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Black Narcissus (DVD)

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In his memoir A Life In Movies, the late British director Michael Powell explained that after WWII, he became interested in the concept of the "composed film," and began shaping his pictures to have the abstract emotional resonance of great music, rather than the plainness of narrative. His first clear nod in that direction was 1947's Black Narcissus, a spiritual melodrama that climaxes in an exaggerated incident of violence which Powell assembled, he writes, as "an opera, in the sense that music, emotion, image, and voices all blended together into a new and splendid whole." Black Narcissus was the 11th collaboration between Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, and the sixth of 12 films that the men would release under the production credit "The Archers." It remains a rapturous, near-indescribable work of cinematic art, spun from a simple story about nuns who travel to the Himalayas to start a school and a hospital, only to have mountain winds and native mysticism weaken their confidence and their faith. The title refers to an exotic perfume that clouds the air around their mission, redirecting the thoughts of the mother superior (Deborah Kerr) to the sensuous world she meant to leave behind. Black Narcissus has been preserved in a crackerjack DVD edition by Criterion, which kept its earlier laserdisc's 10-year-old commentary track by Archers fan Martin Scorsese and an enfeebled but cogent Powell. Also noteworthy is a 30-minute excerpt from a documentary about cinematographer Jack Cardiff, detailing the effort and artistry behind the film's astonishing color. Black Narcissus is Criterion's third Powell film on DVD, trailing equally essential packages for The Red Shoes (1948) and Peeping Tom (1960). Right on its heels, Criterion has issued The Archers' 1945 feature I Know Where I'm Going!, while their 1951 film Tales Of Hoffman will be added in a few months. I Know Where I'm Going!, a low-key romantic comedy, is a lesser-known but in some ways even more striking film than Black Narcissus. It stars Wendy Hiller as a headstrong middle-class woman who travels to a remote Scottish island to marry a wealthy industrialist, but is distracted by down-to-earth naval officer Roger Livesey. The film isn't as deep or ambitious as some of the Powell-Pressburger films that followed, but it's still a delightful love story, blessed with attractive leads, lovely locations, and witty dialogue. Easily the equal of any contemporaneous Hollywood romance, Where I'm Going features an underlying motif of eschewing materialism for more sublime pleasures—driven home by Livesey's classic line, "They're not poor, they just haven't any money." The theme is underlined by Criterion's generous helping of featurettes, which all draw from the dewy-eyed reminiscences of a cult fan base that continues to respond to the film without exactly knowing why. Just as Powell intended.