Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Set Design - Black Narcissus ( 1947 )

Set high in the mountains, surrounded by the majestic Himalayas, stands the Convent of St. Faith, a rugged retreat for a group of English Angelican nuns. It was originally the Palace of Mopu, built for one of Calcutta's most extravagant generals. It was constructed solely as a housing for the general's numerous concubines. At first the nuns are happy to be given such a grand palace in order to establish their new school and hospital, but as the weeks - and then the months - slowly pass on, they find that India, and the palace in particular, reawaken their stifled passions.

Black Narcissus was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's stunningly beautiful psychological masterpiece. It was the eleventh collaboration the director and screenwriter had worked together on and only their third film in Technicolor. 

Deborah Kerr, who was featured in three roles in Powell/Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, returned to the Archers studio as the lead character, Sister Clodagh, in Black Narcissus. The marvelous Kathleen Byron, an Archer regular, plays one of the most mesmerizing characters in the film - the unstable Sister Ruth. Flora Robson, David Farrer ( another favorite of Powell's ), Jean Simmons and Sabu rounded out the stellar cast. 

Behind the scenes we see some of Britain's top talent in their tip-top form : Jack Cardiff painted with all the colors of the rainbow in his beautiful cinematography of the film; Brian Easdale created a marvelous score; editor Reginald Mills was a wizard with the scissors; and best of all...Alfred Junge transported us to the very heart of mysterious Calcutta with his extraordinary set designs. 

It is Alfred Junge's work that we wish to spotlight in this post, although all of the elements in the film worked together extremely well and no one person could get credit for making Black Narcissus the masterpiece that it is. 

Junge was a German production designer who worked for UFA from the early-mid 1920s up until the 1930s when he moved to Britain and worked at Gaumont-British, and later for MGM on their British productions. In 1939, he went to the Archers studio to do work on Contraband, one of Powell/Pressburger's first spy thrillers and enjoyed the experience so much that he created sets for the next eight Powell/Pressburger films. 

Junge began work on Black Narcissus in early 1946. The war had just ended and color film was no longer in shortage, as it had been when Powell/Pressburger filmed I Know Where I'm Going ( 1945 ). Most of the following production stills and sketches were created between Feb. 23, 1946 -May 3, 1946. 

The scaffolding holding up the Palace of Mopu
The Palace with the "Himalyan mountains" seen in the distance

Junge's talent is best demonstrated in the fact that not one of the principal actors ever set foot in India. In fact, the entire Palace of Mopu was constructed and filmed at Pinewood.  Junge's fleet of talented designers included six draughtsmen, three sketch artists, three set dressers, three scenic artists, and one outside buyer. 

Matte paintings and painted backdrops provided the views of the Himalayas and clever filming angles by Jack Cardiff helped convince the audience that the palace was high atop the mountains, perched precariously on a cliff. 

Matte paintings are a technique that are no longer being used in the film industry but during the 1940s-1970s were used extensively in science fiction films and "on location" movies. The technique is quite simple and just involves placing a large sheet of glass between the camera and the scene being filmed. This glass is then painted with the view needed. 

Huge cycloramas surrounding the Palace set at Pinewood were painted with mountain scenery and tilted at an angle in order to be lit by natural sunlight. 

Many of the other backdrops used in Black Narcissus were enlarged black and white photographs which the scenic artists color tinted with pastel chalks. It gave the film a marvelously exotic coloring. Jack Cardiff was a great admirer of 17th century Dutch painter Vermeer and created the color palette and lighting of Black Narcissus to evoke the sense of a fine painting. 

A miniature model of the convent was filmed for the opening shots to save on costs, while the interior shots and the grounds directly outside of the convent were filmed on the Palace set.

Junge was a gifted sketch artist, and Michael Powell greatly appreciated his talent in bringing the atmosphere of a picture to life on paper, months before production even began. The set decorators adhered faithfully to his sketches and his detailed purchasing lists and you can see how accurately the final film resembled his initial sketches. 

Leonardslee gardens, once belonging to a retired colonial army officer, served as the valley below Mopu during the scenes involving Sabu, and for the closing sequences. The lush tropical gardens perfectly mimicked the kind of gardens one would expect to find in India. Today, the grounds are temporarily closed to the public but plan on being reopened in the near future. They are apart of the National Trust and are located in Horsham, West Sussex. 

Alfred Junge was never one to let any minute detail go by as "good enough"...each and every object and intricate carving within the convent walls was meticulously crafted according to traditional designs. Throughout the palace are many beautiful hand-painted murals as well. 

Alfred Junge received the Academy Award for Best Art Direction for his work on Black Narcissus which sadly was the only award he received for the film and the only Oscar he ever won. When filming wrapped on Black Narcissus, Deborah Kerr gave him an autographed photo of herself with the inscription, " To Alfred Junge, of all art directors the most brilliant ". We won't disagree with Ms. Kerr. 


  1. Truly awe inspiring work from Mr. Junge. The art of the cinema at its very best.

  2. Amazing matte paintings in the film by renowned artists W. Percy Day, Arthur Day, Tom Day and Peter Ellenshaw.