« Lady Snowblood | Main | 2046 »

July 17, 2005

The Red Shoes

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger - 1948
Criterion Region 1 DVD

A couple of days ago, there was a news item regarding Martin Scorsese. As part of the promotion of Philips' ambient light plasma television, Scorsese created a list of his favorite color movies. The article only listed a few of the favorites: Singing in the Rain, Duel in the Sun, Jean Renoir's The River, and The Red Shoes. I was unable to find a complete list of films cited by Scorsese. It did make me wonder if his list would inspire more people to see some of the classic films on DVD.

I happened to have a copy of The Red Shoes. My memory is that I saw the film theatrically at a revival house in Denver in either the late 70s or early 80s. I know I also saw The Red Shoes at least once when it was a staple on Bravo, back when Bravo actually showed "art" movies. Between The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and Peeping Tom, I have developed what I call "The Michael Powell Theory of Color in Movies". Simply stated, the theory is that Technicolor was invented to photograph red-headed women. Moira Shearer's presence in The Red Shoes is the main justification for shooting in color.

There is some exaggeration here. One of the benefits of the DVD is that we get to see Hein Heckroth's pre-production paintings for the title ballet. In addition to the commentary contribution by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, we understand how much planning was put into every visual aspect of the film - the photography, the costumes, the set design. One clear difference between the paintings and the realized film was that Heckroth's costuming of Shearer indicated the possibility of more translucent dressing and a greater suggestion of nudity on stage. Aside from production codes prevailing in 1948, the paintings allude more directly to the sexuality of Shearer's on-stage and off-stage character.

Frankness in sexual matters is what undid Powell's career. It took about twenty years for Peeping Tom, a film with several red-headed women, to be regarded seriously. One of Powell's last films, The Age of Consent took Kubrick's Humbert Humbert, James Mason to Australia to romance the teenager played by a young Helen Mirren. Still, based on Heckroth's paintings, it is interesting to speculate on what The Red Shoes would have been like had Powell been able to follow his more avant-garde instincts. Which is not to take anything away from co-writer-director- producer Emeric Pressburger, but the commentary confirms that Powell was primarily responsible for the visual side of films by The Archers.

While The Red Shoes was one of the first British films shot with three-strip Technicolor, the last film done with this process was Dario Argento's Suspiria. Both films are linked in having ballet dancers as the protagonists. The basis of the earlier film is in a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Suspiria begins with a voice over introduction suggestive of a fairy tale. Those familiar with the unexpurgated fairy tales of Andersen and Grimm, for example, know that these are violence filled stories with the female protagonist usually coming to a bad end. In Tenebrae, Argento has a key character who very pointedly wears red shoes. More so in Argento, than in Powell, but both filmmakers have artists as their main characters in several films. In an interview in videoscopemag.com, Argento is asked about his tendency to go over the top, something Powell is sometimes accused of. Argento's response shows him to be not too different from Powell: "I'm loyal to the dream, the fantasy. It's like a painting, no?"

Posted by peter at July 17, 2005 06:30 PM


peter, you've probably seen scorsese's doc "a personal journey...", which includes clips from and discussion of his fave classics. it opens, unforgettably, with "duel in the sun".
i'm a big powell fan too.

Posted by: girish at July 18, 2005 10:22 AM

Thanks for the opportunity to commen on TRS! It's one of my favorite movies. Let me back way up and state that it IS Brian Easdale's brilliant, chilling score that is the thread that holds TRS together. I adored the ballet! What else? Everything else! And little things. "The Red Shoes is a story by Hans Andersen," says the single-minded ballet mogul, leaving out "Christian." And as the mogul sits in his darkened office, we see a black winged gargoyle through the window. Thank you. (Hal Evans)

Posted by: Hal Evans at April 8, 2006 01:57 PM