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In the late 1940s the English writing/directing team of "The Archers" Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were on a roll of highly creative, innovative and often experimental films made under their producing banner "The Archers". Their often very "British" films weren't always understood by American audiences, but 1947's Black Narcissus penetrated Hollywood's consciousness, winning Oscars for Alfred Junge's Art Direction and Jack Cardiff's Cinematography. The Archers bounced back with what would become their most popular and acclaimed filmic effort, The Red Shoes. A backstage musical but not a musical comedy, the movie witnesses the creation of a ballet of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale about a pair of diabolical dancing shoes that force their wearer to dance until she dies. The personal story of ballet hopeful Victoria Page parallels the fairy tale as well, creating a parable about an artist's commitment to art.
The Red Shoes reassembles the top talent gathered for Black Narcissus, adding production designer Hein Heckroth to the group. Again pushing their efforts in the direction of experimental cinema, Powell & Pressburger build a seventeen-minute sequence around the "Red Shoes" ballet, a dance-musical film milestone that incorporates the camera into the choreography. Freed from the restraints of realism, Heckroth's designs, Powell's cinematic ideas and Jack Cardiff's color experimentation find their full expression. It's the crowning achievement of a film already replete with breathtaking imagery. The sequence directly affected the Arthur Freed musical unit at MGM -- almost immediately, choreographers and choreographer-performers like Gene Kelly were fired up with the notion of transforming standard dance numbers into artistic "musical ballets".
Powell & Pressburger's story, from an idea Pressburger had proposed to Alexander Korda a decade before, makes a harsh statement about artistic commitment. Victoria Page (Moira Shearer, an established ballerina "discovered" as a fine actress) is delighted to be admitted to the ballet company of the autocratic, impossibly refined Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and witnesses the excesses of temperament and discipline that go into the creation of world-class ballet. The sarcasm of Lermontov's dance masters Ljubov and Ivan Boleslawsky (Léonide Massine & Robert Helpmann) alarms Vicky, but she finds a friend in Julian Craster (Marius Goring), a student composer working for the company as a rehearsal conductor. Lermontov's alternately sympathetic and aloof captainship confuses Vicky until the company's star dancer Boronskaja (Ludmilla Tchérina) retires. While on location in Monte Carlo, Vicky is summoned like Cinderella to Lermontov's presence and told that she will dance the lead in "The Red Shoes". At first allowed only to rewrite improvements to an existing score, Julian Craster is given the task of composing an entire new musical ballet. Fame and glory come Vicki's way, and all are happy until she announces her intention to marry Julian. Boris Lermontov demands that Vicki remain totally dedicated to her art -- and to him? -- and insists that marriage is out of the question.
Almost abandoned by its distributor as unpleasantly morbid and insufferably artsy, The Red Shoes scored a major hit on a single-theater New York release, where it played for over two years. It is said that the movie inspired a generation of young girls to aspire to become ballerinas. After years of being championed by Martin Scorsese, The Red Shoes is now an acknowledged masterpiece. Its colorful portrait of the world of ballet in an era when intimidating impresarios like Lermontov were in charge, is more than impressive. The personalities of the collaborating artists are fascinating -- most are played by theater and dance veterans. The Red Shoes convinces us that we're dealing with real-deal choreographers and composers.
Jack Cardiff was given the lion's share of credit for The Red Shoes' exquisite color cinematography. The ballet sequence utilizes superimpositions, travelling mattes and altered frame rates & shutter speeds to create effects both bold and subtle. One of Shearer's dance partners is transformed into a man made of newspapers, and at one point colored transparent gels rain down from above. Yet all of these camera pyrotechnics enhance rather than detract from Moira Shearer's performance. The Red Shoes is not a documentary about ballet, but it may be the film that most successfully communicates the experience of the art form.
Powell's camera expresses the dizzying sensation of dance spins and accentuates the illusion of weightlessness in certain dance moves. The precision of his camera placement and cutting mirrors the precision of the dance motions. Combine that with images that dazzle the eye, and Brian Easdale's remarkable film score, and The Red Shoes has an almost hypnotic quality.
Moira Shearer had to be coaxed into starring in the film, as Powell and Pressburger didn't want to simply hire an actress to impersonate a dancer, and then substitute a real dancer for the ballet scenes. Shearer appeared in few films thereafter, notably in Michael Powell's 1960 horror film Peeping Tom, as a jazz dancer who becomes a murder victim. The Red Shoes is sometimes cited as a step backward in her ballet career, while Peeping Tom all but finished Powell as a film director. Ironically, other more celebrated dancers have already faded from the public memory, while Shearer's film may preserve her performance and beauty for all time. If The Red Shoes is The Archers' most popular film, it is because it has inspired an audience beyond the fans of creative cinema.
Criterion's new release of The Red Shoes is bound to be a major seller in Blu-ray, as the recent film and digital restoration of the movie (supervised by The UCLA Film Archive's Robert Gitt) has received more press coverage than any classic revival this year save Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The film looked very good on Criterion's earlier DVD disc, but Blu-ray fans will be mesmerized by the chromatic depth and richness of detail on this new HD transfer. Blu-ray has the range of contrast to convey a faithful impression of original Technicolor prints; in dark scenes such as the one where Lermontov muses over the retirement of his star dancer, we can perceive color detail where previous transfers only showed one level of black. The added visual dynamism makes Moira Shearer's red hair stand out all the more vibrantly, while the highlights from her princess-like tiara sparkle like real jewels. The audio is still monaural, but has more presence in the high definition of Blu-ray.
Disc producer Karen Stetler pours on the extras for this special edition, including several new items. Martin Scorsese offers an introductory restoration demonstration, while Ian Christie handles commentary duty. Jeremy Irons reads excerpts from Powell & Pressburger's novelization of the film story, and also the original Andersen fairy tale. In addition to a full-on making-of documentary with multiple interviewees, Powell's widow editor Thelma Schoonmaker discusses the film and her husband in a new interview.
In addition to an original trailer, the disc contains galleries of publicity artwork, behind-the-scenes stills, Hein Heckroth's animated production sketches and Martin Scorsese's personal treasure trove of Red Shoes memorabilia. The new restoration is also being made available by Criterion in a standard DVD package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Red Shoes Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.