On the restored glory of Powell and Pressburger’s rapture in ballet.
Fourteen months after its triumphant restoration dazzled Cannes Film Festival audiences, The Red Shoes arrives in New Zealand with a spring in its step. Revitalised courtesy of a digitally remastered print by the UCLA Film and Television Archive (with funding raised by the Film Foundation and Martin Scorsese, whose boundless enthusiasm for cinema never goes unnoticed), the film’s resplendent imagery has been sharpened and illuminated for generations to come—a future-proofing of sorts to preserve its excellence and keep pace with the high definition age. I’ve witnessed the stunning restoration on DVD, yet there can be no comparison: The Red Shoes on the big screen is a must-see, a matter of life and death for some, and our most anticipated date at the New Zealand International Film Festival this year.
Granted, that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece should require rescuing at all is a little hard to accept at first—canonised as the greatest dance musical of all-time, if not the finest Technicolor picture ever made, The Red Shoes has always seemed immortal. Whether viewed as a 16mm Film Society projection, on bygone VHS, the TCM channel, or one of numerous DVD editions available (a recent Criterion reissue harnesses this restoration; local collectors must settle for owning it as part of a cut-price ‘three-pack’), the film’s rapture remains intense; its power to transcend a crummy television set undiminished 62 years on. For all the enduring qualities of The Red Shoes though, there’s no denying a facelift wouldn’t go amiss, and beyond the obvious benefits of refurbishment, there’s something very necessary about its revival for the cinema—an enormous gesture, in this ludicrous era of 3-D and Blu-Ray fetishism, towards the elevation of film greats to their rightful, theatrical throne.
“Facelift”, admittedly, gives a rather inadequate sketch of the painstaking and extensive work that has gone into rejuvenating The Red Shoes—the assignment involving over 500,000 individual frames scanned at high-resolution from surviving negatives, and then outsourced to a legion of digital retouchers in India! A British landmark dismissed upon its premiere and denied proper distribution, it eventually found its feet Stateside where it stayed in circulation for years. It is, somewhat uninvitingly, a movie about ballet, one so singular it outgrew its niche in budding ballerinas and the indifference of critics and naysayers—the outstanding cinematographer Jack Cardiff included, who when asked by Michael Powell what he thought of the classical dance form, replied “Not much, all those sissies prancing about.”
Those sissies—leading contemporary dancers Leonide Massine, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tcherina, and the ravishing Moira Shearer—combined to deliver not only the film’s mesmerizing centrepiece, but a backstage musical flush with the passion of artistic obsession. The charismatic Anton Walbrook, also memorable in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (the next Archers picture earmarked for restoration), plays the uncompromising Boris Lermantov—surely one of Pressburger’s most haunting creations as a scriptwriter—whose ballet company mounts a star-making production for Shearer’s prima ballerina, Victoria Page. The heroine’s eventual demise, mirroring the legend of the possessed shoes, finds her torn irreconcilably between love and art—the final, moving scenes wrenching tragedy from beneath the film’s blushing, full-blooded romanticism.
The likes of Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola acknowledge The Red Shoes as among their key influences not only for its vibrant aesthetic and intoxicating colour palette, but just as predictably, its devotion to authorship and the creative pursuit. The Lermantov character—Svengali-esque in temperament, the ultimate example of an auteur—is a figure they clearly identify with, and it is no surprise the impresario overshadows all other personalities in the film. Julian Craster, played by the weaselly Marcus Goring, earns the least sympathy as the upstart composer, his relationship with Ms. Page prematurely halting the ballerina’s success. Moira Shearer, on the other hand, is simply irresistible as the doomed ingénue: flaming red hair, breathless on the pirouette (complemented by heady whip-pans of the camera), striking in dramatic close-up. To the astonishment of some, she would later deride The Red Shoes—the film ironically hindered her dance career thereafter—yet returned to make The Tales of Hoffman (1951, arguably the more enterprising of The Archers’ ballet projects), and much less flatteringly, Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960, sadly far more harmful to the director’s career than Shearer’s).
Shearer’s gripes aside, The Red Shoes has also been held up to scrutiny for trading in basic, artistic archetypes and a style that might be described as florid (or “blubbering and self-conscious”, if you’re Pauline Kael). Halfway into Powell and Pressburger’s movie though—up until this point a lush, if preparatory series of behind-the-scenes vignettes—such doubts are swiftly cast aside as the action excitedly cuts to a close-up of a programme for the performance of Hans Christian Andersen’s titular fairytale. The pages turn, introducing the key players; the orchestra breaks from the murmur of tuning into an overture; dancers backstage scramble nervously into position; the audience hush; the curtains pull back, and, 17 hypnotic minutes later, a standing ovation. More than simply teleporting the viewer onto stage with the performers, this extraordinarily innovative sequence—one which audaciously climaxes the film at its midpoint—transforms the theatrical into the cinematic, a spell which is only broken by waves of applause.
Still, some remain unmoved: New Yorker blogger Richard Brody picking out “a bland, uninflected way with the camera that (for the most part) merely records the performances”, followed by “dance sequences that owe their garish surrealism to the directors’ apparent inability to bring a dance to life with a single straightforward shot.” (Two remarks, incidentally, that contradict each other.) Powell and Pressburger’s scene choreography, in fact, is neither uninflected nor incapable of straightforwardness, but brilliantly modulated insofar as retaining the visual poise of traditional Hollywood musicals (where shots were held long and steady in appreciation of the performers’ ability), while being invigorated by genuinely lively, abstract camera movements and editing. The end result—when combined with the ghostly superimpositions and matte backdrops that enchant the stage setting—is an exhilarating pièce de résistance, one worthy of a place alongside The Bangwagon’s ‘The Girl Hunt’, Singin’ in the Rain’s ‘Broadway Melody’, and An American in Paris’ climactic ballet. (Three stupendous musical numbers that came after The Red Shoes, it should to be noted, the last of which was directly inspired by Shearer and co.)
The pleasures of Powell and Pressburger’s classic certainly aren’t limited to ‘The Red Shoes’ recital, however for long-time devotees, the sequence is treasured and regularly singled out as a formative movie-going experience. First-time viewers of the film in July and August will be envied for this reason; the prospect of discovering The Red Shoes, in the attendance of a full house, and via a magnificent 35mm print, something very special indeed. And boy, will they have only scratched the surface. Black Narcissus (1947), a mountaintop odyssey about conflicted, psychosexual nuns, trumps The Red Shoes by way of its sheer formal daring. The duo’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946) are similarly audacious as wartime stories; both are unconventional as intended propaganda pictures, and further underline the Technicolor mastery of the late Jack Cardiff. My personal favourite, A Canterbury Tale (1944), is perhaps the strangest of The Archers productions in a fertile period that concluded with Gone to Earth (1950, hideously re-cut and re-released in America under the title The Wild Heart by perennial meddler David O. Selznick). A beguiling, regionalist oddity shot in expressionistic black and white, it’s an incredibly touching and enriching film—another jewel in the Powell and Pressburger crown whose brightest gem is the glorious The Red Shoes.