The Red Shoes (1948)


Directors: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. The Archers. (U)




Producers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger.
Writers: Emeric Pressburger, Keith Winter, Michael Powell.
Camera: Jack Cardiff.
Music: Brian Easdale.
Sets: Hein Heckroth.

Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Robert Helpmann, Esmond Knight, Albert Bassermann.


Vicky (Shearer) is a talented young ballet dancer offered the chance of international success with a ballet company owned by Lermenotov (Wolbrook). She falls in love with composer Julian (Goring) who writes an opera called The Red Shoes specifically for her. But Lermenotov, who owns the copyright to the piece, is jealous and sacks Julian. Vicky leaves to marry to him but has to choose between love and arts as Lermenotov refuses to let anyone dance The Red Shoes, even beloved Vicky.


Based on a story by Hans Christian Anderson, this is one of the rare instances of ballet being produced for film, though Powell and Pressburger would make one more themselves, The Tales of Hoffmann in 1951.

This was a huge box office hit at the time, making more than 10 times what it cost to make internationally. Watching it nearly seven decades on, it beggars belief as to why.

One would expect that a filmed ballet might be a little slow to get going, perhaps drag it’s pointed toes somewhat, but it is not unreasonable to assume that directors of the calibre of Powell and Pressburger could have given us more than just a peep at the goings on behind the stage curtains.

This is a clear case of, as Mr Burns noted in an episode of The Simpsons ‘Too much prancing, not enough dancing!’, even though it is fascinating to peek into the preparation and perspiration poured into a ballet performance. From one who did a small amount of ballet toning/stretch classes in the past can attest to, it’s a physically punishing and mentally challenging art to grapple with, with many names for many different movements to remember and perfect.

We get beneficial insight into this and are able to get a good grasp of the dedication that Vicky has to climb her way to the top. Sadly, the real reason why one chooses to watch The Red Shoes is cast away and almost forgotten; to see ballet itself.

There could have been some actual dancing rather than rehearsal to break up the yawn inducing longueurs, a plie or arabesque, as least a half pirouhette. But no, all we get is stretching, mincing, bitching and then poncing (off to a cardboard Monaco to get married) until The Red Shoes are unboxed for our delight.

And what a thrilling spectacle it is! Choreographed by the celebrated Australian dancer Helpmann (who appears here as Ivan Bolesawsky), it’s a creepy, dazzling and frenetic affair, as if the Brother’s Grimm took up classy musical theatre with accompaniment by Sigmund Freud. It also allows them to show-off their formidable technical wizardry.

It allows Shearer the chance to finally show-off her extraordinary physical strength and talent, for she is no actress and has trouble holding up such a major production with only that straight back, those enviable deltoids and elegantly muscular thighs. Perhaps her vacuity explains the film’s soggy start. Her dancing certainly explains why the last section explodes with energy and passion. It’s just a shame our appetites aren’t whetted more along the way toward this fantastic moment.


A Matter of Life and Death (1946)


Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger. The Archers/Eagle-Lion/Universal. (U).




Producers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger.
Writers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger.
Camera: Jack Cardiff.
Music: Allan Gray.
Sets: Alfred Junge.

David Niven, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Kim Hunter, Marius Goring, Abraham Sofaer, Robert Coote, Joan Maude, Kathleen Byron, Bonar Colleano, Richard Attenborough.


During WWII, British bomber captain Peter Carter’s (Niven) plane is hit by enemy fire killing his crew. In the final minutes as he crashes, ground crew Wren Joan (Hunter) picks up his distress call and the two fall in love as he narrates his last words. Bailing out suddenly, he somehow survives when he should have died, leading him to plead his case to remain living in a celestial court, watched over by a jury and observers of the great and the good of history.


Powell and Pressburger collaborated on a series of lushly vivid technicolour fantasies from their Archers Studio in London during the 1930’s – 1950’s, very nearly taking on Hollywood at its own game with lavish melodramas. This rumination on the meaning of being alive, also called Stairway to Heaven in the states, is one of the most glittering examples of their genius.

A vast film in scope, ambition and design we open appropriately on a map of the galaxy with the narrator informing us “This is the universe. Big, isn’t it?”. The understatement to end all understatements.

But Powell and Pressburger were able at this point in their conjoined careers to conjure up the most extraordinarily realised fantasy realms on celluloid, usually helped by gifted cameraman Cardiff.

Fog banks roil protectively over a little England, vivid red beacons pulse behind Hunter as she desperately engages Niven in life-saving conversation, the consuming orange of the fire in his plane throbs around him and later and most especially the eye-popping sets for a black and white heaven, including a mighty silver escalator to judgement in the most Godly and palatial of courtrooms. No need for grecian columns here, so full plaudits to designer Junge for realising this most impressive of astronomical architecture. He also reflects the humour of the writers be endorsing their view of heaven as a friendly but officious monochrome idyll, where bottles of Cocoa Cola are freely available from vending machines on arrival.

The visual style can be seen throughout with some neat trick shots: Niven goes under anaesthetic and we see from the inside his eye lid closing slowly in all it’s criss-crossing blood vessel glory. A psychadelic bloodstream then leads us back to his heavenly courtroom trial. Later, he and Conductor 71 (Goring) observe his surgery and casually pass through some doors.

There is an almost thrilling use of close and mid-close up throughout, particularly during the opening scenes as Niven and Hunter commence their courtship over the air waves, shockingly escalating the closeness of their conversation. Cardiff was one of the greatest cinematographers in cinema history and cleverly utilises the shadows cast by set props to isolate parts of Hunter’s face to embellish this approach, focusing on her eyes, nose and mouth.

The lush and overwrought aspect of the film is complemented in the intense and fevered performances of the cast, particularly Niven who was never more sincere or earnest as he innocently pursues wide-eyed military miss Hunter.

Better still are the legal defence he employs to cast him back to his temporal place, British Livesey (a P&P regular) and American star Massey as an Independence War hero, who memorably argue with each other about the faults of each nation and battle for Niven’s soul. As a mark of the esteem these film makers were held internationally, when Massey was offered the potential of a role in this film he remarked immediately to the producers, “For The Archers anytime, this world or the next.”

Oh dear though, for all this beauty, there is also ugliness. For the sensibilities of this era we have to suffer the appalling vision of racial segregation. Nurse/angel Byron notes at the beginning of the film that heaven is reserved for all “whether black or white, rich or poor”, but all of the black soldiers who have died during the war efforts are seated on their own, in tonal contrast to the Puritans and French revolutionaries around them.

But this is to see a film through the prism of 70 years earlier with the full benefit of today’s Equality and Diversity aware eyes. We can then feel some justice that when Livesey asks for a new jury of entirely American people, he gets American’s of every creed and colour.

Right down the cast list is a very young Attenborough, almost unrecognisable with a full head of hair.