Archive for January 18th, 2009


by Allan Fish

the first in a series of near misses, great films that missed the top 50 cut on the 1940s countdown.

(UK 1948 133m) DVD1/2

The music is all that matters

p  Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger  d  Michael Powell  Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger  ph  Jack Cardiff  ed  Reginald Mills  m  Brian Easdale  ch  Robert Helpmann  art  Hein Heckroth, Arthur Lawson  cos  Hein Heckroth

Anton Walbrook (Boris Lermontov), Moira Shearer (Vicky Page), Marius Goring (Julian Craster), Robert Helpmann (Ivan Boleslawsky), Albert Basserman (Sergei Ratov), Esmond Knight (Livy), Leonide Massine (Grischa Ljubov), Ludmilla Tcherina (Irina Boronskaja), Jean Short (Terry), Gordon Littman (Ike), Hay Petrie (Boisson), Frederick Ashton,

In A Matter of Life and Death Marius Goring’s Conductor 71 famously complained at the lack of Technicolor in his ethereal world.  He could have no such complaints here.  The Red Shoes is one of the all-time great colour films, as well as being the last of the Archers’ four great colour masterpieces.  In short, it’s probably the greatest study into the religion of the creative performing arts that has ever been committed to celluloid.

            While he is in London with his world renowned ballet troupe, Boris Lermontov finds out that the score he is using for one of his ballets, ‘Heart of Fire’, has been plagiarised from another younger composer.  He hires the wronged youngster as his assistant conductor, and also takes on a young ballerina in whom he quickly sees potential.  Then, when his main star leaves to marry, he takes a chance on the youngster and promotes her in a new ballet written by his composer protégée, only for the youngsters to fall in love, much to the chagrin of Lermontov. 

            Right from the opening scene we are thrown into the tumultuous world of the creative process.  Deep down we know that what we are seeing is pure melodrama, its central romance rather trite and owing much to both Svengali and real life impresario Serge Diaghilev.  Yet Powell uses this to his advantage.  The story is not what interests him as much as the motivations of the characters.  As the caption says, “life rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes go on“, an adage tragically mirrored by the fatal ending.  Each one of the characters seem from stock, but come up smelling fresh, and he’s helped immeasurably by the cast, who are as hand picked as his creative team behind the camera.  Just think of those performances; Massine, Helpmann and Tcherina are memorable as the stars of the ballet (the former especially so as the histrionic Grischa), Basserman his usual adorable self as the elderly designer Sergei, and Knight suitably demonstrative as the chief conductor Livy, topped by the terrific leads.  Leslie Halliwell once said that Walbrook caressed his lines rather than spoke them and never was it truer than as Lermontov, whispering “ze red shooz” like no man alive, equal parts monster and father figure, reduced to a wreck by the final tragedy.  And who can forget Shearer, immortalised in one role as the doomed ballerina?  With her red hair looking incandescently gorgeous in Technicolor (like Deborah Kerr before her) and matching her almost possessed eponymous footwear.  Right from the opening credits we see her as a flame, shining brightly before just as quickly flickering out.  No wonder Walbrook’s Lermontov has to wear shades all the time and seems to be photographed in darkness; he’s truly dazzled by her.  So indeed is everyone around her, represented by the tearful Massine holding a pair of red shoes to his heart when he hears of the tragedy.  A tragedy made all the more touching by the incredible artistry of this creative team; Heckroth’s designs worthy of Basserman’s Ratov, Helpmann’s ballet choreography sublime even to non connoisseurs, Easdale’s musical suites indelible and, last but not least, Cardiff’s astonishing photography, full of a vibrancy and energy worthy of the subject, his camera breathing in the addictive fumes of the creative entity.  It may not quite be Powell and Pressburger’s best film, but as an artistic achievement, in every sense of the word, there is nothing in British cinema – nay, world cinema – to match it.  Toss whatever superlatives and encores in its direction you wish, it deserves every one of them.

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