What’s the greatest movie duel you’ve seen? Is it Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, apprentice versus master, in Star Wars? Perhaps it’s Keanu Reeves' reality-bending martial arts fight with Agent Smith in The Matrix. Or maybe it’s the elaborate, operatic showdown between Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time In The West.
While all those movies have their merit, none comes close to the dramatic intensity of the duel in Black Narcissus (1947). It features no guns or kung-fu. No-one even throws a punch. It's just two nuns sitting in a room looking at each other.
The film tells the story of a small group of god botherers sent to the Himalayas to establish a missionary in a remote village. They set-up their convent in an old, abandoned palace that locals say was once home to a harem.
But the straitlaced nuns slowly find their prim spiritual resolve dissolving. Seduced by a mysterious, never defined, exotic Eastern force – characters variously blame the wind and the old palace – their minds become occupied by more temporal and carnal concerns.
This takes human form in the shape of Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a British ex-pat working in the area as a trader. He becomes the forbidden object of desire for Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron).
Slowly, a mentally destructive jealousy begins to consume Ruth (which eventually sends her mad). She believes that Clodagh is using her position as the head of the mission to inveigle herself into Mr. Dean’s affections. And it’s the scene where these tensions finally burst forth that I’ve chosen as my favourite.
In this supercharged sequence Clodagh confronts Ruth about her decision to leave the order (in a doomed attempt to pursue Mr. Dean). For the first time – a shocking moment in the context of the film - we see Ruth dressed in something other than her plain nun’s habit. Ruth’s change in costume symbolising the surfacing of her long suppressed sexuality. For Clodagh it is a threat, representing the part of her character that she’s struggling to control.
The air crackles with an almost delirious combination of sex and madness during their tense and bizarre showdown. Ruth is almost like a wild animal. Prowling the room, her crumbling psyche flickers across her face.
Clodagh tries to persuade Ruth not to leave the order. A plea she answers by provocatively applying lipstick with a languid trance-like precision, her vacant intensity creating an unsettling atmosphere. Seemingly in fear, Clodagh picks up her bible almost as if it’s a shield against Ruth’s unhinged sexuality.
The giddy, emotional intensity is heightened by the superb score by Brian Easdale (who a year later would win an Oscar for his soundtrack to another Powell & Pressburger film, The Red Shoes). But what really lends the scene its power is the masterful lighting and photography by Jack Cardiff.
Rarely has colour photography either before or since looked so beautiful. Pause the scene at any moment and you could hang stills of Kerr and Byron’s exquisitely framed and lit faces on the walls of a portrait gallery.
The use of close-up in this sequence is sensational. The image as Byron applies her lipstick and the camera slowly pans up to her eyes sears itself into your memory. I’ve never seen such a simple gesture convey such a malevolent threat.
For his work in this film, Cardiff won the Oscar for best cinematography in 1948. As did Alfred Junge for his art direction.
Nearly 70 years on, it remains a startling scene and has lost none of its dramatic power.
What's your favorite scene from Black Narcissus?