Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).
The last picture I discussed on Play It Again was the abysmal Weird Science. Needless to say, there is a canyon of quality between that and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger‘s The Red Shoes. Collectively known as The Archers, Powell and Pressburger’s retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of the same name is widely regarded as one of the great movies. Martin Scorsese has been famously hailed as the feature’s biggest fan, and, far less impressively, it holds the distinction of being my second favourite film of all time.
Moira Shearer plays Vicky Page, an idealistic dancer with dreams of joining a prestigious ballet company headed by the brusque Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). She becomes his prima ballerina, and he builds for her a bold showcase: The Red Shoes. Vicky’s supreme talents see her flirt with stardom, but an affair with composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) threatens to distract her from achieving true greatness. The seething Lermentov forces the young lovers to choose between their relationship and his company. They choose love. If only it were that simple.
The centrepiece of The Red Shoes is the 17-minute sequence in which we get to see the title ballet executed, and ultimately expanded beyond the limitations of the stage. Putting to shame the ‘Gotta Dance’ scene from Singin’ in the Rain, it took six weeks to shoot and requires a lifetime to fully grasp. Choreographed by Australian Robert Helpmann and captured in shiver-inducing technicolour by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the best way to describe its power and beauty is thusly: there are no words. As a film critic, I can’t really get away with that too often. This feels like a worthy deployment.
The Archers’ funny, profoundly sad script is brought to life with fleet-footed ease, building to a tragic climax that produced an audible gasp on my first viewing. Walbrook and Goring may give more magnetic performances in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death, respectively, but when caught in a love triangle with the luminous Shearer, this trio is incomparable. The Red Shoes is indeed romantic, but the love story at its core is between artists and their art. To quote Lermentov: “The music is all that matters.”
Sight and Sound’s recent listing of the Top 250 Films saw The Red Shoes placed at 117; beneath Powell and Pressburger’s Life and Death (90) and Colonel Blimp (93), tied with A Canterbury Tale, and above Black Narcissus (154). That only two of their pictures cracked the Top 100 would be justification enough for a recount; that The Red Shoes wasn’t part of the Top 10 would be justification for a storming of the Sight and Sound barracks.
The Red Shoes is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and can be streamed via Quickflix.