority who favors shorts that are perhaps just a little too short? Black Narcissus is a great movie about obsession that is itself obsessive. Filmed largely at Pinewood Studios, it draws much of its visual magic from large painted backdrops overseen by a legendary effects technician Walter Percy Day. The movie’s vertiginous cliffs and carnally suggestive purple-pink clouds are all so rapturously fake that they rearrange your brain circuitry. For the space of time you live within Black Narcissus, nothing in the world has ever looked so real.

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