Under their distribution deal with J. Arthur Rank, Powell and Pressburger were given unprecedented autonomy to pursue projects that suited their artistic temperaments and tastes. That quest led directly to The Red Shoes - a project begun in earnest by Alexander Korda back in 1933 that was to have been loosely based on the life of Nijinsky. As originally conceived by Korda, his wife Merle Oberon would star and a double would perform for her during the ballet sequences. However, even with all his tyrannical clout and enthusiasm, Korda was unsuccessful at generating enough interest to launch this project. It would languish interminably until the end of WWII.
By then Korda was out and Powell and Pressburger were in. The concept was resurrected and changes were made. The first major difference was that Powell jettisoned Korda's biographical approach to the material in favour of crafting an original story based loosely on Hans Christian Anderson's fable of The Red Shoes. The second stroke of genius was in Powell's determination to cast real ballet dancers in the leads who would perform their own dances as well as act.
For clout and for press, Powell chose real life Russian ballet master Leonide Massine to play the ballet master of the fictional Lermontov company. One would never imagine from the brilliant performance rendered in the film that Massine had never acted in movies before. In the minor part of prima ballerina, Boronskaja, Powell cast retired legend Ludmilla Tcherina. Finally, for his doomed ingénue, Powell chose Moira Shearer - a promising young ballerina who was receptively cool to the idea of devoting herself to any film project. Quite content to remain in the theatre, initially, Shearer rejected Powell outright. It would take four more visits from the producer before she agreed to his demands.
Casting was rounded out by one popular and one curious choice: Marius Goring - an acting favourite of Powell and Pressburger - as aspiring composer, Julian Craster and Anton Walbrook as the haunted and manipulative ballet impresario, Boris Lermontov; a character loosely based on Ballets Russes' Sergei Diaghilev and, by Powell's own admission, Alexander Korda. Walbrook's real life closeted homosexuality probably added to the wicked undercurrent of destructive possessiveness his character exhibits toward Shearer's Victoria Page.
In the meantime, Powell made another well timed decision in hiring Jack Cardiff to lens his movie. Cardiff was an unpretentious artiste in his own right, a brilliant cinematographer who intuitively understood the secrets of painting with color and light. However, the project did not immediately grip his fancy. After sheepishly admitting to Powell that he had never seen a ballet in his life, Cardiff was instructed by Powell to gain season tickets and attend every performance as part of his education in preparation for the film. Cardiff reluctantly obliged but quickly learned to appreciate ballet as an art. His personal affinity for the subject matter is inherent in every last frame of film. Under Cardiff's guidance, The Red Shoes is not only a work of dramatic intensity but of artistic integrity as well.
The plot begins in earnest with Craster and fellow music students cramming into the free balcony seats to witness the Lermontov company's latest endeavour. But Craster is outraged when portions of his own composition that he showed to the company's conductor earlier, turn up unaccredited in the premiere. Outraged, Craster storms out of the music hall.
Meanwhile, after refusing to stay and watch an impromptu performance at a party given by Victoria's aunt, Lady Neston (Irene Browne), Lermontov further compounds his insult by flirting with Victoria at the buffet set up in the next room, declaring that he has been spared "a horror" to which Victoria politely reveals that she is, in fact, 'that horror.' As an apology is out of the question (for Lermontov considers himself a supreme being removed from mere mortals) he instead decides to quietly sneak into one of Victoria's public performances the next afternoon where he is quite impressed by her talents.
Signing Victoria to his company, Lermontov sets about crafting his next great artistic achievement; the ballet of The Red Shoes. For the next 20 minutes of pure exaltation, the ballet unfolds on the screen as the heart and soul of the film - an expression of the artist as absolute that also foreshadows the film's tragic last act. In the ballet, Victoria's overwhelming passion to dance leads her to a Shoemaker's shop where a diabolical craftsman (played by Massine) bequeaths her the gift of 'the red shoes' - a pair of blood red toe shoes that once worn will not come off until their owner has danced herself to death. The ballet - a colourful exploit of overwhelming and, at times, bizarre and perverse imagery - thoroughly captivates the audience and makes Victoria Page ballet's latest star.
Joining the orchestra is Craster whom Lermontov rightfully assesses early on to be a great artist. Craster and Victoria are introduced by Lermontov prior to the ballet but regard one another with generalized contempt. Sparks fly afterward however, and the two enjoy a love affair that is interrupted frequently by Craster's impatience and love of composition that directly conflicts with Victoria's passion for dance. Sensing that Victoria may abandon her career for the happiness that marriage to Craster would provide, Lermontov fires Craster, then threatens to excommunicate Victoria from the ballet as he has previously done with prima ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina who chose romance over art as her muse.
Craster and Victoria continue to see one another in private as she rehearses for a revival of The Red Shoes ballet. Eventually, Ljubov discovers their romantic treachery and makes it known to Lermontov who brings Craster to task and threatens Victoria with the implosion of her career. Unable to chose once and for all between love and art, Victoria commits suicide as her heroine from The Red Shoes had done and moments before she is set to take the stage in the revival ballet. The film ends with Ljubov as the mad shoemaker dancing a silent tribute to Victoria while clutching the red toe shoes in his hands.
To say that initial reaction by J. Arthur Rank and associates to their private screening of the film was less than optimistic is an understatement. As the screen faded to black, executives marched from the projection room, bypassing Powell and Pressburger on the way out without a single word of praise. Indeed, so little was their faith in the film that in England The Red Shoes general release was not even accompanied by a press and promotion campaign or even poster art for that matter.
However, in America the critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive. It is rumoured that Gene Kelly and Vincente Minnelli screened the film no less than 15 times before embarking on their plans for An American in Paris. Better still, audience reception in the U.S. was wildly enthusiastic, proving the merit of Powell and Pressburger's exercise by making The Red Shoes Britain's most successful movie of all time until then. In retrospect, The Red Shoes was a colossal - if unlikely - success, and although it did not inspire or spawn other like-minded films about the world of ballet it remains arguably the most intelligently scripted excursion into that private realm of artistic sacrifice.
By the time of its 2009 restoration, time had been most destructive to the original camera elements. The film suffered from a barrage of age related artefacts, compounded by severe color fading and mis-registration, and, was plagued by an infestation of mould that had begun to eat away at its three strip emulsion. In resurrecting The Red Shoes for this Blu-Ray release, the Film Foundation set about a two year project to digitally restore and realign all three records from the original nitrate Technicolor dye transfers. The results are, in a word, breathtaking.
The image on Criterion's Blu-Ray release is vivid beyond all expectation, with superbly rendered contrast levels and the removal of virtually all but a handful of brief age related anomalies. With remarkable clarity, The Red Shoes dazzles as never before. In close up the image is so razor sharp that actor's makeup applications can be detected. Jack Cardiff's lush Technicolor glows from the screen in richly saturated hues of flaming oranges and reds, stark cobalt blues and steely grays, vibrant purples and gleaming yellows.
Fine detail is so crisp that fabrics in costuming can be seen for the first time. On the briefest of occasions the image seems slightly softer, but this is a minor quibbling on an otherwise perfect mastering effort. The audio is mono as originally recorded, but represented with renewed splendour thanks to an ambitious clean up of hiss and pop, allowing Brian Easedale's score to captivate as it should.
Extras are plentiful, including a profile featurette on the film featuring interviews with Cardiff and Martin Scorsese (a passionate proponent of this film), as well as an informative audio commentary recorded some time before with interview reflections supplied by Moira Shearer and Cardiff.
There's also a featurette on Cardiff's exceptional camera work and a brief interview with Thelma Schooner Powell - the widow of Michael Powell and a justly famous editor in her own right. The interviewer, nameless, asks some of the most inarticulate questions and ramblings to which Schooner graciously offers sound reflections on her late husband's work, her own, the film and working with Martin Scorsese.
Finally, Jeremy Irons narrates The Red Shoes in an archival reading that was part of Criterion's initial DVD release of this film back in 1998. Bottom line: The Red Shoes is an exceptional classic of enduring and timeless merit. This Blu-Ray is a must have/must own blind purchase! Get it today!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)