For the fourth feature in our screening series with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation at Nitehawk Cinema, we present Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes: an exquisite classic of British cinema that may very well be the most sumptuous color film ever made. It’s also one of Mr. Scorsese’s personal favorites.
To get you prepped, we asked a few folks to chime in with their impressions on the film, along with an essay about the incredible restoration work done on the film by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. —Introduction by Greg Eggebeen
CARYN COLEMAN – FILM PROGRAMMER, NITEHAWK CINEMA
The Red Shoes is an exquisite tale of obsession that simultaneously encourages and cautions against that obsession. This duality is told in the film’s famous two-fold storyline: one through Victoria Page’s real-life devotion to her craft in spite of her growing relationship with composer Julian Craster and the other through her performance of the ballet, The Red Shoes. These narratives weave together into the inevitable conclusion that prioritizing one’s obsession will only lead to a fatal downfall. Of course, the act of failure is an inherent part of the creative process that must be embraced and accepted. The Red Shoes offers a sensationalized vision of this commitment, this pact with the devil, in the purest representation of magic and madness that exists in cinema. If you’re fortunate enough to be the type of person who is compelled to create, there is no better experience than watching (and relating to) the explosion of color and passion that Powell and Pressburger bring to big screen.
The dynamism produced by British filmmaking partners Michael Powell and Emmeric Pressburger (a.k.a. the Archers) and the universality of the subject matter—love, work, life, death—makes a film made in 1948 eternally modern. Like Melies’ ghosts and fantastic voyages, Powell and Pressburger exploit the liberties of movie magic to create their breathtaking ballet within the movie that’s at once parallel to the movie’s plot and its own individual hyperreal state of being. Dancers fly, demons leep, seasons change, the world is traversed before our very eyes because this performance is made and lives solely within the world of film. And it’s precisely this magical representation of unattainable desire that establishes The Red Shoes as an utterly unique and timeless cinematic experience.
ROBERT WEISS – ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, CAROLINA BALLET
The Red Shoes is by far and away the best movie about ballet ever made. Although loosely based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, the film couldn’t be more authentic about the reality of what goes on behind the scenes in a ballet company.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the film’s directors/writers/producers took great care to make sure every detail was correct, from a very early scene at the start of the film showing the nonentity status of the mothers to the young apprentice dancers to one of the last scenes where the directors—knowing Vicky Paige would be starting the ballet in the pink shoes but has to die in “the red shoes”—contrived a scene in which she is warming up in “the red shoes” to break them in before the performance begins (the most natural thing in the world for a ballerina).
The movie has such a deep love and respect for the world of ballet that it includes a complete 20-minute ballet of The Red Shoes within the context of the story. No other film about dance has been that bold before or since. Other things that make the film a classic are its early use of Technicolor which transports one vividly to the lush semitropical paradise of the south of France and its use of staged magic to convey the poetry of the emotional turmoil the ballerina goes through when she opens a bureau drawer in the middle of the night to see a profusion of pointe shoes including a pair dyed red. This doesn’t take place in a real room, but the emotional resonance that Vicky Paige feels and the audience feels with her at that moment is hyperreal.
The Red Shoes is as relevant today as the day it was first screened.
ROBERT GITT – PRESERVATION OFFICER, UCLA FILM & TELEVISION ARCHIVE
UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Foundation worked on the restoration of The Red Shoes from the fall of 2006 through the spring of 2009. Earlier, in the 1980s, the film had been optically copied from flammable nitrate to safety acetate film by the BFI and Rank Film Distributors, using the best celluloid technology then available. In undertaking this new restoration, our goal was to build upon these past efforts, utilizing modern techniques to produce digital- and film-preservation elements of the highest possible quality.
We were provided access to more than 200 reels of 35mm nitrate and acetate materials, including vintage Technicolor dye-transfer prints, nitrate and acetate protection master positive copies, original soundtrack elements, and—most important of all—the still extant three-strip Technicolor camera negatives. For quality reasons, we chose these original negatives as our starting point even though they were afflicted with a daunting number of problems: 65 percent of the film had bad color fringing caused by differential shrinkage and sometimes by misadjustment of the camera during shooting; 176 shots contained color flickering, mottling and “breathing” because of uneven development and chemical staining; 70 sequences contained harsh optical effects with excessive contrast; and throughout there were thousands of visible red, blue, and green specks caused by embedded dirt and scratches. Worst of all, mold had attacked every reel and begun to eat away the emulsion, leaving behind thousands of visible tiny cracks and fissures.
Extensive digital restoration was the only practical solution. Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging and Prasad Corporation Ltd. were chosen to undertake the immense task of digitally scanning 579,000 individual frames directly from the three-strip camera negatives, reregistering the colors, removing visible specks and scratches, mitigating color breathing, solving contrast issues, performing shot-to-shot color correction, and finally recording all 134 minutes back to 35mm Eastman color internegative stock. To obtain uniformly high-quality results, 4K resolution was employed at every stage of the digital picture-restoration work. Digital techniques were also employed by Audio Mechanics to remove pops, thumps, crackles, and excessive background hiss from the film’s original variable density optical soundtrack.
In the restoration process, the entire film was turned into ones and zeros, repaired, and then converted back into a motion picture again. In order to achieve a proper film look, we compared the new digital images with those in an original Technicolor dye transfer print and in a new Eastman color test print struck by Cinetech Laboratories directly from the YCM camera negatives. Careful adjustments were made in the finalized digital version to combine the best qualities of modern color film (greater image sharpness, more sparkle in highlights) with the most pleasing attributes of vintage Technicolor dye transfer prints (bold colors, deep blacks, gentle contrast with a pleasing range of tones in actors’ faces). We have even retained the familiar Technicolor changeover cues, with their distinctive magenta circle surrounded by a bright green ring. The end result is a restoration that combines the best of the past with our digital present.
Restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in association with the BFI, the Film Foundation, ITV Global Entertainment Ltd., and Janus Films. Restoration funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and the Louis B. Mayer Foundation.
Print courtesy of Park Circus Limited and the Film Foundation Conservation Collection at the Academy Film Archive.
For tickets, click here. Complimentary drinks will be available from Larceny Bourbon after the screening in Nitehawk’s downstairs bar.