A true measure of a great film is that you love it despite its subject matter and not because of it. I have never been to a ballet, I have no particular desire to go to see a ballet and yet I not only love The Red Shoes but actually believe it is one of the best films ever made. Orson Welles commented many times on how he learnt to make movies by watching Stagecoach, not a bad schooling! There are a lot of filmmakers around these days who could learn a lot from The Red Shoes. Although not the same connection, Martin Scorsese who seems to learn from everything he sees ranks it among his favourite films (check out the spiral staircase scene in Shutter Island, if that isn‘t a homage I don‘t know what is!). Scorsese was also a personal friend of Michael Powell and introduced him to his (third) wife Thelma Schoonmaker (yes that Thelma Schoonmaker, three time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker).
I remember discussing Michael Powell when I was a student, the people I was talking with couldn’t understand how the director responsible for Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) went on to make the controversial Peeping Tom (1960). They looked at me as if I had three heads when I tried to explain that Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes are far darker and more disturbing films than Peeping Tom. I digress let’s get on with a brief synopsis: Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is a Svengali like ballet producer and impresario. Following a performance he hires a new ballerina Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) and student who wants to be a composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). When the prima ballerina quits to get married it presents an opportunity for both Vicky and Julian. After their first ballet is a hit Vicky and Julian fall in love, this puts them on a collision course with Lermontov. There is no way this can end well.Written and directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger and shot by legendry cinematographer Jack Cardiff, to call it beautiful would be a huge understatement. It is during the twenty minute dance/fantasy at the heart of the movie that the visual style comes into its own, it is nothing short of stunning. Joan of Arc (1948) is a well shot movie but the fact Cardiff didn’t win (he wasn‘t even nominated) an Oscar is virtually criminal; he had won one the year before for Black Narcissus. The story is loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, the geniuses of its construction is the way the same fairy tale is the subject of the ballet at the centre of the movie without feeling contrived. This plot is very simple on the surface but is multilayered and brimming with subtle (and not so subtle) symbolism.
The reason it works and has appeal beyond any genre you want to pigeonhole it into is that it isn’t about dance or music, it is about people. People, their relationships, their faults, foibles and their insecurities. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of the characters aren’t particularly likeable, if anything it actually makes their journey more interesting. To make this work is a perfect symbiosis of acting and direction helped by sublime casting. Marius Goring plays the mercurial Julian Craster brilliantly. Anton Walbrook’s Boris Lermontov cement that holds the movie together but it is the casting of Moira Shearer that is so important. Vicky Page is the heart of the story when casting the directors were looking for a ballerina who could act and not an actress who could dance. Originally reluctant to take the part, who would have thought Moira Shearer’s performance would be so good and surprisingly nuanced. Starting with the characters at arms length and moving closer to them as the story unfolds gives a feeling of getting to know them.
Made in 1948 during the austere post war years the bold use of colour elevates the visuals at a time when most other British movies were still black and white. I love black and white but this movie needs to be colour. Shot with the Three Strip Technicolor process that had been around for years but only perfected in the 40’s the visuals and the contrast are amazing and put many modern movies to shame, it is considered by some to be the finest example of the Technicolor process thanks in no small part to Cardiff who threw the rule book out and did it his way. There is nothing wrong with directors like Baz Luhrmann but there isn’t a great deal they do now visually that this movie hadn’t already done over sixty years ago. A brief technical note, the film recently underwent a complete restoration using the original negatives, the result of fundraising by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. If you haven’t seen the movie recently check out a DVD or blu-ray copy or even better if you are lucky enough, I believe there are a few 35mm prints kicking around although they haven’t reached a cinema near me yet. It is a visual treat you won’t forget in a hurry.
Strangely not that well known, a bit like the works of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman there are many people who are aware of it but haven’t seen it. To put it in prospective how much this film is under appreciated, despite a rating of over 8 out of 10 on IMDB it doesn’t make it to their top 250. It losses out with their formula as it has received less than 8,000 votes. To put this into prospective Toy Story 3 received more than 25,000 votes within two weeks of its American release and top rated The Shawshank Redemption (1994) has nearly half a million votes.
So if you haven’t seen this masterpiece go and rent the DVD but don’t take my word for it Phil On Film selected it as one of his desert island picks. Meaning if he only had eight films to wtch over and over again for the forseable future this would be one of them. This is that he had to say about it:
“Now more than ever, this is an essential picture. Seeing the breathtaking new restoration was one of my cinema highlights of 2009, and the spellbinding new Blu Ray disc is an utter dream. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is the finest use of Technicolor imaginable, and the imagination displayed in Powell and Pressburger’s direction of this ballet melodrama never ceases to amaze. The whole film is wonderful, but I’d be happy just to have that extraordinary central dance sequence, which is unquestionably one of the greatest artistic achievements in the history of cinema. A truly extraordinary work of art.”
And finally hanks to the Mad Hatter from The Dark of the Matinee whose mention of this movie a few months ago reminded me that I hadn’t seen it for over a decade. By the way I still haven’t seen the other Red Shoes yet.