Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Thirteen

13 red

#13 — The Red Shoes (Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, 1948)

I’m less likely than most who turn themselves over to cinema to become hopelessly enamored of a film strictly on the basis of its visuals. I’m not immune to such affections, and I certainly believe that striking imagery is one of the vital tasks of a great piece of moviemaking. Still, my patience is tested whenever I feel that a film is overemphasizing the scenery with a disregard for the fundamentals of narrative storytelling. The Red Shoes is something of a refutation of my prejudice. To be clear, the story isn’t a slim or incidental part of the film. Taking some inspiration from the classic Han Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name — and tackling it with a meta-fueled ingenuity — the foundational fiction of the film is sound. And yet there’s no question in my mind that what truly differentiates The Red Shoes, the piece of it that elevates it above most of the other films of its era, is the way the directing team of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, abetted mightily by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, manage to create scene after scene of uncommon, astonishing beauty.

In some ways, the setting within ballet companies give Pressburger and Powell and automatic advantage. While there are plenty of examples of films that leaned on the art of dance with only tepid results, there is an easier entryway to deeply felt emotion for any filmmakers with the patience and insight to focus in of the feats of physical marvel that come with the form. With The Red Shoes, that enticing prompt becomes a impetus to crafting scenes that exploit the full possibility of moving pictures. That extends beyond the stage, to every bit of human mechanics that springs across the screen. An early scene of youth stampeding into a posh theater, all energized and desperate to get the best possible seat for a ballet performance, is as much a testament to the intense possibility of human physicality as anything that is performed in dance slippers.

At times, The Red Shoes pushes so forcefully into luxuriant visual splendor that it seems as though Pressburger and Powell are instinctually redefining exactly how film can work, establishing narrative and artistic beauty as facets that need to interlock. For years, decades even, the very best films, those could be termed transformative, were often those that perfected and then expanded some component of the narrative grammar. Within that context, The Red Shoes feels like even more of a miracle, still offering a restructuring of cinematic story with its layered repurposing of a classic tale, while offering a vivid, nearly florid insistence that the very way material is presented holds the possibility for incredible, vertiginous emotional impact. In the right creative hands, cinematic invention is its own dance never-ending.

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