Tuesday Editor’s Pick: The Red Shoes (1948)

by on February 27, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue March 6 at 1:30, 6:30 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

Our second Pick in a row from Film Forum’s “This is DCP” week-long showcase of their new digital projection system. For the suspicious and reluctant celluloid loyalists: The Film Foundation’s 2009 restoration and Powell & Pressburger’s Technicolor ballet masterpiece has been widely regarded as one of the greatest ever performed.

Anthony Lane, ebulliently, for the New Yorker:

A blindingly rich and refulgent print, digitally restored by the Film Foundation and the U.C.L.A. Film and Television Archive. I’ve seen the same version on DVD, but watching “The Red Shoes,” whatever the quality, on the small screen is like drinking champagne, whatever the vintage, through a plastic straw. Catch it, and you will not just be seeing an old film made new; you will have your vision restored.


Alt Screen editor Paul Brunick for BOMBblog:

How can one explain the wonderful and terrifying magic of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 adaptation of The Red Shoes? A film about creative obsession, it has itself become the object of such obsession. Amongst cinephiles and filmmakers it commands a faction of true believers that rivals that of Citizen Kane, Vertigo or 8 ½. More than a textbook classic, The Red Shoes has been a fetish object, inspiring a feverishly ritualistic devotion that borders on the occult. Strange fate for a “commonplace backstage melodrama,” as Variety pegged it upon release, calling the story “trite” while acknowledging its technical achievements. “Pure women’s magazine” is how the film’s star, Moira Shearer, later shrugged it off. But the red shoes go on, now pirouetting in a gorgeous 35mm restoration, the final product of a 2½-year labor of love by the non-profit Film Foundation. What is it about Powell and Pressburger’s dance-film fairy tale that solicits such devotion to this day? Wherein lies the esoteric power of The Red Shoes?


David Fear for Time Out New York:

Responsible for turning more moviegoers into wanna-be prima ballerinas per capita than any other film, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ode to the agony and the ecstasy of dancing is still joyous and moving even if you watch it through filthy, cracked sunglasses. And to view this classic in the newly restored print—sponsored by film-preservation impresario and superfan Martin Scorsese—is to experience an epiphany: So this is what capital-C Cinema looks like in its purest waking-dream form.
Technicolor us impressed: Using just the right shades and hues was an important element in several key Powell-Pressburger collaborations, but never more so than in this tale of a Svengali (Walbrook) who molds a composer (Goring) and dancer (Shearer) into true artists, only to become royally pissed once his puppets snip their strings. The sheer pirouette-drunk love shown to the performing arts has long made this a favorite of arabesque aficionados and theater geeks. But the visuals of this operatic backstage tragedy now take on a vibrancy that pushes the film’s emotional-delirium-meter into the you-know-what. Never mind the titular footwear, which now makes Dorothy’s ruby slippers look like scuffed Keds. You’ve simply never seen a deep red like Shearer’s mane when she catches Walbrook’s eye, or a baby blue the equivalent of his shirt when he offers her the role of a lifetime, or such a lush forest-green as the train carriage where a Mephistophelean deal is struck. It’s always been essential viewing; thanks to this hallucinogenically gorgeous restoration, the expressionistic landmark now feels genuinely life-altering



Even Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd recounts her personal connection to the on-screen readhead, for The New York Times:

There was never a screen pairing more magical than Moira and Technicolor. The flame-haired Scottish dancer is so radiant in the Criterion DVD of the 1948 classic directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger that it’s impossible to believe she could glow more brightly. But in the lovingly polished version of the British movie,, Moira is even more incandescent.

Melissa Anderson for The Village Voice:

“You go too far,” the film’s original art director, Alfred Junge, told Powell about the brilliant, eye-popping design, seen here in a ravishing new 35mm Technicolor restoration. (Junge was soon replaced with the painter Hein Heckroth as production designer.) And The Red Shoes turns out to be one of the greatest explorations of going too far in the name of creative mastery.
Vicky is begrudgingly admitted into Lermontov’s troupe, soon becoming its star while falling in love with the equally driven young composer, Julian (Marius Goring). Powell and Pressburger find as much drama and beauty backstage as on-, their delirious spectacle culminating in the 17-minute dance of the title, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s morbid tale of ballet slippers that drive the wearer to dance to her death. Dance, girl, dance: Shearer, a performer with Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet), took a year before agreeing to make her film debut at 21. Her auspicious bow in the seventh art would become ballet’s most memorable depiction in film.


Manohla Dargis, also for The New York Times:

This born-again version of “The Red Shoes,” digitally resuscitated from battered prints and negatives, should surprise even those who have watched the fine Criterion DVD. A film like few others, made like few others — the Powell and Pressburger partnership remains sui generis — it reaches high and strikes its mark, at times improbably. It’s an insistently designed work of non-naturalism, daubed with startling, unreal, gaudy colors that seem to have been created to blast away the last traces of wartime drear. The colors in “The Red Shoes” don’t just exist, they also express. “Color and I are one,” the painter Paul Klee said. When watching “The Red Shoes,” it’s easy to imagine Powell saying the same. Instead, he said, “I am cinema.”
It is a screenplay that, while richly embroidered with memorable, quotable lines (“Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat”), is a vehicle for cinema, not speeches. Indeed, several nondance scenes unfold without a word, as does the spectacular 15-minute ballet centerpiece. (The choreographer Robert Helpmann dances the part of the boy, while Léonide Massine, a Diaghilev protégé, makes a dazzling and suitably devilish cobbler.) Somewhat reminiscent of Busby Berkeley’s more fantastic dance numbers, the ballet doesn’t take place on a conventional, constricted stage, for the viewing pleasure of a clapping audience, but in a purely cinematic realm, complete with trick photography.


Kenneth Turan on the restoration process, for the Los Angeles Times:

The UCLA restoration does full justice to what has to be one of the most exquisite color films ever made, filled with the kind of deep, vivid hues that will leave viewers literally gasping. Not that restoring those colors to their original brilliance was easy. First, it turned out that every reel of the original negative, which had been stored in Great Britain, had been attacked by mold, causing what Gitt describes as “thousands of visible tiny cracks and fissures.”
To get rid of the mold, Whitehead had to both use ultrasonic cleaners and hand-clean parts of the negative frame by frame with perchloroethylene, commonly known as perc, a hazardous fluid usually used in dry cleaning.Another problem discovered early on was that “there were thousands of visible red, blue and green specks caused by embedded dirt and scratches.” Once all this was dealt with, Gitt remembers, “we breathed a big sigh of relief, we thought we were free and clear.” It was then that yet another problem, negative shrinkage, was discovered.
These problems, and others, including the “flickering, mottling and ‘breathing’ ” of the image, were all corrected via digital restoration to the point where “The Red Shoes” actually looks better now than it ever has. “In 1948, images were fuzzy by today’s standards,” Gitt explains. “And because there was more information on the negative than could be printed at the time, we got a lot more off it than they were able to do when the film first came out.” Those red shoes have never looked redder, or more alluring, than they do today.

Ian Christie has even more, for Sight & Sound.



Aaron Hillis reprints some of the words of Michael Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker, who spearheaded the project. For GreenCine:

[On the aesthetic challenges of reaching a relative state of perfection:] “That was very carefully watched. We didn’t want it to look like video which sometimes these things do, so we worked very, very carefully. It’s about controlling highlights and contrasts and all kinds of things. We just had such a phenomenal team. Everybody who was in it loved it, and was giving much more than they should. The main thing was to make it look like film, and film of the period—not pump it up and do all the things they do with bad transfers these days. I’ve seen some horrendous transfers that just make me want to kill. [laughs] I saw one of a film David Lean made right after the war, and it looks like some modern movie. They just completely ruined it! We kept watching prints and making sure we didn’t make a mistake.”
[On the film’s personal value to her within Michael Powell’s oeuvre:] “This one is so important because it’s about the world I live in, the world of entertainment. It is so honest in showing the jealousies and ego clashes and all the things that go into working in the world of art. It vividly lays it down in such an honest way. It’s so wonderful how you’re always backstage. You’re not seeing things from sitting out front, but you’re in it. You understand the incredible love of it, and yet the sacrifices you have to make when you’re in it, and we all do. Our personal lives suffer very badly, and this movie just nails it, doesn’t it? It’s also about being willing to die for our art, which my husband did. With Peeping Tom, his career was ruined. He died for that film. This happens to many, many great artists. It’s such a beautiful symbolism of that. It’s so real, and ballet dancers to this day still think it’s the best portrayal of [that world], even though the dancing has gotten much better.”


Also worth reading: The Self-Styled Siren takes NYT dance critic Alastair Macaulay for his cheeky tribute to the film on its 60th anniversary.
And Joshua Rothkopf talks to Scorsese about his favorite movie, also for Time Out New York:

His first viewing
When did it really catch on here in New York? 1950? So I must have been eight or nine. I remember abstract impressions of color and movement. Later, it became a very intense psychological vortex of passion, like a whirlpool sucking in the lives and souls of these characters. I was intrigued by the obsession, the need—for no reason you could articulate—to dance. To be an artist. I guess it all comes down to that wonderful exchange early in the film when Anton Walbrook confronts Moira Shearer at a cocktail party. “Why do you want to dance?” he asks her, and she immediately answers, “Why do you want to live?” There’s no choice about it. The look on his face is extraordinary.
Red lipstick, applause
No, the color in the movie isn’t realistic. But it really reflects the heightened world of the ballet, the heightened world of theater. Color is always something that is going to be an aesthetic comment, no matter how you do it. When you see The Red Shoes from the tenth row center, you get submerged in a kind of reality, so to speak. You see these extraordinary close-ups of these people’s faces, with this amazing makeup on their eyes and red, red lipstick. It’s so blunt. Halfway through our screening at Cannes, the audience spontaneously applauded. I’ve never seen the print looking this good.


Eugene Hernandez also talks to Scorsese (beside restoration attendee for Woody Allen), for Indiewire.


Christian Blauvelt agrees, “Watching this new digital transfer of the Film Foundation’s restored print is to see The Red Shoes for the first time, even if you’ve seen it before.” For Slant:

To paraphrase Macbeth, the cinema hath bubbles—a select few works of art so rare in their beauty, delicacy, and refinement that you fear they will vanish in front of your eyes before your retinas have fully gorged themselves on the visual splendor before you. The Red Shoes is one such film. To look at The Red Shoes today is to marvel at the full potential of the three-strip Technicolor process. In the hands of directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, this adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s tiny wisp of a story pops with reds, blues, and greens more vivid than life itself. Though their story is a tragedy and far from any conventional conception of escapism, Powell and Pressburger nonetheless succeeded in creating a film with such sensual power, that it should be Exhibit A when trying to define what Susan Sontag meant as the “erotics of art.”
It’s hard to overstate what a breakthrough the actual “Ballet of the Red Shoes” scene is in this film. After years of musical numbers—usually involving Fred Astaire—that consisted of little more than statically pointing the camera at a dancer in long shot, and subtly reframing only when necessary, Powell and Pressburger completely subjectivize dance in their titular ballet. They not only open up the space of the stage, allowing for Shearer to flit and prance her way beyond the parameters of the proscenium, but cut in to close-ups (as of her feet when she first magically jumps into her crimson shoes) and point-of-view shots from Shearer’s perspective. Though Victoria’s real-life struggle between romantic love and artistic expression is more earthbound, it’s no less heartbreaking. A tragedy, not so much of circumstances, but of her own dual nature, Victoria becomes a symbol for so much of modern womanhood, caught as she is between her dreams and passions.



Brunick concludes:

The Red Shoes is the story of Death for Art’s sake. And it is ultimately a deeply personal confession. Through the form of a highly conventionalized allegory, two of cinema’s greatest filmmakers acknowledge the obsessive, antisocial, and self-destructive pathologies that underlie creative genius. But The Red Shoes is not a cautionary tale. On the contrary: “For 10 years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy,” Powell wrote in reference to World War II. “But now the war was over, and The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.” Go out and die for art. It is a supremely perverse celebration of the artistic drive as a kind of pathology for which there is no cure. The Red Shoes gives you permission to sacrifice everything (everything: free time, friendships, lovers, life itself) in order to create. Indulging this pathology may very well not lead you to happiness, as the tragic ending of The Red Shoes makes clear. But denying this pathology cannot lead to happiness. The idea is horrifying, depressing—and strangely comforting. Without your art you have nothing, but that means you also have nothing to lose.
And as this Powell and Pressburger’s breathtaking film reminds us in the dying flicker of every beautiful frame: you have so, so much to gain.


– Compiled by Brynn White

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