DirectorMichael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Release Date(s)1948 (December 14, 2021)
Studio(s)The Archers (The Criterion Collection – Spine #44)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
Filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced and directed a staggering number of classic films during their lengthy partnership—Black Narcissus, A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Tales of Hoffman, and more—but in many respects, The Red Shoes remains the crown jewel in their canon. In the decades since it was first released, it has taken on a life of its own that transcends the limitations of any given time and space. While the stories behind its original production are fascinating indeed, The Red Shoes doesn’t need to be considered in context to be appreciated. If it had materialized out of thin air, and nothing whatsoever was known about its origins, it wouldn’t lose a single iota of its inherent luster. The universal appeal of its story, as well as the glorious nature of the filmmaking on display, would always grant it a seat in the pantheon.
While The Red Shoes may be a dark tale of ambition and its consequences, in many respects it’s a spiritual heir to the classic Warner Bros. Depression-era “putting on a show” musicals. The storyline from Powell and Pressburger follows the basic template of films like Gold Diggers of 1933 and 42nd Street, although the stakes have been raised significantly. Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is an autocratic theatrical ballet impresario who discovers the talented young dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), and he chooses to make her the centerpiece of an ambitious staging of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Red Shoes. The show is a massive success, but Lermontov demands absolute control not only over his productions, but over his troupe as well. As he guides Victoria’s career, she starts a relationship with Lermontov’s composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). That’s a bridge too far for Lermontov, who tries to pit the two against each other, even engineering Julian’s exit from the company by rejecting his latest score and forcing him to seek employment elsewhere. Vicky finds herself torn between the man that she loves, and the man who gives her the opportunity to do what she loves. Inevitably, she can’t have both, and that leads to tragic results.
Powell and Pressburger chose not just to make a film about a staging of The Red Shoes, but also to have Vicky’s journey mirror that of the protagonist of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. In Anderson’s story, Karen is a narcissistic young girl who obsesses over having a pair of fine red shoes, and against the wishes of her adoptive mother, she makes a spectacle of herself by wearing them to her confirmation at church. Later, she encounters a mysterious old soldier with an equally red beard who says that her beautiful shoes should never come off when dancing. That turns out to be a curse in punishment for her impious vanity, and the shoes force her to dance uncontrollably. She dances night and day, day after day, until she can’t take it any longer and confesses her sins to the local executioner, asking him to cut off her feet. He does so, and the shoes end up dancing away with her severed feet still inside them. She eventually returns to church as a much humbler person, finding peace before she dies and her soul goes to heaven, where red shoes are never mentioned again.
Both Vicky and Karen are tragic heroines, but for different reasons. Karen is compelled to dance as a punishment for the sin of pride, but Vicky wants to dance more than anything else. Vicky’s tragedy is that she lives in a society where women simply aren’t allowed to have it all, and are forced to choose between love and career. To retain the love of her man, she has to give up doing what she loves. Lermontov and Julian may be pitted against each other due to Lermontov’s jealousy over the latter’s relationship with Vicky, but they’re in perfect agreement on that score: Lermontov tells Vicky that she must give up Julian to continue dancing, and Julian wants her to give up dancing in order to be with him. Julian expects Vicky to support his career as a composer, but he’s unwilling to do the same for her in return. While Vicky may be facing a Faustian bargain with Lermontov, Julian is every bit as much of a Mephistopheles as Lermontov is. Both of them want her to give up a part of her soul in return for their favor.
Karen may have been the author of her own tragic fate, but Vicky is a victim of it. Karen’s red shoes symbolized her haughtiness, but Vicky’s red shoes symbolize her desire to have her own career—more importantly, her desire to do something that she loves. Fame and fortune are secondary for Vicky; she just wants to dance, and doesn’t think that she should have to give that up for the man who she loves. Her sin in the world of The Red Shoes is thinking that a woman could be allowed to have both, and in a patriarchal society, that desire must be punished. In the end, she can’t reconcile the two, and that tears her apart. She does offer a form of symbolic repentance by asking Julian to remove her red shoes, but it’s a somewhat hollow gesture, as he’s no more worthy of her than Lermontov is. Vicky deserved better than either of them, but the world simply wasn’t ready for her yet.
Powell and Pressburger expressed Vicky’s love of the ballet visually by creating a film quite unlike any other up to that point. Rather of casting conventional actors and using doubles for the dancing sequences, they chose to cast dancers who could act instead, Shearer included. The Red Shoes was her first film, and ironically enough, she made a Faustian bargain of her own with acting and ended up retiring from the ballet a few years later. The dancing in the film is indeed extraordinary, especially during the justifiably famous centerpiece: an uninterrupted 17-minute sequence where the company performs their adaptation The Ballet of the Red Shoes. Audaciously for a film about the ballet, Powell and Pressburger chose borrow a page from those Busby Berkley backstage musicals and choreograph everything for the camera, rather than for the stage itself, openly embracing the fantasy rather than the reality. Yet they wisely chose to introduce viewers to that fantasy in phases.
During the Heart of Fire ballet that opens The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger opted to stage things more conventionally, keeping the camera largely confined to the point of view of the audience in the theatre where it was being performed. The Ballet of the Red Shoes begins in a similar fashion, with the camera remaining on the audience’s side of the proscenium arch, but it gradually pushes past that arch. Once it does, the sets and the choreography both reorient themselves for the sake of the camera, not for the audiences who would have been watching the ballet from the theatre. It’s exactly the same technique that Berkeley used repeatedly to great effect—the camera (as well as the film’s viewers) becomes an active participant in the fantasy. After that line has been crossed, fantasy takes over completely, with the filmmakers employing jump cuts, superimpositions, and other such tricks. The glimpses of the other performances that follow The Ballet of the Red Shoes are also staged primarily for the camera, with the actors even looking directly into it at several points. It’s only once the world has come crashing down around Vicky that the camera pulls back behind the proscenium arch again—Vicky’s fantasy of having it all has finally ended.
The Red Shoes was a massive success for Powell and Pressburger’s Archer Films in 1948—among other accomplishments, it ran for a staggering 107 weeks at the Bijou Theatre in Manhattan. It’s been beloved by generations of fans ever since, and for good reason. It’s the rare film that excels on just about every level imaginable: the direction, the performances, the dancing, the lovely score by Brian Easdale, the lush three-strip Technicolor cinematography by Jack Cardiff, the extraordinary stylized sets designed by Hein Heckroth, the editing by Reginald Mills—there’s little to criticize in The Red Shoes. It’s a piece of fine crystal that always appears unblemished no matter which facet from which you observe it. Yet technical perfection alone is never enough for a film to achieve this kind of immortality. No, the real vitality of The Red Shoes lies in the universal appeal of Vicky’s desire to be free to do what she loves. The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long—and for a time, she was able to burn so very, very brightly indeed.
Jack Cardiff shot The Red Shoes on 35 mm film in three-strip Technicolor with spherical lenses, framed at the Academy Aperture of 1.37:1 for its theatrical release. This version uses the 4K restoration that was performed in 2009 under the aegis of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Foundation. All three of the original camera negatives were scanned at 4K resolution, and according to restoration supervisor Robert Gitt, there were multiple challenges with the material, including the fact that 65% of the footage had color fringing due to different shrinkage rates and misalignment in the cameras. There was even degradation from mold on every reel. Restoration work was performed by Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging and Prasad Corporation, Ltd. That included fixing the registration issues, cleaning up the damage, and performing shot-by-shot color correction. It’s not clear when the new High Dynamic Range grading was performed, but both Dolby Vision and HDR10 are available on the disc.
The results are nothing short of miraculous, even if they’re not quite perfect. Given the three-strip origination, the fine detail isn’t always the most highly resolved, although it’s worth pointing out that this is still far sharper and more detailed than the original Technicolor prints would have appeared in 1948. The grain in particular is sharper and more prominent than it originally would have looked back then. These days, we’re so spoiled by 4K restorations from the original camera negatives that we sometimes forget that we aren’t really seeing things the way they were originally intended to be seen. That said, it’s still an impressive amount of detail for a three-strip production. Closeups are particularly strong, and subtle details like the freckles on Moira Shearer’s skin stand out more than before. Optically printed effects like the dissolves do look a bit softer, but not egregiously so. While there are still occasional signs of imperfect registration, those are minor and won’t stand out to most viewers.
The HDR grade is somewhat darker overall than in SDR, but it offers more detail at the extreme ends of the spectrum. The highlights are generally cleaner (although a few do appear a bit noisy), and the shadow detail is better-resolved. The color detail is definitely improved, with the lavish Technicolor look being reproduced beautifully here. Moira Shearer’s fiery red hair really glows in this version, yet the subtle shadings in it are still reproduced accurately. While the darker grade may not be to everyone’s taste, it would seem to be in line with Cardiff’s intentions, as he explained in his autobiography Magic Hour: A Life in Movies: “To the surprise of everyone, Technicolor was improved by the reduced lighting. Instead of blatant, glaring colors, the underlit film produced soft, pleasing pastel tints.” The Red Shoes isn’t as bright and vivid as a film like The Adventures of Robin Hood, but that’s by design, and this version seems faithful to what Cardiff was trying to achieve.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono LPCM, with optional English subtitles. Audio restoration work was performed by Audio Mechanics, working from the original optical tracks. There’s little audible noise or distortion remaining, and everything sounds as clean as it can. The overall fidelity is naturally limited by the nature the optical recordings, but it’s still a nice audio presentation of some truly lovely music. (Unsurprisingly, Brian Easdale took home the Oscar in 1949 for Best Score).
Criterion’s 4K Ultra HD release of The Red Shoes is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film. The cover was designed by F. Ron Miller, and the set also includes a 28-page booklet featuring and essay by David Ehrenstein, as well as restoration notes by Robert Gitt. The bulk of the extras are on the Blu-ray only:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary by Ian Christie (with Interviews)
- The Red Shoes Novel read by Jeremy Irons
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary by Ian Christie (with Interviews)
- The Red Shoes Novel read by Jeremy Irons
- Restoration Demonstration (HD – 4:17)
- Profile of The Red Shoes (Upscaled SD – 25:30)
- Thelma Schoonmaker Powell (HD – 14:41)
- Stills Gallery (HD, 133 in all)
- Scorsese’s Memorabilia (HD, 51 in all)
- The Red Shoes Sketches (HD – 15:57)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:30)
The commentary was originally recorded for the 1994 Criterion Collection LaserDisc release of The Red Shoes. It’s a fine example of the kind of curated commentary track that Criterion developed back in that era, with Ian Christie serving as both commentator and host. He provides his own thoughts about the film, and introduces interview clips featuring Marius Goring, Moira Shearer, Jack Cardiff, Brian Easdale, and Martin Scorsese. Christie offers a comprehensive look at the making of the film, including critical analysis, all supported by appropriate interview clips. It’s a much more satisfying experience than typical off-the-cuff commentaries, as it always stays on topic, even if it isn’t always screen-specific. The Red Shoes Novel was also recorded in 1994, and it features Jeremy Irons reading excerpts from the 1978 novelization of the film by Powell and Pressburger. It’s authored as a secondary audio track that can be listened to while watching the film—it was laid out to sync with the events as they occur.
The Restoration Demonstration is hosted by Martin Scorsese, who describes the challenges in having to restore three-strip technicolor, not just because of registration issues, but also because it required three times as much work as a single strip negative would have. He acknowledges that the use of modern tools means that the image is now significantly sharper than it ever would have been back in 1948. Comparison clips are shown of the original damaged negatives and the final restoration. Profile of The Red Shoes is a brief 2000 documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with Kevin Macdonald (grandson of Pressburger), Ian Christie, Jack Cardiff, camera operator Chris Challis, Christian Routh (grandson of production designer Hein Heckroth), ballerina Darcey Bussell, and Andrew Macdonald (grandson of Pressburger). It provides the background of how the project came about, as well as stories about its production and release. Since it was produced in 2000, the clips that it includes are all from prior to the 2009 restoration, so they provide an interesting glimpse of just how drastic the improvements really are. Thelma Schoonmaker Powell is an interview with the legendary editor that was recorded at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where the restoration debuted. She was married to Powell from 1984 until his death in 1990, and she was actively involved with the restoration efforts.
The Stills Gallery is divided into 6 different sections, covering the cast & crew, filming in London, filming in Paris, Filming in Monte Carlo, deleted scenes, and production & costume design. There are an impressive 133 total images involved (including title cards), so it’s nice to have a little curation here as well. Scorsese’s Memorabilia is another stills gallery, this time covering the director’s extensive collection of memorabilia and other artifacts related to the production of The Red Shoes. Finally, The Red Shoes Sketches is an animated version of the production design sketches by Hein Heckroth that was created in 1948 as a guide for the filmmakers—sort of a nascent version of the animatics that are used today. It’s accompanied by Brian Easdale’s score, but it can also be viewed with the audio of Jeremy Irons reading the fairy tale, or in a comparison version showing the animation side-by-side with relevant clips from the film.
It’s a fine collection of extras that adds genuine value to Criterion’s set, but once again, The Red Shoes doesn’t really require any contextualization to be enjoyed. Even this was a bare-bones release, it would still be worth the price, especially given the fact that it presents the 2009 restoration in its best possible light. Yet with the addition of the extras, this set belongs in the library of every single film fan with a 4K display—and even if you don’t have that capability yet, the inclusion of the Blu-ray means that you’ll be future-proofed for whenever you do have the means to upgrade. Just buy this disc regardless.
- Stephen Bjork