Brando, Magnini, Powell, Pressburger, the deep South, England & India: Saturday night at the PFA

My wife and I attended two screenings at the Pacific Film Archive Saturday night. This was not a double bill.

The Fugitive Kind

The PFA series Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema just keeps rolling along, and now it’s getting into the great Italian actress’ American films. This 1960 drama co-starring Marlon Brando was directed by Sidney Lumet.

Brando plays a drifter and washed-out musician, nicknamed Snakeskin, trying to turn over a new leaf in a small southern town. He’s tired of uneven work, police trouble, and with women throwing themselves at him.

Magnini’s character runs a store owned by her vile, vengeful, and invalid husband. She hires Snakeskin, and her motives aren’t entirely mercantile. Their romance won’t be easy.

Tennessee Williams and Meade Roberts wrote the screenplay, based on Williams’ play Orpheus Descending. Occasional monologs remind you of the story’s theatrical past. Brando starts the film with a near monolog as he answers an unseen judge’s voice. Joanne Woodward, playing a very wild young woman, has an exciting monolog about bar hopping and dancing to juke boxes.

Despite the almost entirely white cast, The Fugitive Kind deals indirectly with the racism one would expect in a small southern town at the beginning of the 1960s (and unfortunately, bubbling up again today). A store that served both black and white customers was burned down years before. And the sheriff makes it clear that to Snakeskin isn’t much better than a…you know the word.

I give The Fugitive Kind an A-.

According to Associate Film Curator Kate MacKay, they screened a 35mm preservation print. When a film is preserved, a brand new negative and print are created from whatever source is available–without the extensive repair work done on a full restoration. The print was certainly workable, but it had more than its share of scratches–probably left over from the source print used to create the preservation.

After the screening, those willing to pay $40 were treated to “a special Anna Magnani–inspired dinner” at Babette. My wife and I chose to skip the dinner and see the next movie.

Black Narcissus

I failed to give this tale of nuns in India its due in the past, giving it only a B when it turned up in my weekly newsletter. I described it as “Not much more than a well-done but silly melodrama.” My previous experience with the movie came from watching it alone on DVD. Theatrically, it’s a whole other experience.

Yes, it’s a melodrama, but so is CasablancaBlack Narcissus tells an intriguing story about a clash of cultures, contrasting the austere life of a convent with the exciting, sensually-rich world of the Himalayas. And it only gets truly silly in the last act, when one of the nuns goes completely bonkers.

Black Narcissus starts the PFA’s series Arrows of Desire: The Films of Powell & Pressburger. With their company named The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collaborated as producers, screenwriters, and directors on 17 films from 1942 through 1956. Their work includes
The Red Shoes
, Stairway to Heaven, and one of my all-time favorites, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

In Black Narcissus, the nuns live in an abandoned fortress high on a cliff–a castle originally built to hold a harem. They intend to bring healthcare and education to the peasants living in the valley below. Sabu plays a young and haughty local ruler. The handsome David Farrar plays the only white man in the film–helpful but cynical about religion. His presence produces problems with two nuns trying to hang onto their vows (Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron). A not-yet-famous Jean Simmons, in brown face, plays an exceptionally sexy but non-speaking native.

You’ve probably already guessed that Black Narcissus has a race problem. Made the same year that India won its independence, it portrays pleasant but immature natives. When Farrar’s character describes them as children, neither the nuns nor the filmmakers object. The Indians represent a simple and yet sexual innocence, without even trying–as the nuns do–to keep their desires in check.

Story wise, the film’s greatest strength comes from the uneasy relationship between the nuns and the secular man who tries to help them. But story was never Powell and Pressburger’s strength; visuals were. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff could work magic with Technicolor’s clumsy but beautiful three-strip process. His lighting and lens choices creates a semi-realistic world where riotous colors fight with repressed grays. Production designer Alfred Junge and costume designer Hein Heckroth helped considerably, as well.

Black Narcissus, set entirely in India, was actually shot in England. And yet you believe every frame (well, almost).

The PFA screened a mouth-wateringly beautiful imported 35mm print. I don’t know if it was IB dye transfer, but I wouldn’t be surprised. With deep colors and almost scratch free, it was the sort of print that reminds one how wonderful physical film projection can be–even while digital projection gets better and better.

One thought on “Brando, Magnini, Powell, Pressburger, the deep South, England & India: Saturday night at the PFA

  1. I saw a bit of “Black Narcissus” on TV a few years back, and was really turned off by the racism and ethnocentrism expressed by the nuns. They treat the man called “Black Narcissus” in a very demeaning way. There is an underlying assumption about the obvious and tremendous superiority of European culture. It’s a unpleasant reflection of the point of view of the movie makers, I presume.

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