In celebration of the birthday of director Michael Powell (1905-1990) today, I’d like to share with you this clip from Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 color masterpiece, Black Narcissus, a story of spirituality, sexuality, and madness set in the exotic Himalayas. Note in particular the many similarities to the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo made almost a dozen years later – the moving camera P.O.V. shots, the nuns, the chapel, the vertiginous wooden staircase, the church bell that dominates the composition of the last few frames, and the suspense created when we realize that one or more of the characters (Powell discoveries Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron, below, both playing nuns) is about to fall from a very great height. Earlier in the film, the screen turns red to communicate the Byron character’s encroaching insanity, an effect that foreshadows Marnie.
Hitchcock and Powell were buddies. Powell had been a still photographer working on Hitchcock’s sets in the 1920s. Both were English directors with a taste for Germanic expressionism. In the mid-40s, when Powell was about to make A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven), Powell asked Hitchcock if he could recommend an American actress to play the female lead, and Hitchcock suggested Kim Hunter, whom Powell cast.
Folks who complain when other directors, e.g., Brian De Palma, borrow from Hitchcock seem to forget that Hitchcock was one of the biggest borrowers in film history – always, of course, adding his own personal stamp to what he borrowed. Hitchcock borrowed from Welles, Lang, Powell, and many others. They, in turn, borrowed from Hitchcock. As additional evidence of the admiration/envy that Hitch seems to have felt toward Black Narcissus, note that at the end of the ’40s, when Hitchcock was about to shoot his most ambitious color project to date, Under Capricorn (another melodrama set in an exotic land), he hired Powell’s Black Narcissus cinematographer, Jack Cardiff.