Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Red Shoes

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known as The Archers, regularly opened their movies with an arrow striking a target. If the arrow struck the bull’s eye, that was their opinion of the finished product. In “The Red Shoes,” that arrow hits the bull’s eye. Boy does it ever hit it.

Set in the ballet world, “The Red Shoes” tells a tale of three principle characters. Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is a talented young composer, brimming with enthusiasm, perhaps too much so. Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) is a beautiful and eager ballerina. Asked why she lives she says, “To dance.” And the master of the company is Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook in his most memorable performance). The three form one of the great tragic triangles in movie history.

I could write on and on about how gorgeous “The Red Shoes” is and how the Technicolor images are so vibrant and alive that they jump from the screen and envelope the viewer. It is stunning. Film director Martin Scorsese listed it among the greatest color films ever. But I’d rather describe to you my two pet ways of interpreting the movie.

The movie begins with college students rushing the cheap balcony seats of a ballet performance. Craster leads the way and nearly trips and tumbles over the balcony before sprawling out to hold three front row seats. He is there to hear the music. He immediately starts to bicker with two students there to see the dance. It is ears versus eyes, music against image.

The movie climaxes in an extended performance of the ballet of the title, which very quickly leaves realism behind and becomes a heart-stopping ballet of the cinema. Music and images clash and overlap and then merge with ocean waves even crashing into the stage at one point. It is also the passionate beginning of a romance between its composer/conductor Craster (ears) and dancing star Page (eyes, and her eyes are unforgettable).

Powell and Pressburger were celebrated for their innovations in the interplay of image and music. They pioneered the technique of playing music on the soundstage during shooting and choreographing character movements to the movement of the music. “The Red Shoes” is their ultimate showcase.

Horror director George Romero (“Dawn of the Dead”) has long admitted Powell and Pressburger among his favorite directors. And watching “The Red Shoes” makes this seem perfectly natural. The movie is dark, obsessive, and tortured. It plays like a horror film. And at the center is Lermontov, a character of brooding intensity. He constantly emerges from and then retreats back into the movie’s many expressionistic shadows. He is a character whose destructive nature borders on bloodlust.

Yes, in its aching heart, “The Red Shoes” is one of the all-time great vampire movies. As you watch, consider this: Lermontov is an elegantly dressed man with a pale complexion who is seen almost exclusively indoors or at night. When we see him outdoors in daylight, the cinematography is pointedly, blindingly bright and he always wears dark glasses as if cringing from the light.

And consider the way he treats Craster and Page as people to be sucked in, bled dry, and then discarded. “The Red Shoes” is like “Nosferatu” with the neck bites tastefully removed.

So, mark your calendars for Thursday, April 16 when Cinema 100 will screen “The Red Shoes” at the Grand Theaters. You will be in for a treat and one of the greatest movies the cinema has to offer.

“The Red Shoes” doesn’t carry a rating. It is a beautiful film, suitable for adults and teens, but maybe too dark – and in at least one particular moment too scary – for young children.

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