I typically shy away from the term “masterpiece”. Perhaps that is because I conflate it with perfection rather than the mere work of a master. That perfection should be obvious to everyone and be separate from nostalgia and historical context–unless context is a conscious ingredient–and thus applies to very few films. In film, being a collaborative medium with so many people at work that go unseen and unknown by the vast majority of us, a masterpiece is even more unlikely and attenuated. The Red Shoes (1948) is a masterpiece. The story is incredible, the acting mostly excellent, and the production is possibly the finest blend of every element a film can collect. I want this to be my favorite film. It is about obsession, humanity, jealousy, passion, ambition, love, and frustration. It is about art.
It is the opening night of a new Lermontov Ballet, Heart of Fire, with music by Andrew Palmer (Austin Trevor). Palmer’s students have all come to see what the old maestro has created. One among them, Julian Craster (Marius Goring), can hardly believe his ears. The man has stolen his work! Craster rashly sends a letter to Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) about the matter but, thinking better of it, comes to Lermontov to regain it before any damage is done. But the damage is done and Lermontov gives him a job. The night before, lured by the power of a “patron of the arts”, Lermontov went to the party of Lady Nestor (Irene Browne) only to be ambushed with the shock of an impromptu introduction to the Lady’s niece who is “a professional dancer”. Lermontov, not one to suffer anyone’s chicanery, sequesters himself at the bar to avoid any unpleasantness. Then, the niece herself, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), arrives at his side and takes his notice with her fierce desire for dance. She too is invited to work for him, but when she and Craster arrive, Lermontov acts nearly as though they’d never met. Both have to earn their place. What they have is an opportunity. And they take it.
I’ve found that with the classic films I like the most, there usually is a misrepresentation made over the vagaries of time and reputation. I was given to understand that The Red Shoes was about a woman who took a pair of shoes that gave her the power to dance but found she could never take them off and so danced herself to death. That is, roughly, the story of The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Anderson but it is only the name of the ballet performed by Page, composed by Craster, and directed by Lermontov. It is central, to be sure, but it is by no means the entirety. Most of the film is more akin to Singin’ in the Rain (1952) or All About Eve (1950)–how often I come back to All About Eve–and life in the theater. The Red Shoes, even better than All About Eve, captures the cruel wit and the brutality of competitive arts. There, all must kill or be killed for the chance at meager wages to perform for that small coterie for whom $150 is the reasonable price of an evening. But what drives those artists? The Red Shoes proposes the purest answer and, possibly, reflects those of writers, producers, directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Powell and Pressburger were filmmaking partners of unique power and production. No other non-familial pair may rival them. They are also known as The Archers, which was the name of their production company, famous for its logo of an archery target with arrows all around it (and the final strike right in the middle). Powell was the Lermontov who was more concerned with the direction of the film (in its initiation and filming). Pressburger was the Craster, taking the lead in putting words to the page. Pressburger also took the lead as the editor with Reginald Mills, which, once you’ve seen The Red Shoes, was clearly not for the shear sake of inclusion. Apparently their partnership ran so deep that Pressburger knew what Powell wanted to say even before he knew he wanted it said. Having now seen three of their films, I can see that they must have shared a similar and consistent view of psychology and the exceptional cases therein.
I’ll tell you when I decided that I loved this movie. It came in three stages. First, when the dancers and musicians viciously teased the newcomers, I realized this was no bald fantasy. Second, when Caster is told he is to write the ballet of The Red Shoes and Page is told she is to dance it. Goring and Shearer respond in a way that thrills me even to think about it–it’s simple and restrained, but fiery and that’s what I love about it. Third, after the ballet is performed and the film goes on with the story as before.
Then I knew that this was a full story and no one was cutting any corners. So often with older movies, the final act is so brief and on-the-nose–meaning that themes and morals are typically said plainly and fully with the kind of awareness you wouldn’t expect from a historian–that I have to shrug and say “Oh well, that’s just how they did it back then. How could they fade to black otherwise?” The Red Shoes is two hours and fifteen minutes long and it packs in a ballet, the montage of several others, two loves stories, two or three character reversals and it doesn’t seem to miss a beat. It also doesn’t miss a moment of repose. I was so pleased by that I can hardly explain it.
There are so many details I want to talk about but I’d rather you saw it first. And please, please see it like I did. On the Blu Ray put out by the Criterion Collection. You’ll see there, in the special features, the lengths to which they went to restore this film and the difference it makes to the finished product. Beautiful, color, 1948. God I love the movies.
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