It says something that no less than three major motion pictures in 2010 directly referenced Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 film 'The Red Shoes.' In the circles of film fanatics, the movie is a fetish object – something to be obsessed about and replayed, over and over and over again – and it crops up from time to time in current films, but 2010 was some kind of banner year, with the winks and nods front and center.
In Martin Scorsese's 'Shutter Island,' there's a shot of a spiral staircase, and the camera movement (and the staircase itself) is a nod to a moment in 'The Red Shoes,' while two other films took less specific, but more thematic approaches. In both Edgar Wright's 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' and Darren Aronofsky's 'Black Swan,' the line between reality and fantasy is blurred in the same way that it is in 'The Red Shoes.' 'Scott Pilgrim's' takeaway is more impressionistic while 'Black Swan' seems more rooted in direct homage since it takes place in the world of ballet (and it shares some similar story beats and structural frameworks).
But what makes 'The Red Shoes' such a memorable cinematic artifact?
Well, for one thing, the film is drop-dead gorgeous. The tale of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) who lands the lead in a ballet version of Hans Christian Anderson's fable 'The Red Shoes' (about a pair of enchanted shoes that transform the wearer into an uncannily skilled dancer), it's a story of excess, fame, and psychological instability. (All chestnuts of Hollywood storytelling.) But what really makes it so striking is the photography by cinematographer Jack Cardiff. In 'The Red Shoes' colors don't just pop, they leap off the screen and into your lap.
It's more than just the look of the film, though, that has people coming back for more. (When it was recently booked for a limited engagement in New York's Film Forum there were lines around the block for virtually every screening.) No, it's so much more than that.
'The Red Shoes' is trickily meta-textual for its time, too, weaving both the Hans Christian Anderson story and the story of the tortured and ultimately undone ballerina together in a way that is compelling and cutting edge while never being show-offy. The way the elements of the story are braided together – the on stage magic (uncannily brought to life with the most rudimentary and effective special effects tools) with the heartbreaking behind-the-scenes melodrama, which involves a love triangle with the ballet company's overseer (Anton Walbrook) and the newly installed conductor (Marius Goring) – is downright brilliant and the way that the two layers of reality breakdown as the film progresses is nothing short of jaw dropping. It helps, too, that the music is so compelling, with Brian Easdale's music serving as a sturdy backbone to both planes of existence.
The movie doesn't merely resonate because it looks so damn amazing, but because thematically it still manages to impress and dazzle. Powell and Pressburger (know as The Archers) made a number of noteworthy films during their career, but 'The Red Shoes' is an especially spectacular accomplishment. One of the film's many themes is the idea of immortality through art. And you know what? They accomplished it. Just ask Darren Aronofsky, Martin Scorsese, and Edgar Wright.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Red Shoes' dances onto high definition courtesy of the good folks at the Criterion Collection. An earlier edition of the movie had been a staple of the collection (which explains the low spine number - #44), but this is a jazzy new version, complete with new supplements. The movie and its special features are housed on a 50GB Blu-ray disc and everything that's on the disc here is also available on the DVD package. It's housed in an extra-chunky Criterion box and is Region A locked.
'The Red Shoes' comes equipped with an 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (maintaining the original 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio) that does nothing short of make your eyes pop out of your skull.
As you'll see elsewhere on the disc, a lot of care and attention has gone into the restoration of the movie's image, and according to the accompanying booklet: "This new high-definition digital master was created from the 2009 4K digital restoration made from the original Technicolor negatives and optical tracks."
In short: it's one of the greatest transfers available on Blu-ray. The transfer shouldn't be based on realism, since there are such fantastical elements of the story in play, but skin tones generally look great, while colors zoom off the screen, detail is unbeatable, and the entire presentation shimmers like a new penny.
This is a noticeable upgrade from the original release, with the image looking deeper, richer, and more glorious. The image looks sparkly clean, too, with many imperfections painstakingly removed but without (thankfully) the impression that it was scrubbed too clean – it looks presentably filmic and absolutely amazing.
There is only one audio option on 'The Red Shoes,' an English LPCM Mono track (with optional subtitles). While not as drop-your-soda shocking as the video transfer, the audio is pretty outstanding as well.
You're not going to get a whole lot of range out of a mono track, but for the most part, it sounds great – you can hear all the dialogue with a sharp crispness, the music fills out fairly well, and the sound effects and other embellishments are sparkly too. But the real asset of the audio track is how CLEAN everything sounds – there isn't any foggy background hiss, or pops or crackle or anything like that.
Those of us that had the original release will notice a big improvement over the previous edition; things just sound richer and more dynamic. And that's enough for me.
The extras package on this disc is a winning combination of old material from the original Criterion release and brand new supplements. It's more or less the definitive package on the film and in addition does a fascinating job of explaining how the movie was painstakingly restored. The booklet contains an essay from film critic David Ehrenstein called "Dancing For Your Life."
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 'The Red Shoes' is an undeniable classic beloved by film fans (and filmmakers) the world over – a tale of passion, love, and madness set against a truly theatrical backdrop. But it's not just a visual spectacle but an emotional one, too. Criterion, using a newly minted print of the film, has put together a dynamite package worthy of the amazing film – from the pristine visuals and audio to the fine collection of extra features, many of them shared with the original release but all of them worth watching. This is a Must Own if there's ever been one.