Criterion // 1948 // 134 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 20th, 2010
"Don't forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit." -- Boris Lermontov
It seems to be a story as old as art: the artist who must choose between the comforts of life and humanity or complete dedication to passion, thus giving up all earthly concerns. Although it's an old story, it was never told with more verve and imagination than in Michael Powell's and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes. Originally conceived as a vehicle for a paramour of producer Alexander Korda, when he abandoned the project it was taken up by the Archers, Powell's and Pressburger's production company. They turned it into one of the most potent mediations on art ever filmed. Just a few short years after the grim privations of World War II, The Red Shoes abandoned the subdued hues of wartime photography for a vivid Technicolor epic that made the case that imagination and romance are not merely distractions from the horrors of everyday life, but are in fact central to the way we live. It's got all of this, and a story that even children can follow and enjoy (provided they're not too young for some of the sometimes spooky dance sequences). No less than the Don of American cinema, Martin Scorsese, has praised The Red Shoes, and it is partly due to his efforts that the film has been preserved and remastered. Replacing the old Criterion disc, this Blu-ray ups the ante in every significant way, from the jaw-dropping gorgeous picture and sound to the new extras in addition to the old. If there can be only one Criterion disc in a collection, there's a strong case for this being it.
The Lermontov Ballet is one of the leading companies in the world, and it's kept that way by impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). When he's introduced to Victoria Page (Moira Shearer, a ballet dancer who went on to star in other Archers films like The Tales of Hoffman), he sees in her the heart and talent necessary to produce a great dancer. At the same time he also takes on the talents of a young composer, Julian Craster (Marius Goring, The Barefoot Contessa). Lermontov commissions from Craster a new ballet, The Red Shoes, that will make his name and the name of his new dancer Victoria. Lermontov's vision is threatened when Vicky falls for Julian, and she must choose between art and love.
The most famous scene of The Red Shoes (and justifiably so) is the central performance of the ballet of the Red Shoes. It's a 20-minute tour-de-force that brilliantly combines Moira Shearer's dancing with the inimitably photography of the Archers. Weaving stage and set with ease, the ballet adapts the Hans Christian Anderson folk tale of the Red Shoes. In this story, a young woman covets a beautiful pair of red shoes, and once she has them realizes that although she grows tired the shoes do not and they will dance her to her death. The brilliance of Powell and Pressburger lies in not only seeing the potential of the story to comment on art, but adapting it specifically for a dancer. Their second masterful choice was to put the ballet in the middle. Most musical films put the big production number in the film's final act, just before the end, but placing in the middle of the story makes it richer and provides the audience with more opportunities to see how it fits with the main story.
The wonderful world of Disney has turned fairy and folk tales into safe, sanitary consumer products, but The Red Shoes reminds us that fear can be a great teacher and most of these folk tales exist to impart lessons. Consequently, The Red Shoes is ultimately a tragedy, led to the surprising but inevitable conclusion, eliciting from us fear and pity, hopefully leaving us cleansed. There are also a number of scary moments in the Red Shoes ballet, and these moments seem to erupt from the screen, combining the vividness of the Technicolor process with the arch, almost German Expressionist choices of staging and lighting during those sequences. While the film might be otherwise suitable for the young, the ballet and the ending are a bit too dark for many little ones.
I keep returning to the ballet because it is so obviously central to the film and the story, but it is also very important as a fantasy sequence. The bold colors created by the old three strip Technicolor process are as fantastic and vivid as anything every recorded on the medium. However, where most Technicolor films seem to struggle balancing the hyper-real colors of the process, The Red Shoes manages to look completely naturalistic (as in an early scene near Covent Garden shows) and completely fantastic (see the entire Red Shoes ballet). These two modes are integrated so well that they give the impression that the natural world is itself fantastic, full of all the wild imagination of the fantasy sequence while still grounded in cold reality. The film's greatest achievement may be that it makes the everyday seem as alive and beautiful as the most spectacular ballet.
That's not even mentioning the film's acting, which is superb in every way. The main trio of Lermontov, Craster, and Page are played with supreme confidence by Walbrook, Shearer, and Goring. Walbrook was near the end of his career and Goring at the start, and Shearer gives her first performance on film. Walbrook takes a character that could easily have been a mustache-twirling villain and makes him a human, almost likeable, monster. Craster could have been just another callow youth with an axe to grind, but Goring plays him as a subtle genius. Finally, Shearer is that most rare talent, a natural. She shines on the screen and acts like few actresses are ever able. The rest of the cast is equally worth of praise, and the more ensemble-oriented scenes are a treat to watch.
Finally, this Blu-ray. I was first exposed to The Red Shoes during a screening of the ballet sequence in a class on film musicals. I remember a dark, muddy affair, and although I was impressed by the conception of the dance, the visuals didn't blow me away. They didn't blow me away, that is, until I saw this Blu-ray disc. Every single frame (on each of the three strips of the original negative) has been painstakingly restored as a 1.37:1 MPEG-4/1080p transfer. The result is frankly beyond my ability to communicate. Detail is impressive, colors are bold and consistent, black levels are deep and I didn't notice a single instance of compression or other digital problems. Print damage has been mostly wiped away (although I think I detected a dropped frame or two) without leaving a nasty digital signature. We have every reason to believe that in many ways, the new print of The Red Shoes is sharper and clearer than what was projected in 1948, and the results are worth watching irrespective of the film's other merits. The audio has been similarly restored, and it has a power and a presence that belies its 60-year-old mono origins. Dialogue is crisp and clear in this LPCM mono track, and the music is delightfully free of hiss or distortion.
Then, there are the extras. The first big one is a commentary that combines interviews with several notable Red Shoes critics and creators. We get to hear from Ian Christie (who narrates and organizes the track), Martin Scorsese, Marius Goring, Moira Shearer, and cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Martin Scorsese also appears for a restoration demontration. The difference between the original negatives and the restored edition is beyond night and day, unless you're talking day on Mercury and night on Pluto. On the featurette front we get a documentary that goes over the production of the film with interviews from many of the principles, and an interview with Powell's widow (and Scorsese's longtime editor), Thelma Schoonmaker Powell. Scorsese also opens up his archives, and shares his collection of Red Shoes memorabilia, and there are also a number of stills and production photos to see. In the audio section we get Jeremy Irons reading from the novelization of the film, as well as the Hans Christian Anderson short story. Finally, the film's trailer is included. With the exception of a Powell and Pressburger filmography, all the extras from the previous edition have been ported over, and the new ones are strong additions. There's also the usual Criterion booklet which includes an insightful essay from film critic David Ehrenstein and a more thorough (though less visual) discussion of the film's restoration by UCLA film archivist Robert Gitt.
Two very small quibbles with the film. The first is that the length is fairly daunting. Although it moves fairly quickly (and looking back, I wouldn't touch a frame), it's not as tightly paced as movies are these days. I don't think it's plotted such that anyone should avoid it, but being aware of the length and somewhat slower pace will make the film easier to enjoy.
Second, and this is a minor point, I think the Archers tipped their hand just a bit too much by placing Lermontov and Craster in the place of the Shoemaker in the Red Shoes ballet. I think the audience is otherwise on-board with the parallels between the characters without having it driven home quite so forcefully. It doesn't ruined the movie or anything, but in a film so otherwise effortless, those few seconds stand out as a bit forced.
Occasionally, a writer must confront his or her shortcomings and realize they are not up to particular task. That time has come for me with The Red Shoes. I feel utterly incapable of communicating the profound joy the movie elicits in me and find there's no way to describe how essential the movie is without resorting to shopworn phrases. With that said, if you have any inclination towards dance, classic cinema, fairy tales, or Technicolor, and you haven't seen The Red Shoes, it should absolutely be a priority. To those who've seen The Red Shoes, think again. Unless you've seen this restored version in its brief theatrical exhibition, then you'll be seeing a whole new movie. Because of the improved sound and visual components, plus the great new extras, this film is absolutely, without question, worth a double dip.
The Red Shoes will keep on dancing, and will continue to be not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 1948
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Vintage Audio
* Image Gallery
* Theatrical Trailer