She is best remembered for completely losing it as Sister Ruth, the nun sexually obsessed with David Farrar's Mr. Dean in Powell and Pressburger's 1947's Black Narcissus. The problem with the part, Powell told her, was that she'd "never have such a good one again." Another problem Powell didn't mention, but which she no doubt could have intuited, is that it would wind up getting her typecast as various and sundry "bad girls" throughout the "quota quickies" era of British filmmaking. But the Archers knew her range, and they cast her, again opposite Farrar, in quite a different role for their 1949 wartime thriller The Small Back Room, a shot from which is seen above. In this film she plays Susan, the stalwart love of Farrar's Sammy, a bomb expert struggling with alcoholism and feelings of inadequacy stemming from the loss of a leg. The film's portrayal of a strong, loving couple trying to come to terms with forces that threaten to tear them apart is one of the most nuanced and sympathetic in perhaps all of cinema. It's odd to see such a portrayal in a putative genre film...but hardly unexpected, on the other hand, to see it in a Powell/Pressburger one. Byron's performance here is as much a marvel as her work in Narcissus, her human warmth only just masking—or rather, I should say, beautifully blending in with—a full-blooded sensuality.
It would seem she had an abundance of both in real life; in the second half of Powell's autobiography the director makes a fleeting reference to her confronting him with a gun whilst entirely naked. Byron pooh-poohed the story in an entirely delightful fashion: "If I'd wanted to shoot him I certainly wouldn't have taken my clothes off first."
Either way: a woman you might not mind having a gun pulled on you by, and a truly memorable performer, Byron died yesterday at 88.