The Red Shoes (1948)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 27 December (12.10 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

These days we just get to enjoy the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who seemed to spend their working lives together crafting esoteric, whimsical and often fantastic British movies that were spinning off on tangents all of their own. The rest of the world did its thing while the pair ploughed their own creative furrow, resulting in a unique body of work that includes some of the most interesting films made at the time. There’s the love letter to England that is A Canterbury Tale. Forces from the afterlife debate the future of David Niven’s soul in A Matter of Life and Death. In The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, British attitudes to war are covered, to unsparing and cynical, yet ultimately celebratory, effect.

At the time audience reactions to their films were a mixed bag – some were loved unreservedly, others had an alienating effect on viewers, and it’s only with the passing of time that we have learned to appreciate fully their dreamlike wonders, and to be grateful that they were allowed to get away with it again and again. Churchill famously loathed Blimp. People were baffled by A Canterbury Tale. And The Red Shoes, which was criticised for choosing a topic no one wanted to see on the screen, took some time to really find commercial favour. Once it did then it really did, becoming a major hit and claiming a couple of Oscars, but the initial feeling was less than fulsome, and you can imagine the public wondering what the hell all this was about.

Certainly, there are elements of The Red Shoes that are very daring, especially for the time it was made. Gene Kelly made a success of the in-film sequence where the plot is put to one side in favour of an extended dance sequence, yet it was a fresh idea when Powell and Pressburger inserted a 17 minute ballet sequence into the middle of their movie. Imagine the dream scenes from Hitchcock’s Spellbound being left uncut by the disparaging, controlling hand of Selznick, so that you see the full, disturbing vision instead of a short highlights reel, and you come close to what was committed to the final cut here. Essentially, we get a vision of The Red Shoes as envisioned by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, and brought to life by Julian Craster’s bewildering score and the dancing of Victoria Page. The ballet is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and teases out the nightmarish, psycho-sexual overtones of the girl who gets the red shoes she wants, but can’t control them and the shoes keep dancing long after she’s reached the point of exhaustion. As the shoemaker is portrayed in increasingly Guignolian tones, Page is still dancing as her pretty dress turns into dirty rags and the community turns her away, ignoring her plight. The painted backdrops take on a more sinister edge. The set dressings become elaborate, impossible to really be there on the stage and you realise it’s as much the product of someone’s imagination – Page’s own? The audience’s? – as it is clever stage design, Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and the production design work of Hein Heckroth building a bizarre and unsettling claustrophobia of limited space, through which Page pirouettes in ever more desperate and frantic circles, the need to rid herself of the shoes urgent and yet impossible.

The Red Shoes is the sad tale of Page (Moira Shearer), the dancer who gets her opportunity to shine when the company’s prima ballerina announces her marriage. To impresario Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), there is no room for love in the life of a ballerina. ‘The music is all that matters‘ he tells her, a fateful warning as she beings a romance with the composer, Craster (Marius Goring) and this threatens her dancing future. Page ultimately is forced to choose – a career in Lermontov’s company, which is demanding yet professionally rewarding, or ‘earthly’ happiness with Craster, a dilemma that has tragic consequences.

As the single-minded Lermontov, Walbrook plays a monster. Dismissive of anyone who doesn’t share his vision and enforcing a work ethic that is nothing short of punishing, Lermontov is at his worst when Page’s relationship with Craster means she will never be fully his and his mood spills over into rage, a professional resentment as he found his muse and has had her snatched away. Goring, impressive in A Matter of Life and Death, gets the more straight role as Craster, asserting his musical talents and coming to love Victoria. Much of the cast was filled with real ballet dancers, which is how Moira Shearer came to the role. She had little love for the demands of working on film and would go on to make fleeting future appearances, though there’s little doubting her impact on The Red Shoes, notably in the signature ballet sequence that lays all her talent bare on the screen, the emotion and longing expressed through sheer movement. It took Powell a year to entice Shearer for the part, and she was unimpressed with his efforts to direct her and her fellow dancers, feeling he didn’t ‘get it’ and tried to treat them like any normal actor.

The picture has an overall dreamlike feel. This is partly achieved through some incredible use of Technicolor, lending everything a lush, glossy sheen. Much of the action takes place in Monte Carlo, which adds to its fleshy air of romance. Craster and Page are shown chatting on their hotel veranda; a train passes below, blowing plumes of  smoke that surround them, as though enveloping them in cloud. It’s a mirror held to the conceits of ballet, the artifice and implied sexuality displayed through dance. Shearer might have been right in sensing Powell and Pressburger were not qualified to work with dancers, but they knew how to create a mood, and the ethereal one they generated for The Red Shoes – made, lest we forget, during the difficult, lean years following World War Two – is powerful indeed.

To modern viewers, it’s impossible to ignore parallels with Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 entry about Natalie Portman’s dancer working to earn the lead role in a prestigious production of Swan Lake and the toll it takes on her very sanity. The similarities are easy enough to see. Both films are about the strains made on ballerinas, their efforts to reach the heights of performance clashing with the other demands on their lives, but the newer film has more obvious leanings in the horror genre, the obliquely expressed challenges for Victoria Page made frighteningly stark in Portman’s case. I know which of the two I prefer. The Red Shoes is powerful, beautiful and its sense of longing present yet elusive. In many ways it’s a companion piece to Black Narcissus, one of my favourite Powell and Pressburger productions, another story of earthly pleasures encroaching on a world where they have no place. By the film’s close, Victoria has become the real life wearer of the red shoes, compelled by them to dance, and dance, and dance to destruction, and watching her do so has an absurd and enchanting quality that makes the film hopelessly compelling. By the finish, just like Victoria I have surrendered to the power of the red shoes.

The Red Shoes: *****

The Battle of the River Plate (1956)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 17 March (10.45 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

The account of the German cruiser ship, Admiral Graf Spee, is a genuinely riveting yarn from the early months of World War Two. As a popular story, it hasn’t survived the years, probably because it didn’t lead to enormous levels of human sacrifice and the Germans involved weren’t senseless monsters, but it is good stuff and worth recounting here. For those who haven’t seen The Battle of the River Plate, bear in mind that the film follows the factual events very closely.

Following Germany’s defeat in World War One, the Treaty of Versailles imposed strict limitations on the size of warships it could build, the aim being to deny it the opportunity to compete with Britain in terms of constructing titanic Dreadnought style boats. The Deutschland-class Cruiser, of which Admiral Graf Spee was one, had various innovations designed to keep it within weight restrictions and as a consequence developed a superior vessel. The British dubbing of these ships as ‘pocket battleships’ might suggest some little tub with firepower, but Graf Spree was formidable, armed with powerful guns, fast and highly maneuverable. In short, the perfect ship for attacking merchants carrying supplies to Britain. Shortly before war broke out but with the declaration imminent, Graf Spee slunk out of its German port and into the South Atlantic, from where it could prey on shipping. This it did, racking up an impressive record of sinkings and remaining elusively at large.

Its captain, Hans Langsdorff, was a fascinating figure, a tactical genius who pulled every trick in the book to escape capture and to make the threat of his single ship look as though an entire convoy of warships was out there. In addition he was a humanist, insisting that merchant ships were ordered to send their crews across to the Graf Spee before they were sunk. Langsdorff’s attitude was that the war was on Allied shipping, not the sailors, who would be held as prisoners and treated well.

Graf Spee’s success alerted British ships of war, which made searching and destroying it their highest priority. The ‘hunting group’ that came across and battled it was led by Commodore Henry Harwood, a seaman as tactically astute as Langsdorff and with acute knowledge of the South Atlantic. Harwood guessed the pocket battleship’s movements correctly, a dazzling insight that seems to have emerged wholly from calculated guesswork, and his three ships engaged Graf Spee on the River Plate, the massive estuary leading from South America into the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the German boat’s better guns, it was eventually out-maneuvered and crippled, leaving it with no choice but to head for the nearest port and make repairs.

This happened to be at Montevideo, the picturesque capital of Uruguay. The two remaining British ships waited outside for Graf Spee’s re-emergence, aware that Langsdorff was perfectly capable of escaping somewhere along the estuary because of the size of the area they had to patrol. Engaging the services of British diplomat Eugen Millington-Drake, attempts were made to shorten the time Graf Spee needed to be fixed – Langsdorff wanted two to three weeks; he was given four days. In the meantime, the British Foreign Office, knowing fully that their phones were being tapped by German agents, put it about that further ships were massing in order to deal with it, whereas in reality only one was close enough to help. The overall effect of all this pressure was to compel Langsdorff into scuttling Graf Spee, turning the episode into a major British success story. It was also a big deal in Montevideo itself, locals clamouring to follow the news of what would happen next and reporters covering the story gaining minor celebrity status.

Little wonder that this suggested great cinematic material, and even better that it was made for the screen by the dynamic creative force that was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The pair hit upon the idea whilst attending a film festival in Argentina and getting the details, seeing it as the ticket to reviving the ailing fortunes of their production company, The Archers. British and American ships were hired and deployed in the Mediterranean in order to give the film some authentic boats to photograph, whilst some of the best models available were built for the scenes where ships are suffering heavy damage.

In order to convey the character of Langsdorff (Peter Finch), many of the film’s early scenes are between him and a captured merchant captain, played by Bernard Lee. As Lee’s Captain Dove is treated with every courtesy by the German, he comes to respect and even admire him, though it doesn’t stop him and his fellow captives from cheering on the British when they open fire. Harwood is a never more charismatic Anthony Quayle. John Gregson plays Captain Bell (and wore a specially made wax nose for the role, in honour of the real life captain, who was affectionately known as ‘Hookie’ by his men), in charge of the Exeter, the British light cruiser that took the heaviest damage and suffered the most casualties. In many ways, Gregson’s is the choice role as he gets to rally his troops, make quick decisions and score a decisive blow on Graf Spee.

However, the moments when Bell is racing around his ship, sometimes literally fighting fires, are by some distance the most exciting scenes in the film. For the most part, it’s a well crafted but ultimately highly ‘talkie’ picture, filled with characters discussing their strategies with a brief reprieve for bits where big ships fire upon each other. The actual battle takes place in the film’s middle; following is the lengthy aftermath in Montevideo, the British efforts to bluff Langsdorff into giving up and ending the fighting. It’s fine, but it isn’t thrilling, though there’s a nice sense of the excitement it causes in the city, including a very young Christopher Lee playing a Uruguayan bar owner who gets increasingly exasperated with all the attention.

Christopher Challis was the Director of Photography responsible for bringing to life those highly impressive battle scenes, the smooth maneuvering of massive ships preparing for conflict. It’s a beautifully shot film, unfortunately it’s one of those rare instances of the actual events being a lot more exciting than those committed to celluloid (there’s a great episode of Timewatch covering the story available on YouTube). The post-battle scenes remain somewhat anti-climactic, even with the closing money shot of Graf Spee on fire and sinking.

All the same, it was Powell and Pressburger’s biggest hit at the box office and a late success for the partnership. A happier ending than that met by Langsdorff himself. In the film, he meets Dove for a final chat that makes clear the respect he’s earned. In reality, having ensured that no further lives were lost (despite the misgivings of Hitler, who wanted him to continue the fight) and overseeing his crew’s transfer to Buenos Aires, he took his own life.

The Battle of the River Plate: ***

Black Narcissus (1947)

When it’s on: Monday, 14 May (2.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Exploring sexuality seemed to be an obsession of Michael Powell’s films. Some of his best work – Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom, the former two made with long-standing partner in celluloid, Emeric Pressburger – were studies of repression in its various forms. It was a brave subject to go into, and it didn’t always yield acclaim at the time, though all three films have attained treasured status in later years.

Black Narcissus is a joy from start to finish. Even if the subject matter – some nuns set up a convent high in the Himalayas and begin losing their way due to a combination of the climate and the culture – doesn’t grip, each scene is a thing of beauty. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff won an Academy Award for his work. Alfred Junge, who was responsible for the film’s design, was also Oscar-bound. Both were worthy winners. The luscious images and sensuous levels of colour load atop each other to provide a riot of visual appreciation. Whether it’s a shot of one of the sisters ringing the convent bell at the top of a vertiginous sheer cliff face, or the flowers, or the sunset viewed from a window, Black Narcissus is one of the loveliest looking films ever made.

Powell and Pressburger were working with a group of well known character actors who were all at the top of their games. Heading the sisterly order is Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh, almost the image of sexual denial in the demure habit she wears throughout the picture (apart from in a few flashbacks). Like her sisters, Clodagh’s senses start going into overtime once she enters the convent, which was previously a harem for the local general’s women. Explicit artwork decorates the walls and a picture depicts the things that the women used to get up to in there. As though the building retains its memories of those days, the imagery works on Clodagh to conjure repressed memories of her own past and an old love, the ending of which compelled her to enter the sisterhood.

She isn’t the only one who falls under the spell of the ‘House of Women.’ Another sister who’s responsible for the gardens plants exotic flowers instead of vegetables. And then there’s Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), taken along because of her frequent bouts of illness. Already one bead short of a full rosary, Ruth becomes infatuated with Mr Dean (David Farrar), the charismatic British agent, which turns into a pathological jealousy of Clodagh as she suspects a latent mutual attraction between the pair. Added to the mix is Sabu, playing a young General who turns up to the convent to improve his learning but who instead falls for the earthy charms of a flighty dancing girl (Jean Simmons).

Incredibly, almost the entire film was shot at Pinewood Studios, matte paintings filling in for the Himalayan vistas. You can’t tell. It’s all so masterfully put together that you can almost feel the constant wind tugging at the sisters’ habits and smell the cool, clean air they blame for their emotional states. The colours are deliberately chosen and work wonderfully, especially the white of the nuns’ habits clashing with the exotic dress and flora they find themselves in, emphasising the sisters’ other-worldliness.

But the lasting image has to be that of Sister Ruth and her eventual fall into chaos. The way she goes from plain sister to glamourpuss and finally the pale-faced would-be killer of Clodagh is amazing. Her final scenes are terrifying. I’ve seen Ms Byron in many other features, notably The Small Back Room, in which she is once again partnered with Farrar. She’s a natural beauty. Yet every viewing of her in those other films takes me back to the sad, demented Sister Ruth, her mind lost to hate and vengeance. It’s a terribly affecting performance in a superb film.

Black Narcissus: *****