Monday, June 29, 2009

Target #273: The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

TSPDT placing: #128

Written by: Hans Christian Andersen (fairy-tale), Emeric Pressburger (original screenplay, written by), Michael Powell (written by), Keith Winter (additional dialogue)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

Aside from a few compulsory school-related occasions upon which I look back with the utmost antipathy, I've never danced in my life. I've never wanted to, and I plan to hold firm at least until the day of my wedding. As late as last year, I regarded ballet as among the least interesting forms of dance, my assertion based not on experience, but mere conjecture. Then I saw Norman McLaren's extraordinary short film Pas de deux (1968), in which an optical printer is used to demonstrate how the dancers' movements transcend space and time, the majesty of human motion revealed in every gentle, graceful spin. Suddenly, inexplicably, I saw beauty where I'd never seen it before. I consider The Red Shoes (1948) the affirmation of this revelation. The child of writing/directing team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, under the banner of The Archers, the film showcases the pair's talent for imbuing their work with lush colours, warmth and personality, displaying a faculty for capturing atmosphere that is unmatched then or since.

The Red Shoes revolves around the production of a stage adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's eponymous fairy-tale, in which a ballet dancer receives a pair of cursed red shoes that keep her dancing until the day she dies. However, rather than being a simple story of success in show- business, the behind-the-scenes events are themselves a loose variation on Andersen's fairy-tale. When asked what she wants from life, young British ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) replies, "I want to dance." Just as Mephisto offered Faust everything he wanted at the cost of everything he held dear, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook, of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)) offers Victoria immortality in the art of ballet, but at the expense of life, love and happiness. Finally, torn between her two great loves – to her husband Julian (Marius Goring), and to ballet – she chooses to abandon both, throwing herself in front of a train as though compelled to do so by the red dancing shoes that had so overwhelmingly commanded her life.

As in most Powell/Pressburger collaborations, it's not adequate to merely praise the co-directors. Hein Heckroth's costumes, Arthur Lawson's art direction, Jack Cardiff's lush cinematography, Brian Easdale's musical score; all are utterly masterful, the fruits of a alliance in which every crew member understood perfectly what was required of them. The film's incredible centrepiece is a twenty- minute balletic interlude in which the audience is shown the stage production itself, perhaps the most breathtaking and purely cinematic musical sequence I've ever seen. As Victoria Page is swept up in the fantasy of her role, she is inundated by surreal visions of Faustian tragedy and horror that deliberately recall F.W. Murnau's 1926 film. In Hollywood, The Red Shoes proved hugely influential, noticeably inspiring the likes of Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli: An American in Paris (1951) featured a similar, if not so comfortably integrated, ballet interlude, and The Band Wagon (1953) feels like a sunny feature-length rebuttal to the tragedy inherent in The Archers' film.

Currently my #5 film of 1948:
1) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
2) Ladri di biciclette {The Bicycle Thief} (Vittorio De Sicae)
3) Rope (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Oliver Twist (David Lean)
5) The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
6) Macbeth (Orson Welles)
7) Key Largo (John Huston)
8) Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls)
9) Secret Beyond the Door… (Fritz Lang)
10) Musik i mörker {Music in Darkness} (Ingmar Bergman)


Friday, June 5, 2009

Target #272: Seventh Heaven (1927, Frank Borzage)

TSPDT placing: #913
Directed by: Frank Borzage
Written by: Austin Strong, Benjamin Glazer (screenplay), H.H. Caldwell (titles), Katherine Hilliker (titles), Bernard Vorhaus
Starring: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Ben Bard, Albert Gran, David Butler, Marie Mosquini, George E. Stone

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

Seventh Heaven (1927) is usually compared to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), and not without reason. Director Frank Borzage has a keen sense for lighting and shot composition, perhaps not as effortlessly graceful as that of Murnau, but the film superbly explores three-dimensional space, most memorably in a vertical long take that follows the characters up seven floors of staircases, and a backwards tracking shot through the crowded trenches of a battlefield. Janet Gaynor, who also starred in Sunrise, is once again a perfect picture of fragility and helplessness, a persona at which she was bettered only by Lillian Gish. More interesting, however, is that Gaynor's character undergoes a startling character arc, developing from a weak, embattled victim – a trampled flower – to a decisive and assertive woman, a member of the workforce, and an independent but devoted wife. Her husband, played by Charles Farrell, likewise undergoes a transformation, of the spiritual kind. Together, they share a love so definitive that the formula has since become familiar, but Borzage keeps it fresh.
Perhaps the greatest miracle about Seventh Heaven is that the romance works at all. Farrell's Chico is a haughty, athletic sewer worker, so determined of his own worth that he bores his grotesque colleagues with anecdotes of his future greatness. Gaynor's Diane, a small creature routinely lashed by her sleazy sister, is at first an object of derision for Chico, who uses her mere existence to affirm his atheism. Indeed, so aloof is his attitude towards her that I could scarcely believe that the pair were to fall in love, but the transition is carried out gradually and convincingly. As in most great romances, the two star-crossed lovers are swiftly separated by the onset of war. Here, once again, Borzage's keen eye for visual storytelling results in some wonderful sequences of conflict, with his portrayal of the battlefield perhaps serving as inspiration for Lewis Milestone's war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Only with the occasional moments of misplaced comedy – the ritualistic bowing of the street-sweepers, for example – does the director fumble with the film's mood.
This reviewer being an atheist, films dealing with a central religious theme face an uphill battle. Chico opens the film not unlike myself, as an obstinate atheist who curses God for failing to answer his prayers. Christianity intercedes through a kind-hearted priest, who offers Chico his dream-job as a street-sweeper, as well as two religious necklaces. Predictably, our hero is converted by the film's end, and, indeed, stages a resurrection that borders on Biblical. This "miraculous" ending could easily have had me rolling my eyes, but – somehow, and against all odds – it didn't. Borzage doesn't play Chico's survival as a startling revelation, and nor does it feel tacked-on, as does the fate of Murnau's hotel doorman in The Last Laugh (1924). Alongside Diane's stubborn insistence that her husband is still alive, to actually see him pushing through the crowds seemed like the most natural thing in the world. And even if Chico is dead, then his wife is already there in Heaven, on the seventh floor, waiting to greet him.

Currently my #4 film of 1927:
1) Metropolis (Fritz Lang)
2) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau)
3) The General (Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton)
4) 7th Heaven (Frank Borzage)
5) College (James W. Horne, Buster Keaton)
6) The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock)