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The Red Shoes (1948)
Review of the American release of the DVD

The Red Shoes

Color, 1948, 134 mins.

Directed and Produced by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Starring Anton Wallbrook, Marius Goring, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine / Written by Michael Powell / Music by Brian Easdale / Cinematography by Jack Cardiff

Format: DVD - Criterion (MSRP $34.98)

Long regarded as one of the finest British films and a watershed in the art of Technicolor cinematography, The Red Shoes inspired countless female viewers to take up ballet but, more significantly, also inspired generations of moviegoers to accept art as an integral part of one's life. Of the numerous masterpieces by Powell and Pressburger, The Red Shoes remains the best-loved and continues to enjoy a growing critical reputation.

The opening scenes of the film quickly establish the central theme: people will do anything for the sake of art. Impassioned theatergoers quickly flood into their seats for the debut of a new ballet; comically, they all claim to be there for different reasons - to hear the music, to fawn over the dancers, etc. As the show begins, we are introduced to Boris Lermontov (Wallbrook), a talented but controlling impressario who enjoys full control over his protegees' lives. After the show, he arranges for his next show to present a gentry girl, Victoria Page (stunning redheaded Shearer, making her debut), whose desire to dance overwhelms all social obstacles. Julian Craster, a talented young composer, writes the score for the next ballet, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes," about a woman whose acquisition of a pair of a magical red shoes carries a heavy price: she dances herself to death. Julian and Victoria fall in love, much to Boris' consternation, but their happiness is tortured by her longing desire to return to the stage. Art and reality tragically merge together as Victoria finds herself unable to reconcile the two greatest loves in her life.

In a few fortunate films, all of the necessary elements come together perfectly, and this is one of those occasions -- acting, music, writing, and imagery all fuse into a cohesive, magical whole. While the grimmer aspects of the story (Victoria really does suffer!) have turned off some critics, this film's ever-growing cult following focuses on the positive, cathartic aspects of the story, particularly the nobility of sacrifice for one's ideals. The central "Red Shoes Ballet" is a marvel of cinematic craftsmanship and has understandably influenced countless other directors over the years (Martin Scorsese, who participates in the lively commentary here with Shearer and Jack Cardiff, counts it as a personal favorite and even presents his collection of memorabilia for one of the supplementary features). Cardiff's brilliant use of color ranks with his equally amazing accomplishment on Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus, and Shearer simply looks radiant in every frame (unfortunately her career, like Powell's, came to a screeaching halt after Peeping Tom).

The Red Shoes has generally fared well on video and TV over the years, but the Criterion edition mastered from the original negative is a stunner. The amazing clarity and vividness of color don't really burst forth until a few minutes into film (the first scenes are deliberately shot with a sort of gauzy overcast), and the results rank up there with the best of the MGM Technicolor musical restorations. A few very mild print blemishes aside, this is very close to a pristine presentation. The DVD includes the same extras as the laserdisc special edition (but at a much lower price), with a few new surprises thrown in as well. The theatrical trailer (amusingly cropped from 1.85:1 so that Shearer is described onscreen as possessing a "bewitching loveline" instead of "loveliness") and Jeremy Irons reading excerpts from the film novelization are nice little bonuses, but the real point of fascination is the Powell/Pressburger filmography, which includes brief snippets from all of their films together. Seeing crisp DVD excerpts from Tales of Hoffmann and Stairway to Heaven is enough to make a film buff's mouth water, but even more compelling are the clips from films currently unavailable; a letterboxed fragment from the sadly unavailable Oh Rosalinda! looks especially appealng, so perhaps Criterion will oversee a more comprehensive release of the Powell/Pressburger canon on DVD in the near future. Until then, audiences will just have to be content with this fine DVD package, which is very welcome company indeed.

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