The Red Shoes (1948)

19 May 2009 | By Martyn Pedler

The Red Shoes was the top-grossing British film released in America for almost four decades, earning a vocal cheerleader in Martin Scorsese. In fact, the legendary auteur is so taken with the film that he collects its memorabilia. It’s easy to see why.

Hungry young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and up-and-coming ballerina Vicky Page (Moira Shearer, of the Royal Ballet) attract the attention of heartless impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). Lermontov is determined that “life is so unimportant” compared to true art. Based in part on Sergei Diaghilev, Walbrook plays Lermontov with formidable cool, all smirks and glares. Will Vicky choose love, or art?

While the backstage melodrama is rendered in otherworldly technicolour, it’s nothing compared to the film’s ballet centrepiece: a ballet based on Hans Christian Anderson’s macabre tale of The Red Shoes, in which a girl is magically forced to dance until her death. Choreographed by Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine – who both also act in the film – the ballet begins viewed almost as a live performance, but we slowly move closer to the action until we’re inside Vicky’s mind. As the intensity builds, her reality is transformed with striking, expressionistic effects.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes combines the decidedly theatrical with the jaw-droppingly cinematic, creating a tragedy that – 60 years later – still feels somehow new.