What would you guess is preoccupying Martin Scorsese in the crush at Cannes this week? The tireless director just announced he’s to start work on a Sinatra biopic—with Leonardo DiCaprio set to play the eternal crooner—and he has another work about a towering American figure in progress under way with a film about Teddy Roosevelt.
But when I spoke to Scorsese for the BBC radio arts show Nightwaves, the project that had him fizzing with enthusiasm was the re-release of a film made by two émigré Hungarians more than 60 years ago. Today at the film festival, Scorsese unveils a new digital restoration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 Technicolor epic The Red Shoes.
Scorsese has been closely involved with the project for two years, under the auspices of the Film Foundation, which he set up to protect and enhance the legacy of classic cinema.
“I first saw it as a boy—and the impression of its power never leaves you. I feel the same thing now when I see it. It’s a triumph of light and color and shading and it inspired me to start to think that way about my own work when I began directing.”
“There’s no question it’s one of the best color films ever made,” he said. “It is one that brings home the experience of the artist—the joy and pain of devoting yourself to a life of creation.”
If any work from the film library is worth of valet treatment by one of the great modern screen technicians, this one is: The Red Shoes is a visual feast: first, second, anytime around. As Powell said of his work, “More than a success, it became a legend. I am constantly meeting men and women who claimed that it changed their lives.”
Well ahead of its time in diagnosing OCD, the film is a story within a story: of a girl who dons the enchanted Red Shoes of Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairytale and of the dancer who takes on the role (Moira Shearer) and is torn apart by competing drives and demands. The relationship between Marius Goring as Julian Craster, the intense lover who tempts her away from the stage, and the compelling, brilliantly bossy Boris Lermontov is struggle not only between two men, but between Eros and Apollo, love and art.
Pressing Scorsese on why this, of all films, should have held his interest over a lifetime of absorption in his craft, he recalls, “I first saw it as a boy—and the impression of its power never leaves you. I feel the same thing now when I see it. It’s a triumph of light and color and shading and it inspired me to start to think that way about my own work when I began directing.”
“But I don’t think I have come close to what [Powell and Pressburger] did in painting with colors and textures.” Scorsese said he was happy to spend time on a crackling line from L.A. to London (the 1940s lives on in trans-Atlantic telecoms) paying tribute to the film’s cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who died last month at the age of 94, and promising that the new print will have “the best of both worlds”—modern digital technology sharpening the tones of the original, but keeping its haunting, hyper-real visual quality.
Powell and Pressburger are big names in British post-war cinema, but Scorsese is right to pinpoint Cardiff as the quiet star behind the movie’s dazzling appearance.
A barely educated English backroom boy, Cardiff became the first great cinematographer of the Technicolor era and whose camerawork defines the film. “Jack painted in color and light and shadow like no one else did,“ the 66-year-old Scorsese says. “At the time, there were huge doubts about Technicolor. After The Red Shoes, there could be no doubt at all. ”Having first seen the picture as a pirouetting eight year old, I share the modern maestro’s conviction that it is a movie that follows you through life. It unsettled me then and watching it now, it still does. We want Vicky to take off the shoes, knowing that she cannot: But did we ever want her to settle for an existence as a happy London housewife? Of course not.
Human love and happiness fall second to art: “Life is unimportant,” says Lermontov. The Red Shoes wear the dancer, not the other way round.
Moira Shearer was already a bona fide prima donna, who had never acted until Powell and Pressburger cast her—they’d originally intended Merle Oberon to star, but later decided that the balletomane (or rather, balletomanic) tale demanded a professional lead together with some of the greatest corps dancers in Europe alongside.
Rank studios, famously, did not like the result and rued over the half-million dollars it had spent on a puzzling, artsy film with a downbeat ending. If the studio had doubts, audiences did not share them: The duo of Hungarian émigrés who defined British post-war film knew how to engage a public enduring austerity, so settings of Monte Carlo and sun-drenched terraces lure us into a deceptively sunny world.
The Red Shoes celebrated the glamour and creativity of a Europe risen from the war rubble. Now it has another lease on life in our own straightened times. Scorsese told me that he “reveres all of Jack Cardiff’s work—from the Black Narcissus to The African Queen. ”But if he had to take one film on the desert island, there’s no contest: “The Red Shoes, every time.”
Naturally, it has an ending to die for—literally and figuratively—and a line to remember. “Miss Page will not be able to dance tonight: or indeed any other night.” The shiver stays in the soul, as the image of the shoes fades. Bravo, Mr. Scorsese, for making them shine for us again, this time even brighter.
Anne McElvoy writes the main weekly political column on domestic and international issues at the London Evening Standard. She has published two books on Germany, The Saddled Cow: East Germany’s Life & Legacy in 1992 and she was co-author of the memoirs of the spymaster Markus Wolf, Man Without a Face .