These two films make fascinating companions, mostly for their similarities but for a few differences too. The differences are plain to see — a black-and-white American film about a businessman’s wife vs. a Technicolor British film about nuns. The similarities, on the other hand, get at the deeper thematic content of these stories — the hubris of imperialistic whites in Asia, the inner lives of women, the correlation between sex and violence. Cautionary tales, the both of them, in addition to being exquisitely beautiful pieces of cinema.
The story in William Wyler’s noir-ish melodrama The Letter, based on the W. Somerset Maugham play, revolves around a trial for murder. Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) has shot and killed a man. Her defense: that he had tried to sexually assault her. The case seems simple enough until the victim’s widow reveals the existence of a letter indicating that Leslie, a married woman, was in love with the man. At this point the film shines a light on a web of deceit and antagonism. The plot from then on is powered by the seething rage of various characters.
There are a couple layers to peel back before we reach the most subversive aspects of this story, which makes sense considering The Letter is a Hollywood film from the 1940s. What might appear to modern eyes at first blush to be racism and sexism turn out to be much more complicated if the film is looked at more closely. The “civilized” whites are the protagonists and the Asian characters antagonize them through duplicity, greed, and even violence. Additionally, the film seems quick to assert that a woman who narrowly avoids being attacked may have been “asking for it.” But there’s a lot more going on in the background. As Farran Nehme, blogging as the Self-Styled Siren, pointed out, the Asians are actually doing more to see that justice is done than the whites are. Are their motives 100% pure? No. But whose are? As for the film’s treatment of women: Leslie is a much more active and powerful character than a mere scapegoat would be. The essence of drama is that issues turn out to be thornier than they at first appear. To some extent, one can predict how a Production Code-authorized “Hollywood ending” will play out, but there is certainly room for multivalent responses here.
On display in this film are elegant and efficient camera movement; excellent use of shadows to encage Leslie; and a performance from Davis that is both passionate and controlled. James Stephenson (as Leslie’s lawyer), Herbert Marshall (as her husband), and Sen Yung (as the lawyer’s clerk who, for a price, negotiates to have the letter suppressed) all contribute fine performances as well. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but came home empty.
If the white characters in The Letter intended to bring capitalism to Asia (via rubber plantations), then in Black Narcissus the intended civilizing force is Christianity. A group of nuns arrive at a former harem in the Himalayas in the hopes of turning it into a hospital and school. But the isolation, constant strong winds atop the mountain, and culture clash throw this plan off-kilter. The repressed nuns begin to find themselves more on the receiving end of influence than the giving end. One of them in particular has been unstable from the start and may be on the verge of a breakdown.
Historically speaking, what we see here is the end of the British Raj, the waning cultural and political influence of Britain on India. The Asian characters are much more passive to the plot of Black Narcissus than they were in The Letter. In fact, they are an immovable object, while the nuns fancy themselves to be an irresistible force. The danger of hubris comes through much more strongly in this film than in The Letter. At one point, the main character, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), even starts to say “Nothing’s impossible” before being interrupted. When the sisters learn that a group of monks had attempted the same objective and failed, they take it as a challenge rather than a warning. Sexual repression turns out to be their Achilles’ heel; desires that had been merely bottled up await an opportunity to rise to the surface again.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, aided immensely by cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s eye-popping colors, made an absolutely gorgeous film, one in which subtle changes in mood manage to make the story’s outrageous, terrifying ending feel completely right. I will say no more about that ending. Even if it’s impossible to spoil a 67-year-old film, my first experience with it was so galvanic that I want to do all I can to help others experience it the same way. I’ve probably said too much already. All that aside, this film contains one breathtaking shot after another, including some of the most effective Dutch angles that I’ve ever encountered — effective because they are psychologically fraught and used sparingly. This film won Oscars in both of the categories for which it was nominated (Cinematography and Art Direction).
A woman caged in shadows, and nuns on the edge of a cliff. These are unforgettable images, the kind of visual shorthand that great movies so often use. The most incredible thing about them is how they inspire us to sympathize with the characters even while acknowledging that they may be in the wrong. Our response to these films can be even more complicated than that. Progressive as they were in their refusal to be triumphalist about the spread of Western civilization, they are also definitely products of the 40s. As we’ve already seen, the white characters are protagonists by default. Also, each film features one or more white actors wearing makeup to play a character of a different race. However, lest we simply condemn a previous generation as unenlightened, it’s worth noting that the sublimation of sexuality in both films ultimately works to their benefit, contributing mightily to the portrayal of repressed urges in dire need of a healthy outlet of expression. When no such outlet is available, violence begins to look like the answer. And the gulf between the civilized and the savage looks a lot smaller.