Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Red Shoes (Expanded Criterion DVD Review)


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 11/30/08 w/ Additional Edits & New Content.


One of the greatest cinematic teams in the early 1940s through the late 1950s were the British directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The writing, producing, and directing team created films that were unique in their take on war and themes involving sin had made them one of the greatest filmmaking team in British cinema. After a period of war and post-war collaborations for films like 49th Parallel, The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, and 1947's Black Narcissus that was a different film from their war-themed stories. The team of Powell and Pressburger went ahead to make their film that would give them their greatest commercial success to date entitled The Red Shoes.

Based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Red Shoes tells the story of a young socialite who loves the ballet as she attracts the attention of a strict, controlling ballet director who hopes to make her a superstar. When she starts to fall in love with a rising composer, she becomes conflicted in her love for ballet and the man who would give her a different life as her director tries to take control of her. Written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger with additional dialogue by Keith Winter. Starring Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook, Leonide Massine, Robert Helpmann, Albert Bassermann, Ludmilla Tcherina, and Esmond Knight. The Red Shoes is a dazzling, entrancing masterpiece from Powell and Pressburger.

A young composer named Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is attending a ballet with friends as the play is directed by renowned ballet director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). Also attending is a young socialite named Victoria "Vicky" Page (Moira Shearer) as they see Lermontov's play that features choreography by Grishna Ljubov (Leonide Massine) and as the prima ballerina, Irina Boronskaja (Ludmilla Tcherina). Craster notices that notes he hears in the orchestration are written by him as he wondered how it got put into the music score. During an after party, Lermontov meets Vicky at a party as he seems uninterested in seeing another ballet upon realizing that Vicky will be dancing. He takes Vicky in to be part of his ballet company where she works under Ljubov's supervision. Around the same time, Craster meets Lermontov at his apartment where Lermontov takes him as a coach for the orchestra.

After seeing Vicky perform The Swan Lake, Lermontov realizes she can be the lead ballerina after learning that Boronskaja has gotten married. With Vicky in and Boronskaja out, Lermontov decides to create an ambitious play based on Han Christian Andersen's fable story called The Red Shoes. Upon their arrival to Monte Carlo, Vicky is given the lead role to play the main character while Craster is given a chance to re-do an entire score since the original composer left it unfinished. With Vicky meeting Craster, the two don't hit it off as they bicker over her dance and his music. Yet, at the night of the premiere of The Red Shoes. The show was a huge success as Lermontov's company becomes successful with a series of ballets while Craster supervises a project that will feature all of the music for an original that Lermontov is creating.

Yet during a birthday party for Grishna, Lermontov learn that Vicky and Craster are having a love affair. In response, he fires Craster as Vicky decides to leave as well. Though Lermontov manages to succeed with Craster and Page's departure by getting Boronskaja back, he becomes jealous of the happiness that Vicky has with Julian. When he learns that Vicky is visiting her aunt in Monte Carlo, Lermontov decides to make a deal with Vicky where she must choose between her love for Julian and dancing.

The story of The Red Shoes is about a shoemaker who creates these magical red shoes where a girl buys them and dances. The problem is that the shoes are cursed in which she cannot stop dancing as she's tired but the shoes aren't as it leads to tragedy. That basic storyline clearly has brought something inspirational to the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger as they collaborated on this modern re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen's tale. Yet in their re-telling, the shoemaker is an impresario who wants control in hopes of making this young woman the greatest dancer ever. Underneath his charm is a cold man who will stop at nothing to make Victoria Page the greatest dancer in the world. Even if it kills her. When love comes to Victoria in the form of Julian Craster, she doesn't think about dancing for a while until Lermontov mentions her ambitions and she goes into conflict.

The story Pressburger creates that he turned into a script with Powell is truly phenomenal with its dialogue, language, and story set-ups that is true to Andersen fable. Yet, it's the direction of Powell and Pressburger that makes the film even more magical. Most notably the ballet sequence for The Red Shoes that is clearly spellbinding with its dazzling imagery, visual effects, cinematography, editing, and art direction. The way Powell and Pressburger capture the action and movement of the ballet is truly mesmerizing in every frame and shot as it has this great sense of drama. The non-ballet sequences outside its ballet rehearsals reveal some amazing drama that is stylized in its late-1940s acting style is told with such grace and sometimes, tension in heavier scenes. Powell and Pressburger clearly make sure they capture every moment of drama and romance while making something that is magical. The result is clearly a film unlike any other from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Cinematographer Jack Cardiff does amazing work with the film's Technicolor film stock of the late 1940s with vibrant colors in the film's famous ballet sequence while the camera captures every action from the ballet dancer's perspective and with sharp movements. The photography in the exterior shots in Monte Carlo and London looks beautiful for its time as is the visual effects photography by George Gunn and E. Hague in the ballet sequence. Editor Reginald Mills does excellent work with the film's editing, notably capturing the energy of the ballet while in the dramatic scenes. He creates a unique rhythm for some of the film's heightened dramatic moments while his transitions are smoothly cut with dissolves and fade-outs that move the film very well without being too slow.

Production/costume designer Hein Heckroth and art director Arthur Lawson do a great job with the look of the stage and set designs for the ballet scenes, most notably The Red Shoes ballet that truly looks look magical. Heckroth's work in the costumes is great with its vibrant colors in the tights for the ballet dancers along with the suits that the men wear. The dresses of Moira Shearer are done by Jacques Fath and Mattli to play well with the 1940s style with great colors and look along with the dresses she wears in the ballet scenes. Sound mixer Charles Poulton and recordist Desmond Dew creates great effects for the film's sound in terms of its location settings as well as a famous dramatic scene involving the anger of Lermontov. The choreography of Robert Helpmann is brilliant for its movement and emotion in the dance as it brings some appreciation for the art of ballet. The music score by Brian Easdale is marvelous in its energy and sweeping arrangements ranging from the dramatic to romantic. With its sense of melody and layering of orchestration, Easdale's music is definitely phenomenal in its sound and emotion in the scenes it brings.

The casting is definitely amazing with small but memorable performances from Irene Browne as Vicky's aunt, Austin Trevor as Julian's professor, and Eric Berry as Lermontov's assistant Dimitri. Ludmilla Tcherina is very good as the prima ballerina Irina Boronskaja while Esmond Knight is excellent as Livy, the music conductor who is amazed at Craster's talents after not appreciating him the first time around. The film's choreographer Robert Helpmann also does work as the lead dancer for The Red Shoes as he provides a great sense of movement and emotion into his dance with Shearer. Albert Bassermann is excellent as Sergei Ratov, the set/costume designer who is one of Lermontov's key men while sympathizing with Julian and Vicky's reasons to leave Lermontov. Leonide Massine is brilliant as Grishna Ljubov, the company's choreographer with a huge personality as he stands out in his acting as well as his dancing as the shoemaker in The Red Shoes performance as Massine really creates a memorable performance.

Marius Goring is great as Julian Craster, the young composer who falls for Vicky as he finds a muse in his musical writing only to contend with Lermontov for her soul and well-being as Goring's performance is wonderful to watch. Anton Walbrook is phenomenal as Lermontov, the man who holds the power to make anyone great. When he feels that people are loyal to them, he treats the wonderfully and with charm but when he's defied, he's very cold and brutal. Walbrook's performance is really amazing to watch in all of his emotional mood swings and presence as it's definitely a performance people often overlook. Finally, there's Moira Shearer in an amazing performance as Victoria Page. Shearer's beauty and dancing talents are dazzling as her performance in the ballet is definitely one-of-a-kind while her dramatic work equally matches in her emotions as she's faced with conflict and despair about her role. Shearer truly does amazing work as it's definitely her most defining role despite a small filmography.

***Additional DVD Contents Written on 12/8/10-12/10/10***

When The Red Shoes was released through various forms of home video including a DVD release in 1999 by the Criterion Collection.  It was one of the most sought-out releases though the print of the film wasn’t in great condition.  The 2010 Criterion Special Edition 2-disc Region 1 DVD however, improves everything that other DVD releases weren’t able to do.  Retaining some of the original Criterion DVD special features while adding new ones.  The DVD is presented in both regular high-definition DVD and Blu-Ray in its original 1:33:1 full-screen aspect ratio and remastered sound all based on the 2009 restoration presented by Martin Scorsese.

The first disc includes the film in its restored edition as the look of the film is truly stunning.  The colors look sharper and richer in its images.  The sound is much broader.  It’s where the film is given new life and becomes timeless in its look and sound.  Even in the famed dance sequence for The Red Shoes ballet is where the visual effects looks more dazzling and abstract to convey the dream-like tone of the film.  It’s truly restoration at its finest.

The first disc special features include a four-minute restoration demonstration segment hosted by Martin Scorsese.  Because the film was shot with three negative film stocks for Technicolor at the time it was made, the restoration of the film meant that it would have to take 3 times the work restore all of those images.  Among the problems with the restoration were mold damage and the texture of colors.  Thanks to digital technology, they were able to rid of mold and other things that would’ve prevented the chance to restore the film.  Scorsese also revealed scenes of how they’ve looked before the restoration and after the restoration.  It’s a wonderful segment that goes into detail of how the film looked before and after its restoration process.  Another special feature is the film’s theatrical trailer that boasts the film and its Technicolor look.

The DVD also includes two audio features that were recorded for the film’s 1994 Laserdisc release from the Criterion Collection.  The first is a commentary track  from film historian Ian Christie plus audio interview excerpts from actors Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, music composer Brian Easdale, and Martin Scorsese.  Ian Christie leads the commentary as he talks about the film’s history dating back to the late 1930s and how it changed when it finally came into production in 1947.  Christie also goes into detail about the formation of the Archers production and its team that consisted of Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and music composer Brian Easdale.

Christie even allows the other commentators to make their own comments where Cardiff and Easdale go into detail about their own experience with the film as well as some of the technical things.  Cardiff also reveals about his own first experiences working with the Technicolor film print when it first came to Britain when he was just a camera operator.  Marius Goring and Moira Shearer discuss their own experiences with the film as Goring had to dye his hair blonde because his original red hair would clash with Shearer’s.  Shearer talks about a lot of the ballet in the film as well as her own views of the film while admitting that some of the things in the ballet and backstage aren’t realistic.  Martin Scorsese reveals how much the film has influenced him and other directors.  Scorsese said that when making Raging Bull, The Red Shoes helped him choreograph how he wanted the fights to be stylish and engaging.  While he admits that there’s a few flaws with the ballet sequence, he still loves the film dearly.

Christie also talks about Powell’s directing and the tension he had with Moira Shearer despite their mutual respect towards one another.  It was more to due with Shearer’s feelings about cinema at the time since she was new to the medium.  Goring also talks about how difficult Powell was at times though it was with good reasons.  Scorsese adds more commentary towards the look of the film, even in the third act when Lermontov is all alone in his hotel.  It’s a splendid commentary track that revels in the majestic world that is The Red Shoes.

The second commentary track in the first disc is from actor Jeremy Irons reading excerpts of the 1978 novelization of The Red Shoes while the film is being played.  Irons’ reading of The Red Shoes is definitely one of the DVD’s grand highlights.  His voice is pitch-perfect for the narration while creating all sorts of emotions for the characters he voices throughout the book with the film playing.  He displays a much deeper voice when playing Lermontov and a more sensitive voice with other characters.  He even gets dramatic for the role of Grischa.  It’s a great commentary track of sorts with Irons’ voice hitting the right notes for the film as if a book is being told.

The second disc of the DVD features many supplement material relating to the film’s release.  Among them is a 25-minute documentary called A Profile of The Red Shoes.  Featuring interviews with historian Ian Christie, filmmaker Kevin McDonald (who is also Emeric Pressburger‘s grandson), cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and camera operator Chris Challis.  The documentary explores the history of the Archers team as well as the films they did before The Red Shoes that helped their reputation with the British film industry.  When creating The Red Shoes, they needed some of the best people in ballet which was easy but finding the leading lady was hard to find.

Enter Moira Shearer, who was already an accomplished ballerina with the British world of ballet.  Though Shearer was hesitant to do the film because she feared it would end her ballet career, she ended up doing the project.  For Lermontov, Powell and Pressburger chose Anton Walbrook, a regular of the Archers team.  They wanted someone who could play a brutish, controlling man some said was based on Sergei Diaghilev and a bit of Alexander Korda. The crew revealed that the clash of the two worlds of ballet and cinema wasn’t an easy blend.  Even as the ballet dancers had egos towards each other.  Particularly Leonide Messine, who was in his early 50s at the time, and Robert Helpmann.

For the famed ballet scene, it was the talents of cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the ballet dancers, and art director Hein Heckroth.  It was Heckroth’s production design that really gave Powell and Pressburger that the scene can be done.  Even as it blended all styles of cinema to create what many says is one of the greatest sequences on film.  When the film was released, the film received mixed reviews in the U.K.  Some of the criticism over its melodrama and elements of the ending.  The film wasn’t a big hit when it came out but its reputation grew over the years.  Even among film buffs that included Martin Scorsese.  While it would win two Oscars for Brian Easdale’s score and Hein Heckroth’s art direction.  It would take years for the film to finally bring some prestige in the U.K.

The second big special feature is 14-minute video interview with Michael Powell’s widow and famed film editor Thelma Schoonmaker at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.  Schoonmaker talks about Michael Powell, The Red Shoes, and the restoration of that film along with some of the other Powell-Pressburger films.  Schoonmaker goes into detail about the damage of the films due to mold and scratches as The Red Shoes was the film that really needed to be restored.  With the help of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, it was finally given the great restoration it needed.  Even as it was funded and spearheaded by her and Martin Scorsese.

Schoonmaker also reveals about Powell’s obsession with trying to make great art while making similarities to Scorsese’s own obsession towards making great art.  Even as she and Scorsese often watch Turner Classic Movies revealing Scorsese’s passion for film restoration.  Even with The Red Shoes where he and Schoonmaker worked as consultants for the restoration.  The interviewer asked why Schoonmaker never directed a film as she replied she is fine with her job as an editor.  Even though whatever films she does with Scorsese is always different no matter how close they are as longtime friends.

“The Red Shoes” Sketches is an animated featurette featuring Hein Heckroth’s painted storyboards for the film’s famed ballet sequence.  The featurette also features a comparison of the sketches with the actual ballet from the film.  The look of Heckroth’s sketches are superb as it would match with what Powell and Pressburger would want for the final version of the film (that is also played by itself as an alternate angle in its restored print.  The featurette also includes an audio track of actor Jeremy Irons reading the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name.  Irons’ reading adds more nuance and prestige to the sketches displayed on the featurette.

Two galleries appear in the DVD.  The first of which are rare publicity stills, deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes photos for the film.  Many of the photos are in black and white while the deleted scenes feature pictures of Page preparing an audition and a picture of Lermontov and his team giving ideas for The Red Shoes ballet.  The only pictures in color are the set design and costume sketches for the film.  The second stills gallery is a collection of memorabilia for the film collected by Martin Scorsese.  Among them are the red shoes and a copy of the script signed by Powell and Pressburger to Scorsese, a sketchbook of storyboards that was previously owned by Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, scarves, wallpaper, posters from various countries including Italy, Mexico, Belgium, and France.

The DVD also includes a booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Ehrenstein and a description of the film’s restoration by UCLA film archivist Robert Gitt.  Ehrenstein’s essay about The Red Shoes is entitled Dancing For Your Life where Ehrenstein discusses the themes of the film along with its idea for artistic dedication at is most powerful.  Even as the essay goes into the history of formation of the Archers production team that is led by Powell and Pressburger.  Ehrenstein also goes into depth with the actors, notably Anton Walbrook and Moira Shearer.  Ehrenstein also goes into the film’s plot and how it would lead to its tragic ending as it’s a wonderful essay.

The second text in the booklet is Robert Gitt’s two-page description about the restoration.  Starting from the fall of 2006 and to the spring of 2009 before its unveiling at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.  The restoration of The Red Shoes was a hard one due to many things affecting the negatives including molds, chemical staining, and scratches.  All of it had to be done digitally as Gitt hoped that the film is seen the way it was shown back in 1948 with the help of modern technology.

The Criterion DVD for The Red Shoes is truly a must-have for any film collector as it’s finally given the proper restoration it needed.  Audiences who loved this film then should have it whether on DVD or Blu-Ray.  Those new to the films of Powell-Pressburger should get a chance to see the restored version of The Red Shoes as it is a film that looks truly timeless.  If there’s a great DVD to get for anyone, it’s the new Criterion DVD for The Red Shoes.

***End of DVD Tidbits***


Released in September of 1948 in Britain, the film wasn't a big hit at first in Britain while having a limited run in the U.S. the next month. Yet, word-of-mouth helped the film gain ground while it received better acclaim from the ballet community as it eventually became Powell and Pressburger's most successful film in their entire career. Winning an Oscar for Brian Easdale's score, it received four other Oscar nominations including Best Picture. The film also proved to be influential as noted film buff and famed director Martin Scorsese cited the film as a big influence on him while his editor Thelma Schoonmaker married Michael Powell in the early 80s until his death in 1990.

The Red Shoes is a truly magical and dazzling masterpiece from the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Featuring a superb cast led by Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, and Marius Goring along with Jack Cardiff's cinematography, Robert Helpmann's choreography, and Brian Easdale's score. This is a film, sixty-years since its release, still has the power to dazzle in its imagery, effects, and its marvelous ballet sequence that will reveal the fine art of ballet. While young audiences might not be amazed by the special effects of the film or its stylistic directing of that time, it's a film that revealed the magic of filmmaking for that time and how it amazes audiences. Even today as film buffs consider it one of the best films ever made. For anyone that wants to see a film with spectacular visual effects, lovely ballet sequences, and vibrant colors. The Red Shoes is the film to go see from the great team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Powell-Pressburger Films: The Spy in Black - (The Lion Has Wings) - Contraband - (An Airman’s Letter to His Mother) - 49th Parallel - One of Our Aircraft is Missing - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - (The Volunteer) - A Canterbury Tale - I Know Where I’m Going - A Matter of Life and Death - Black Narcissus - (The Small Black Room) - (Gone to Earth) - The Tales of Hoffmann - (Oh… Rosalinda!!!) - (The Battle of the River Plate) - Ill Met by Moonlight - Peeping Tom - (They’re a Weird Mob) - (Age of Consent) - (The Boy Who Turned Yellow)

© thevoid99 2010

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