Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Tales of Hoffmann

Based on the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann and the opera of Jacques Offenbach, The Tales of Hoffmann is a multi-layered film that tells three different stories in a stage setting captured on film. Written for the screen and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the film is a mixture of fantasy, ballet, and opera told in a thrilling and cinematic fashion. Starring Moira Shearer, Robert Rounsville, Leonide Massine, Robert Helpmann, Pamela Brown, Ludmilla Tcherina, and Ann Ayars. The Tales of Hoffmann is a majestic and evocative film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The film revolves around three different stories told by its author during an intermission for a ballet performance where he tells friends at a tavern about three women he had fallen for. The first was an automaton ballerina the man would fall for unaware of who she really is as their creators would scheme and ruin things for him. The second involves a courtesan, who works for an evil magician, who would seduce him in order to steal his soul. The third story plays into an ailing soprano singer who cannot sing as it means death until she is coerced by an evil doctor. All of which told by this writer in Hoffmann (Robert Rounsville) who would play the protagonists in his stories while he would also deal with a rival in Councillor Lindorf (Robert Helpmann) who would be seen as the antagonist in all three stories. At the same time, Hoffmann’s aide Nicklaus (Pamela Brown) would be in all of the stories to observe everything as it relates to many of Hoffman’s failures.

The film’s script by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is told in a sort of reflective narrative where it plays into Hoffmann telling his stories to people at a tavern as it then moves into the first story and then to another and then to the third story. It’s a film with simple narrative yet it is largely told by the music where a lot of the dialogue in the film is sung in an operatic fashion thanks in part to Dennis Arundell who would write the film’s English libretto for the singers to sing. Each story would play into Hoffmann’s attempt to win over an object of desire but always has to endure the presence of Lindorf who would play different personas to stop him from winning over a young woman.

The direction of Powell and Pressburger is quite simple as much of it is shot inside a soundstage that acts as this artificial stage where much of the ballet and operatic performances take place. The usage of wide and medium shots capture everything that is going on in the stage as well as some crane camera shots to shoot from above to capture some of the dancing as well as the singing. There aren’t a lot of close-ups in the film in order to capture the sense of performance that happens on the stage yet it has this sense of flair in the camera movements. The usage of tracking and dolly shots would say a lot into way the dance, which is wonderfully choreographed by Frederick Ashton with additional work from Alan Carter and Joan Harris, is presented as well as some camera tricks to play up this sense of fantasy as well in the wide shots to see the staging of these sets. While each story has its own personality, they all display that sense of fantasy but also a dramatic flair that adds so much to what Hoffmann would endure as the film would end with not just the reality of what he faced in his stories. It is also in the fact that he could’ve handled things better as well as find a way to outwit Lindorf. Overall, Powell and Pressburger craft a ravishing yet magical film about a man’s trilogy of stories of love lost.

Cinematographer Christopher Challis does brilliant work with the film‘s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography as it captures every bit of detail in the color of how the sets look and how things are lit to play up the sense of fantasy. Editor Reginald Mills does amazing work with the editing with its rhythmic cuts, stylish usage of dissolves to play up the fantasy, and other stylish cuts to say a lot about the dancing and the world these characters are in. Production/costume designer Hein Heckroth, along with art director Arthur Lawson and co-costume designer Ivy Baker, does fantastic work with not just the look of the sets as it plays up this air of fantasy and artificiality but also in the costumes including the dresses and gowns the women wear in the performances.

Makeup artist Connie Reeve does nice work with the makeup in the way the characters look to the environment they‘re in. Sound recordist Ted Drake does terrific work with some of the minimal sound effects that is recorded in the film as much of the sound work is done in post-production. The film’s music of Jacques Offenbach, with English libretto by Dennis Arundell, is incredible as its mixture of opera and orchestral music is key to the film as it helps tell the story as well as play into many of the trials and tribulation that Hoffmann would endure throughout the film as the string arrangements under the music direction by Sir Thomas Beecham.

The film’s wonderful cast includes some notable small roles from Frederick Ashton in a dual role as the puppet master Kleinsach from the first story and Cochenille in the second story with Murray Dickie as his singing voice, Mogens Wieth and the singing voice of Owen Brannigan as Antonia’s father in the third story, and Edmond Audran as Stella’s dance partner in the prologue. Leonide Massine is fantastic in the multiple roles as the automaton creator Schemil in the first story as well as a count in the second story and a deaf servant in the third with Owen Brannigan and Grahame Clifford in his singing voice. Pamela Brown is superb in the role of Nicklaus as Hoffmann’s friend who observes everything that goes on while being the conscience of sorts as she also tries to stop Hoffman from making the wrong decisions. Ana Ayars is excellent as the third woman in the story named Antonia as an ailing singer who deals with the temptation of singing again knowing that she’ll die if she does as Ayars also provides her own vocals.

Ludmilla Tcherina is brilliant as the courtesan Giulietta as this object of desire in the second story who is really working for one of Lindorf’s personas as her singing voice is dubbed by Margherita Grandi. Moira Shearer is amazing in a dual role as Hoffmann’s current object of desire in a prima ballerina named Stella in the film’s prologue/epilogue and as the automaton ballerina known as Olympia who is full of life but is also very odd as her singing voice is dubbed by Dorothy Bond. Robert Helpmann is great in the multiple roles he plays as the film’s antagonists in Lindorf in the film’s prologue/epilogue as well as the other devious and manipulative personas in the puppet maker Coppelius in the first story, the schemer Dapertutto in the second story, and the morose Dr. Miracle in the third story as his singing voice is dubbed by Bruce Dargavel. Finally, there’s Robert Rounseville in a sensational performance as Hoffmann as this poet who tells the story of heartbreak and loss as he endures so much while doing things that would also undo with Rounseville maintaining a great presence as well as doing his own singing.

The Tales of Hoffmann is a phenomenal film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Featuring a great cast, dazzling visuals in its photography and art direction, and a sumptuous music score. The film isn’t just one of the quintessential films of the Archers production team but also a film that manages to convey the idea of fantasy with a richness that isn’t seen very much in films. In the end, The Tales of Hoffmann is a spectacular film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

Powell/Pressburger Films: The Spy in Black - Contraband - (The Lion Has Wings) - (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 Red Shoes - The Small Black Room - (Gone to Earth) - (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)

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