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With: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Robert Helpmann
Written by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Keith Winter, based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen
Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 134
Date: 06/09/1948

The Red Shoes (1948)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Dance of Death

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Every time I watch The Red Shoes I feel like I'm watching a different movie. That's because it effortlessly combines the freedom of a Disney animated feature, the grace of ballet, the inventiveness of Citizen Kane (1941), the truth of a documentary, and the magic of movies.

The Red Shoes was made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, otherwise known as the Archers, at the height of their power. They did not -- could not -- make a bad film during the 1940s or the years bookending that decade. But The Red Shoes is something special. More than the other films, it caught on with audiences, and many of us have fallen madly in love with it and treasured it for life.

The first time I saw it, I was struck hard by the first scene, which shows two guards holding a door shut as an unseen mob bangs against it from the outside. A nervous looking fellow in a tux checks his watch, nods, and says, "let them in." A mad group of young people explodes through the door, tears up a staircase, and rounds a corner. The one in the lead, Julian Craster (Marius Goring) bounds down the tops of the bleacher seats in the local theater, and plops down on his back, saving two seats for his friends.

This enthusiasm is not for a Britney Spears concert. This is for a ballet. I have seen so precious few films that have an explosive, exciting start like that, much less made in the 1940s. The film does eventually slow down, but instead of blasting you in the face, it enchants you and casts a spell over you.

Then there is the color. The Red Shoes uses color like you've never seen. Even the opening title cards (before the banging on the doors) are jaw-dropping in their vibrant beauty. The cinematographer was Jack Cardiff, who was hot off an Oscar win for his last film, Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947). It was almost as if he were challenged to do even more and go even farther.

The Red Shoes is loosely based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen in which a young girl vainly wears a pair of red shoes, which then take over her feet and make her dance until she is nearly dead. Powell and Pressburger adapted this to a ballet that takes up a solid 15 minutes in the middle of the film, and is beautifully danced by Victoria Page (Moria Shearer). This is not just any ballet, though. This ballet is developed entirely for the cinema; it could not take place on a stage.

Both Victoria and Julian are hired by the refined and slightly menacing Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). The idea is that the plot mirrors the "Red Shoes" ballet. Walbrook represents the red shoes; a career in dancing forsaking all else. And Julian represents life and love, all that Vicki gives up if she continues dancing. It's a simple story, but Powell and Pressburger treat it with grace and intelligence deserving of Citizen Kane.

Even if The Red Shoes were not one of the greatest films ever made, the Criterion Collection DVD would still be one of the greatest DVDs ever made. Admittedly, all this bonus material was available on the Criterion laserdisc of the film, but it carried a price tag of $125 and viewers had to wade through three discs (six sides) to get through everything. The DVD contains a commentary led by critic Ian Christie and featuring interviewees cinematographer Cardiff, actors Goring and Shearer, composer Brian Easdale, and Martin Scorsese. Jeremy Irons reads Powell and Pressburger's novelization of the film as well as Andersen's original story. Scorsese provides hundreds of pictures, sketches, and press materials from the film, and, using DVD technology, you can opt to watch the sketches in relation to the finished film. The disc also contains the theatrical trailer, a Powell and Pressburger filmography including clips, and an essay by Christie.

I'm not a lover of ballet, and I can imagine it would be hard to make yourself watch this film if that's the case. But the dancing here is not boring by any stretch of the imagination. It's like the best stuff from Disney's musical numbers. Don't let ballet scare you from seeing this magnificent motion picture.

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