Picture courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

In The Red

17th July 2009

A film about ballet might not seem to be to everybody’s taste, but The Red Shoes, adapted from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, was one of the most internationally popular films ever made in this country. Now a reprint has given it another lease of life. Jack Watkins extols its virtues.

When J Arthur Rank, the most powerful man in British film-making in the middle of the last century, was given a preview of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, he was rendered speechless. Seeing this opulent, arty affair, with its extended ballet sequences and thinnest of plotlines, and which ended with its heroine diving over a balcony and falling under the wheels of a train, he simply walked out of the auditorium. The production of the film was already over budget and, he imagined, was a sure-fire turkey. He was so disgusted that he even denied it a British premiere.

But what have finance men ever really known about films? The Red Shoes broke out of the American art house cinemas to which it was initially condemned to become one of the top-grossing films of 1948. Ever since, it has been that comparative rarity – a film venerated by the critics and loved by the public in equal measure. The Red Shoes has been the subject of countless re-runs. Now it’s back for another encore, with a reprint accentuating its glowing technicolour hues and restoring to it to how it would have looked when first released.

The project to restore it was overseen by Martin Scorsese, who took to the stage at the Cannes Film Festival in May to introduce it to unanimous acclaim. The original nitrate stock of the Powell-Pressburger films is – as, sadly, with so many old movies – wearing out fast, and The Red Shoes is just one of many preservation projects being undertaken by experts funded by the Film Foundation, established by Scorsese in 1990.

Scorsese has had a lifelong passion for the work of Powell and Pressburger, and regularly cites their artistic flair as a seminal influence on his own direction, notably in the likes of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. It’s become an oft-told story of how, when Powell was ‘out of fashion’ in the 1970s, Scorsese did much to revive his – and Pressburger’s – critical reputation. During the late ‘70s and ‘80s their films were given a succession of retrospectives, so that by the time of Powell’s death, aged 85, in 1990 (the more retiring Pressburger having predeceased him by two years), the partnership was being hailed as the most fertile in the history of British film making.

In The Red Shoes, Powell was aiming to create the perfect ‘composed’ film. Although ostensibly revolving around a theatrical ballet company, it is surely one of the most striking examples of total cinema ever created. It was this emphasis on the visual and the non-naturalistic – so unusual in British filmmakers of the time – that marked all the Powell-Pressburger films made under their Archers Production company, including The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death, and Black Narcissus.

From the opening frames of The Red Shoes, when the noisy crowd surges like a wave into the theatre and, led by Marius Goring as Julian Craster, pours over the seats in the gallery, the viewer is subjected to an experience of light, colour, noise and movement achievable only in the cinematic medium. It would be entirely wrong to hand all the credit to Powell for his restless, ingenious direction, or even to the scriptwriting of Pressburger. An unprecedented amount of control in designing the sets was given over to Hein Heckroth, a surrealist painter who had been a production designer in German theatre and ballet. Jack Cardiff was the photographer, Brian Easdale composed the score, and Sir Thomas Beecham was hired to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the recording of The Red Shoes ballet.

Everyone remembers Moira Shearer as Vicky Page, with her flaming red hair, dancing to stardom as a prima ballerina and tragically unable to choose between a ‘normal’ relationship with the composer Craster, or the impresario Lermontov’s demand that she sacrifice her human instincts for art. Lermontov, magnificently played by Anton Walbrook, was said to be modelled on the Russian ballet director Serge Diaghilev, though Pressburger used to maintain that it also contained elements of Alexander Korda, of Powell and even himself. The scene in which Walbrook, pale with shock and his voice like the roar of a wounded beast, appears before the stage curtain to announce that the performance will go on, despite Vicky’s death, retains a terrible power. But the film’s best line occurs much earlier, in the party scene in which Lermontov meets Vicky for the first time. “Why do you want to dance?,” he asks her. “Why do you want to live?” she replies.

Years later, Powell, accounting for the film’s popularity, wrote: “We had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy, for this and that, and now that the War was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.” Self sacrifice in the pursuit of excellence, sixty years on, still seems a pretty noble theme around which to build a film.

Out now on DVD & Blu-ray on ITV DVD

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