THE FILM STORY
THOUGH Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are among our best directors, they never make completely fascinating films. For example, both Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death carried unsound stories – the first at odds with the characters, the second with an otherwise exciting fantasy. Often, of course, we overlook the ready-made stories of ordinary quota films; but that good plots are hard to find shouldn’t excuse two first-rate directors falling back on synthetic substitutes – one of the surest roads to filmic ruin. In their new work The Red Shoes Powell and Pressburger have offended especially badly in this way, and despite much splendid direction we feel delighted and annoyed by turns.
In this film Vicky Page becomes the prima ballerina of the famous Lermontov Company, making her name in a ballet based on a diluted version of Hans Anderson’s story The Red Shoes, wherein, as punishment for going to church in some red shoes, a little girl is bewitched to dance until an executioner cuts off her feet. And even then the shoes, with the feet still inside them, continue dancing: the punishment, one gathers, for vanity before God. For Vicky, however, the red shoes symbolise the life dedicated to ballet, the Lermontov Ballet, whose fanatical impresario intends to make her the greatest dancer alive. But when she rashly marries Julian Craster, the composer of the company, the ruthless Lermontov forces her to choose between husband and art; and here intrude the sinister implications of the fairy story, for incredibly, and I think absurdly, the red shoes dance Vicky to her end.
Within separate categories the directors undoubtedly succeed, often brilliantly, but in trying to combine a sentimental magazine story with near-documentary scenes (the ballet from back-stage), and a photographed stage ballet with one not far removed from a Disney Silly Symphony, they have made a hybrid. But even a hybrid by Powell and Pressburger isn’t dull. They begin, in fact, brilliantly – with eager balletomanes storming the gallery seats. This is a perfect direction – in its way, an opening as good as those of Lean’s two Dickensian films. But they close in bathos with The Red Shoes ballet performed without Vicky – doubtless an echo of that performance, after Pavlova’s death, of The Swan, with the curtain raised on an empty stage. However, to introduce the performance, Anton Walbrook as Lermontov – though good in the earlier scenes – gruesomely overacts a speech, which even if in character should have been suppressed. How anyone who could film this Pagliacci rubbish could also film the Parisian bill-poster demonstrating ballet steps to his mate is something to wonder at! The ballet I thought enchanting, and if it lacked the intimate third dimension of stage performances, it gained all the drama* that close-ups reveal, and also a vastly extended world to dance media*. As the diabolic shoe-maker, Leonide Massine (Ljubov) steals the entire picture; Moira Shearer (Vicky), who dances splendidly, acts in a charming unselfconscious way; and Robert Helpmann (Boleslawky) is excellent as her partner. Marius Goring makes what he can of the pathetic composer, for whom Brian Easendale has written effective music. Nevertheless, the work is disappointing, and even the directors never seem to have been certain just what kind of a film they were shooting; but because of Massaine, the sure-footed direction and the ballet, it is worth seeing.
To make The Naked City authentic the late Mark Hellinger fused it to a partly documentary technique, shot it on location (New York), and if he couldn’t get actual detectives and criminals, at least used actors who looked the parts. Barry Fitzgerald as a Homicide Bureau detective is the only star name, and he of course is excellent.
With no help from the usual clairvoyant detective the film tells a simple murder story, the Lieutenant Muldoon with his men make a routine investigation, tracing a few insignificant clues through the labyrinth of the City. The search is fascinating and convincing, and the documentary method provides the authentic background. Sometimes, however, it gives strange perspectives, the strangest being the domestic life of one of the detectives. This is quite irrelevant, and indeed embarrassing; but it does add depth to the work. The Naked City, in fact, succeeds where, at a much higher level of entertainment, The Red Shoes fails; and it does so because the director, Jules Dassin, knows his subject, gets to grips with it, is economical, and employs a good editor. Not that I am advocating a general return to documentary technique; but I should like to see someone follow the principle, in feature films, that stories grow from characters, and not vice versa. And if Powell and Pressburger ever dare to disregard the box office and do this, then they will make a film worth queueing for.
This article was first published in September 1948 for the Federation of the Women’s Institute magazine “Home & Country”, Home Counties Edition, Volume 30, Number 9, and priced threepence.
Peter’s piece appears on page 157.
*the words drama and media , in the third paragraph, have been added in an attempt to guess what Peter may have written so as to keep the piece flowing for the reader. The original magazines have suffered water damage and it has become impossible to determine what was written here. The missing words though, are relatively short.