Reviewing Criterion’s ‘Black Narcissus’ and ‘The Red Shoes’ On Blu-ray

Photo: Criterion Collection

Just how good is the color in Black Narcissus? I was showing an online clip of it to a friend and without me saying a word about the film they said, “Well they’ve obviously done something to it.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. “This was released in 1947?” they asked. I said, “Yes,” and they said, “Well they didn’t have color like that in 1947!” I couldn’t think of a more appropriate endorsement of cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s work on this film and the colors directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were able to present with films such as Black Narcissus in ’47 and The Red Shoes in ’48. Best of all, this was a statement made based on watching a compressed online Flash-based video. Now imagine what the reaction would be to Criterion’s newly released Blu-ray editions.

The Red Shoes was first released on Criterion DVD in 1999 and Black Narcissus a couple of years later. (The latter was not well received.) Both films have recently been restored, with The Red Shoes making an appearance at Cannes in 2009 with a highly publicized restoration and a worldwide tour thereafter… and it shows.

Actually, the extensive restoration The Red Shoes enjoys is noticeable when compared to Black Narcissus. While both presentations are spectacular there is one primary difference, the color pulsation that can occasionally be seen in the Black Narcissus release when viewing the nuns’ oatmeal colored nun’s habit. In many scenes the color will seem to pulse with quick glances of light blue and/or yellow. Scorsese, in a restoration featurette accompanying The Red Shoes, refers to this as the color “breathing” and says it may be as a result of “uneven development and chemical staining.” The problem is corrected on The Red Shoes, but Black Narcissus hasn’t enjoyed a similar restoration. It still looks phenomenal, and much better than the 2001 DVD edition, but it’s noticeable enough it deserves mention.

Only recently did I see either of these films, The Red Shoes earlier this year and Narcissus last year. Personally I see the fascination with The Red Shoes as a major technical achievement, but as a film it doesn’t move me nearly as much as Black Narcissus, which is a film I could watch on loop.

Photo: Criterion Collection

Red Shoes follows an ambitious dancer and a decision she is forced to make between her love of dancing and her new found love for the young composer and conductor of the ballet that’s made her famous… “The Red Shoes.” Love, business, ambition and passion all collide and it’s a film that’s inspired several directors, but as you’ll see with both of these releases Martin Scorsese is perhaps the biggest champion of each. Scorsese’s longtime editor, and Michael Powell’s widow, Thelma Schoonmaker Powell even discusses in a new interview featurette Scorsese’s homage to The Red Shoes in Shutter Island. If you’ve seen both films I’m sure you already know what she’s referring to, even if you didn’t notice it when you saw Shutter Island earlier this year.

As for my problem with The Red Shoes, it primarily centers on the portion of the film hailed by many, the ballet. I compare this sequence in the film to the finale of Singing in the Rain. In my opinion both are too long and bring their respective movies down a notch. The difference with The Red Shoes being the piece comes midway through the film causing me to have to re-energize for the third act, and while I do come around, it takes a while to restart the engine.

However, I have no such problem with Black Narcissus, a film about a group of nuns who head into a palace in the Himalayas to start a school for the natives. Soon the solitude drives them to drastic measures in an erotic thriller centered on the most unlikely of characters. Given the genesis of the story there are hints of what’s to come, but the first time I saw this movie I was floored by where it ended up going.

In terms of features for these two releases both carry the same supplements as their previous DVD releases as well as some new features, though Red Shoes is certainly the release with the largest amount of new content.

The prominent feature with Narcissus remains to be the Scorsese and Powell commentary, which I’m sure most DVD enthusiasts know of and I even recently heard Alex Proyas reference it at the opening of his commentary track for the Dark City (Director’s Cut). I would say this is probably considered one of the absolute best audio commentaries out there and at the very least you owe it to yourself to listen to it at least once.

Along with the rest of the features carried over from the DVD, there are two new features with director Bertrand Tavernier. The first being a short, nine-minute introduction to the film and the second is a full, 18-minute interview featurette in which he expands on what he discussed in the introduction. Neither did much for me and I’d say the overall reason to pick up this disc remains the movie itself, which now looks better than ever despite the color “breathing” I mentioned earlier and the commentary for the newcomers. It would also be a crime not to mention the 26-minute “Painting with Light” documentary on Jack Cardiff’s Oscar-winning work, it’s an excellent introduction to the recently deceased cinematographer.

As for The Red Shoes, along with the collection of featurettes from the ’99 release you get a series of new supplements. Here’s a list for faster digestion:

  • Restoration Featurette: Scorsese guides a visual tour highlighting the process of restoring The Red Shoes. I always find these fascinating and this one doesn’t disappoint.
  • Audio Commentary: This is one of those pieced together commentaries made up of interview nuggets guided by film historian Ian Christie and including the voices of stars Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, composer Brian Easdale and Scorsese.
  • Profile of The Red Shoes: A 26-minute featurette taking a behind-the scenes look at the making of the film. It was made in 2000 and features some relatively up-to-date interviews.
  • Interview with Thelma Schoonmaker Powell: I mentioned this earlier and perhaps it’s one of the better additions to this release. It runs almost 15 minutes and Schoonmaker always proves to be a smart and informative interview, just check out the special edition of Raging Bull for further proof. She also lets loose the current plans to restore The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp so be on the lookout for that Blu-ray in what will probably be about two years.

These features are obviously bonuses improving on the worth of this release, but after watching the restoration featurette, if you have seen this film before and have yet to see the restored version you will be blown away. The restored image is the major bonus here and it’s well worth the fuss that’s been made over it.

My personal exploration into the work of Powell and Pressburger has been relatively short with a lot of room to grow, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen along the way, which includes other films such as Peeping Tom and 49th Parallel.

I may not fawn all over The Red Shoes like many others do, but I do recognize it as a technical marvel in moviemaking and can understand why it serves as inspiration to so many directors. However, Black Narcissus is one I will go through my life championing, as if you couldn’t already tell by the “trailer I recently made for the film and have included at the bottom of this article. The sheer menace found in Narcissus is glorious and the characters that bring it to life in the story only make it that much better.

Both The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus are now available on DVD and Blu-ray, so click here to add one or both to your collection.

For a visual comparison of DVD to Blu-ray screen captures you can visit here for The Red Shoes and here for Black Narcissus.