Black Narcissus (1946)

Black Narcissus – 1946

Directors – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Starring – Deborah Kerr, and David Ferrar

Heading into this film, before I knew anything else about it other than the photo Netflix uses, I assumed that I wouldn’t like it. A movie about nuns? Booooorrring! Of course I wouldn’t like it.  But then it began, and the Archers logo came up (the people who made The Red Shoes, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), and suddenly there was this chance that this film could be something more, much more than what is immediately present on the surface. As it happens, Black Narcissus was an austere, bland, and rather unimpressive yet beautiful looking journey through the wilds of British colonial India.

The story goes thusly…A group of relatively inexperienced nuns gets sent by their leadership, to India, charged with taking up residence in an abandoned palace high in the  mountains, and bringing the light of the lord to the local heathens.  The usual set of barriers present themselves in the form of cultural misunderstandings, a native Englishman versed in the ways of the locals, and the inner strife that comes when questioning one’s own…blah, blah, blah.  It doesn’t really matter, you won’t remember it in a few minutes, as I barely remember it now.

Plain, slow and for the first half nearly monochromatic, Black Narcissus tries to reach for the subtlety and distinction of Blimp and Red Shoes but was just never able to make it happen.  Deborah Kerr, who was so very arresting and vivid in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, staggers through this movie as emotionally one-dimensional as a tertiary character in a Dickens novel.  She doesn’t really change from one end of the movie to the other, aside from softening slightly to the brash Mr. Dean (David Ferrar), native Brit, envoy to the local royal government, and all around one note character.

Speaking of Mr. Dean.  It seemed like no one could decide quite what his character flaw/personality was going to be beforehand.  Is he a drunk, a cynic, or is he simply down on the snooty, dismissive behavior of the nuns to the locals?  Rather than giving him a set of characteristics, and building upon them, they decided to make him inebriated at times, moody at others, indignant and rude at still others, but without the rhyme and reason that would indicate he was a flesh and blood creation rather than a ham-fisted plot device.

Where the Brits seemed unduly rude and dismissive of their hosts, the Indian characters in the story, both Generals (young and old), the orphaned girl, as well as all of the children and villagers, all seem completely engaging and willing to learn about their guests without judging or strife.  Perhaps it’s because I come from a day and age that is more aware of and accepting of different cultures and personalities, but watching a film that comes out of the 1940’s makes western race relations seem positively barbaric and out of touch.

The one stand out, in terms of performance, is Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, the troubled, sickly sister who seems unable to handle the rigors and harsh conditions of the high mountain palace.  It actually wasn’t so much her performance, as it was the lack of performance.  Byron channelled Jack Nicholson’s work from the Shining, (or the other way around I suppose) all maniacal smiles and dangerous eyes, staring into space and providing her character with just enough vacancy to make her dangerous.  Sister Ruth is the most tightly wound of the nuns, and when she is pushed to her breaking point, she is unable to hold up.  It’s a shame really that she really didn’t have much impact until about two-thirds of the way through the film, but once she starts going, she is the most magnetic thing on-screen.

Similarly, halfway through the film, the color scheme begins to change from the sterile white robes and light-colored walls, into the rich swathes of color indicating lust, danger, and fear.  Beige and cream coloring gives way to deep shadowy reds, blues, greens, and oranges.  It’s really at this last third of the film that it becomes worth watching.  So much so, that it makes you wish the beginning part of the film was as interestingly composed, and executed as the latter part, although it doesn’t do much to change the fact that the story is a very dated one about the maddening effects of bringing religion to the uncivilized wilds

Despite my negative impression of the film, I did notice quite a lot of influence in a director whose films I truly do admire.  Wes Anderson, seems to have taken cues from the entirety of the Archers body of work, and for The Darjeeling Limited story cues from Black Narcissus in particular.  For example, the dramatic, rich use of color used as a backdrop against which every story plays out in all of Anderson’s films.  The diorama like composition Anderson utilizes, is equal parts Powell/Pressburger and Kubrick, but to his credit, Anderson does a much better job finding cohesion in all the disparate elements.

When it all comes down to it, Black Narcissus isn’t all that good, and certainly not worthy of its place on this list.  Sorry, Archers fans, I know it’s blasphemy to speak ill of saints Powell and Pressburger, but in this instance I think it’s justified.

“Not as good as Sister Act” – Ashley

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Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock – 1955

Director – John Sturges

Starring – Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Walter Brennan

Coming into this film, I knew only the blurb that I’d seen in the 1001 Movies book, and frankly I was pretty excited to check it out.  The premise is pretty standard, yet pretty compelling.  A man gets off a train in a lonely desert town, no one knows why he’s there yet they immediately distrust him, eventually leading to threats of violence and confrontation.  I was instantly grabbed by this concept.   I wanted to see what would happen.  Unfortunately, once I did, I wished I had just lived with my imagination of what it might be.

First off, Spencer Tracy isn’t a bad-ass.  Based solely on the description, it seemed to me that Tracy’s character would have to be a hard as nails, no-nonsense type of guy.  Someone who could take care of business if the situation called for it.  What we got was a rather weathered old man who never seemed willing to stand up for himself.  The townsfolk took a lot of pleasure in pushing him around, and he took great care to try to keep from provoking them any further.  He took loads of abuse when it seemed like he should be handing some out.

The bad guys, while actually pretty bad people, didn’t provide any interesting motivation for their cruelty.  The set-up of the story hints at some terrible secret that the entire town is trying to keep quiet, and when Tracy’s character arrives, everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that he is there specifically to position blame.  Aggravatingly, nobody ever stops to ask any questions, instead they stubbornly decide to be vague and confrontational with their dealings with one another.  I’m sure if the towns people ever asked the Macreedy why he was there, they could have saved themselves an awful lot of trouble.  Instead they start trouble almost immediately

As far as the supporting bad guys go, I would have expected more from a cast featuring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, both actors that I really like in other roles.  It wasn’t until the credits that I realized that Lee Marvin was in it, or that he played a fairly prominent character.  The character of Reno played by Robert Ryan was probably the only character I found somewhat interesting, unfortunately he seemed a little under-developed, and lacked any real motivation by the end.

One of it’s most gorgeous attributes, the scenery in which it was filmed, was mis-used as well.  It was rare that we ever saw the panoramic vista’s in which the town was supposedly set.  It’s too bad really, as the location would have given the audience insight into the isolation (both literally as well as the town’s isolation from decency) that each of the people in town was subject to.  The one major theme of the film seemed to be the fact that each character was in one way or another alone, some for their crimes, and in the case of Macreedy, his  isolation from any help or safety.

Unfortunately, this is another film that I’d have to say is just taking up a precious spot on this list that rightfully deserves to go to another film.  While it wasn’t awful, it was by no means one of the greatest films ever made.

P.S.  Although it has nothing to do with Bad Day at Black Rock, I recently watched  film that I thought for the life of me was on this list.  To my dismay, it was not.  To my further dismay, films like Bad Day at Black Rock, are!  The film in question is Peter Bogdanovich’s, Paper Moon starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neil and a “father” and “daughter” team of hucksters, traveling their way across depression era America swindling what they can from whoever they are able to.  It features a performance from the always fantastic Madeline Kahn, and is quite possibly one of the most beautiful looking films I have ever seen.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

FiveEasyPieces

Five Easy Pieces – 1970

Director – Bob Rafelson

Starring – Jack Nicholson and Karen Black

Jack Nicholson has made a career out of playing himself.  He usually does such a good job at playing himself, that I forget he can be restrained and believable as another person.  I was recently reminded of that fact by his rather mellow yet taught performance in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces.  In it, Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, who after dropping off the radar of his high society family spends his time working at a crummy blue collar job, drinking with his friends, and cheating on his girlfriend Rayette, played to the hilt by Karen Black.  He works incredibly hard to sabotage his life every chance he gets, ensuring that no one ever gets to disappoint him except himself.

The tone of the film (and Bobby’s life) is rather bleak, however the look of the film is very warm, and almost comfortable.  As a lot of movies from the seventies do, it has the color of memories that one usually associates with old photographs.  With few exceptions the set pieces seem comfortable, warm and inviting.  Everyone in the scenes seemed to be quite at ease, that is except for Bobby Dupea.  Dupea seemed the most at home when the situation had grown uncomfortable, when he was fighting with Rayette, when he was busy working his shitty job, and when he was alone.  Whenever he was put into a comfortable situation, we could see his squirm.  We would find out later that this was a trend in his life.  His past consists of a series of failed relationships with his family, most notably with his father.  This becomes especially relevant when he learns that his father has suffered from a stroke, and he decides to make the trip home to make peace before he dies.

While he’s home, we glean a bit more into the depths of his motivation, although we never truly get a clear picture.  The fogginess of his reasoning actually serves to help the story by creating a barrier between us, the audience, and Bobby.  That barrier mirrors the barrier that exists with each of the other characters.  We can see the futility of his actions, just as many of the other characters in the story can.  Seemingly the only ones who are unable to recognize his cyclical behavior are Rayette and Bobby himself.  Rayette doesn’t see it because she truly believes that he’ll change, and he just chooses not to see it.

This behavior is cemented in place through his sudden in-ability to communicate with his father.  Once this avenue is closed off, all possibility of the reconciliation that he has been putting off since he left is gone.  All that remains afterwards is the limited connectivity that comes with his seduction of the women in his life.  Some of these are successful (Rayette), and some and some are not (Catherine, his brother’s love interest), but the result is the same either way, he remains lonely.  These fleeting relationships (usually self destructive ones) are completely, emotionally unfulfilling to Bobby.  The only benefit seems to be a physical one.  These moments of connection are so foreign and uncomfortable to Bobby that he reflexively, almost instinctively destroys them by driving them into the ground.

By the end, we have man with no options.  Having spent all of his time burning bridges, he is now exiled with himself.  Five Easy Pieces is a complex movie about an unlikable man struggling with the people who are trying to like him anyway.  To define it is far from easy, yet enjoying it is far from difficult.

“I think there was something about a sandwich in it.” – Ashley