Martin Scorsese’s encyclopedic knowledge of film can make for some disorienting responses when he's asked about his influences. But if you pay attention, you’ll notice he has more to say about THE RED SHOES than almost any other film (in fact, he ranks it his 2nd favorite of all time):
“It’s one of the true miracles of film history.” (via)
“It’s cinema as music.” (via)
“It is a film that I continually and obsessively am drawn to… giving me the energy to keep moving on.” (via)
THE RED SHOES was released in 1948. It was the eleventh collaboration between British-born Michael Powell and Hungarian Emeric Pressburger (other famed collaborations from the two include BLACK NARCISSUS, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, and THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP). It’s a film that dazzles more and more each year, especially as the film industry moves further away from the visual splendor of the technicolor age and starts to reflect the new reality that streaming services, rather than the big screen, are often a film’s ultimate destination.
It follows a ballet company as they create, and find remarkable success with, a new piece called “The Red Shoes,” which is about a pair of slippers that cause the wearer to dance themselves to death. When lead dancer Victoria Page (played brilliantly by real-life ballet star Moira Shearer) starts a love affair, her art-above-all director, Boris Lermontov, takes issue. He thinks romantic engagement is a distraction from performance and that she must choose between devoting herself to either dance or love, believing the former has no room to accommodate the latter.
Adam Scovell, for Little White Lies, wrote, “...the very narrative of the ballet is itself about this same binary and reflects the film’s core theme back on itself; the power of the red shoes – a perfect symbol of artistic drive and ambition – crossing over from the stage narrative into the film narrative."
Powell had the idea for the movie before World War II but didn’t return to it until after the war had ended. He said, “We had all been told for 10 years to go out and die for freedom and democracy, now the war was over, THE RED SHOES told us to go out and die for art.”
(Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s primary creative partner and editor, who ended up marrying Powell after Scorsese introduced them, commented on the potential source of Scorsese’s admiration for the film: “The sense of courage, daring and of being willing to die for your art appeals to him immensely.")
Many of the characters in the film are driven by a desire to fully realize themselves as artists. Those dreams come to fruition in the famed 17-minute sequence where Victoria Page first performs the titular dance. It’s a technicolor marvel of subjectivity. Before the viewer can realize what’s happening, the action loses its tether to reality and begins to surreally reflect the thrilling passions and gnawing torments Page feels as her soul gets mixed-up with the soul of the show, resulting in a transcendent performance. It’s a breathtaking sequence of thematic self-interrogation that comes across as a work of pure, dynamic cinema.
Charlotte Higgins, writing for The Guardian, had this to say about the sequence: “...what for me is breathtaking about the central ballet section it is its attempt to capture the ‘out-of-body,’” fugitive experience of an artist in performance, when the conscious mind is suppressed and the body and pure instinct take over. It makes us, the viewer, not merely see Victoria but become her. The passage is, in all kinds of ways, profoundly unsettling: the way it deploys scraps of visual imagery from the rest of the film is exactly like the way one sees detritus from one's waking life subtly and sometimes frighteningly distorted in dreams.”
Scorsese and Schoonmaker helped spearhead a restoration of the film in the early aughts. More than half a million frames had to be cleaned of mold and painstakingly color corrected before the immaculate version we have now was ready to be seen.
Discussing THE RED SHOES in the context of the rest of Powell’s career, Schoonmaker had this to say about her former husband: “I think for him it was like almost the pinnacle of what he was able to do as a filmmaker and an artist, and to show the powerful attraction of art and yet the danger of it to your personal life, which all of us suffer from. You have to do it, as Marty says — it’s not that you want to do it, you have to do it. That’s what [Powell] wanted to lay down, and God knows he did it.”
In the film, there’s a brief exchange between Lermentov and Page that feels like just such a thesis statement:
Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
Vicky: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don’t know exactly why, but I must.
Vicky: That’s my answer too.
Other titles for your consideration, all available to rent at Movie Madness:
THE RED SHOES: One of only a handful of Criterion’s first slate of 4K releases. If you miss it on the big screen this would be the next best thing.
CAMERAMAN - THE LIFE AND WORK OF JACK CARDIFF: A documentary about Cardiff, who was the legendary cinematographer of THE RED SHOES (as well as RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART TWO) who had a remarkable career that ran from 1935 to 2007.
PAISON: The only film Scorsese holds closer to his heart than THE RED SHOES. Roberto Rossellini’s classic of neo-realism.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS: Gene Kelly screened THE RED SHOES for MGM executives so they would back this film.
PEEPING TOM: The film that ended Michael Powell’s career in England. Like so many career-killing works of gnarly genius, it’s now in the Criterion collection and lauded for being ahead of its time. It also features Moira Shearer in another incredible (and much more disturbing) dance sequence.
GOODFELLAS: After befriending Scorsese and marrying Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Powell would sometimes offer them advice. Here’s a note of encouragement he wrote after reading the script for GOODFELLAS. Unfortunately he wouldn’t live to see it released. Schoonmaker had to take a break from post-production on the film in order to bring him back to the UK where he died in February of 1990.
“Martin Scorsese’s Top Ten” - Criterion
“Five Things to Know About The Red Shoes” - BFI
“Scorsese on The Red Shoes” - Indiewire
“Martin Scorsese: ‘The movie that plays in my heart’” - The Independent
“The dark heart of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes” - Little White Lies
“My favourite film: The Red Shoes” - The Guardian
“‘The Red Shoes’ dances on in a newly restored print” - The Seattle Times
“The Movies Influenced by ‘The Red Shoes’” - Film School Rejects
“The Goodfellas Letter” - Powell-Pressburger.org
“Michael Powell Obituary” - Powell-Pressburger.org
-- Written by Sean Whiteman and brought to you by Movie Madness University, where movie lovers go to learn stuff™. For more details on Movie Madness University, as well as our upcoming class list, visit hollywoodtheatre.org/mmu.