I haven’t seen the ITV Blu-ray for Black Narcissus, though Criterion looks to have used the same high-def transfer found on there (judging by the credits anyways.) The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this dual-layer Blu-ray disc and in 1080p/24hz.
Like I did with The Red Shoes I revisited Criterion’s original DVD for Black Narcissus to see how it holds up and I was quite disappointed. Where The Red Shoes actually wasn’t as bad as I recall (though don’t get me wrong, their original DVD for that film is still quite bad) their DVD for Black Narcissus is quite a bit worse than I recalled, loaded with plenty of artifacts like noise, pixilation, and edge-enhancement, plus a print that’s showing its age. The transfer on this Blu-ray edition does improve over that old edition substantially. Not only are the materials used virtually spotless (and some of the pulsating noticeable in the original DVD is now gone,) but the digital transfer is as sharp and crisp as can possibly be. Details in close-ups are incredible, especially on some of the actors’ faces. Grain is visible but not all that noticeable, and despite some minor moments where colour separation is visible colours are beautifully rendered here, keeping their glorious Technicolor look; the shot where Byron’s Sister Ruth applies the red lipstick is particularly striking.
Those that did the restoration should be commended. It looks absolutely wonderful, and it’s certainly the best I’ve seen the film on home video. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Again, like with their new Blu-ray for The Red Shoes, Criterion has not moved everything over from the original DVD, but unlike The Red Shoes where the general feature was there, just missing a couple of items within it, Criterion has omitted an entire supplement entirely, which had some good material.
Making it, though, is the original audio commentary featuring Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell, which was recorded in 1988 for the original Criterion laserdisc for the film. The two have unfortunately been recorded separately (common during Criterion’s laserdisc days and early DVD days) with Criterion editing it together. Powell, as expected, recalls the filming and the more technical aspects of the film, commenting on the actors and the crew, particularly actresses Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron, as well as director of photography Jack Cardiff. Scorsese on the other hand offers a more analytical element to the track. The films of Powell and Pressburger have been an enormous influence over his films, and he talks about all the things he finds wonderful and striking about this film and all of their films in general. Though dead spaces become more frequent during the last 30-minutes or so of the track, it’s fairly packed and quite illuminating, certainly worth listening to, or even worth revisiting if you’ve already heard it before.
New to this edition (though made for another BD/DVD edition) is an introduction by filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, running about 9-minutes or so. It has a bit of an obnoxious set-up (with a quick cut to the Archer’s Productions logo with the arrow hitting the target with the introduction of a new subject) is a decent little piece, though I can’t say I would have been too sad if it was excluded since it actually repeats a lot of material already found elsewhere here. But quickly, Tavernier, in voice-over over stills and clips, talks about various aspects of the production, from adaptation of the novel to the cinematography by Cardiff to the eroticism, actors, and eventually the actual restoration of the film used for whatever DVD/BD this feature originally appeared on (which could also be referring to the transfer found on here.) Since the material is covered elsewhere it’s skippable, but a decent crash course on the film.
Next is The Audacious Adventurer, which is an onscreen interview with Tavernier recalling stories about the film’s production that I assume were shared with him by Michael Powell, lasting about 17-minutes. He talks about the genesis of the project, which was delayed until after the war, the decision to shoot solely in studio at Pinewood (the feeling was if they shot in a studio and on location that the sequences possibly wouldn’t work together and wouldn’t create a “visual unity”) and even brings up a battle Powell had with Laurence Olivier over casting Jean Simmons, who was under contract to appear in Olivier’s adaptation of Hamlet. There’s some decent material here not covered in other areas of the disc making it worthwhile.
Criterion also includes a 25-minute documentary on the making of the film called Profile of Black Narcissus, featuring interviews with cinematographer Jack Cardiff, cameraman Christopher Challis, assistant editor Noreen Ackland, historian Ian Christie, and actress Kathleen Byron. It’s a general talking-heads piece with a few photos and clips covering the film’s production, with material on the adaptation, the sets (with photos that do show impressive the illusion of the setting was,) the decision to shoot on a set (you can sense there was some disappointment when everyone when everyone found out they weren’t actually going to go to India,) and the actors. Of the first few video features on here I’d at least recommend watching this one as it covers the production a little better.
What is certainly necessary viewing is the next one, carried over from the previous DVD edition. Painting with Light is a 27-minute documentary on Jack Cardiff and his Academy Award winning photography for the film. Featuring interviews with Cardiff, Martin Scorsese, Kathleen Byron, Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, Ian Christie, and others, the feature extensively covers Cardiff’s use of light and the Technicolor process, even giving us some great examples and demonstrations as to how Technicolor works, which includes breaking down how the camera works. Cardiff talks about some painters that have influenced his work (Rembrandt and Van Gogh just being a couple) and Byron attributes at least half of her performance to Cardiff’s use of lighting. It’s a great piece, though disappointingly hasn’t been reframed for high-def, with a black border around the entire image most of the time (though sequences from the film are presented properly.)
The disc then concludes with the same theatrical trailer found on the original DVD.
Missing is the photo gallery from the original DVD, which included production photos and behind-the-scenes photos, along with stills from deleted sequences. Why this wasn’t carried over I can’t say, especially since the photos are credited to the Powell estate and the photos from the original DVD for The Red Shoes were mostly carried over to the new Blu-ray.
The booklet includes a decent essay by Kent Jones, though for whatever reason Criterion didn’t carry over the short essay by David Kehr found in the insert of the original DVD.
A nice edition but the best features on here are still the ones that were found on the original DVD. The new doc is nice but the rest of the new material feels a little repetitive. 7/10