The Red Shoes (1948)



Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, LeonideMassine, Albert Bassermann, Ludmilla Tcherina, Esmonde Knight & Jean Short / Cinematography Jack Cardiff / Design Hein Heckroth / Choreography Robert Helpmann / Score Thomas Beecham /  Produced & Directed Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

LERMONTOV: The Ballet of the Red Shoes is from a story by Hans Christian Andersen. It is about a young girl who is devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She get’s the shoes and goes to the ball. For a time all goes well, and she is happy. But at the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. The red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on.

CRASTER: What happens in the end?

LERMONTOV: Oh, in the end she dies.

After the impact that their striking ‘Black Narcissus’ made upon it’s release, Messrs. Powell & Pressburger looked about for a new project for their independant company ‘The Archers’ to sink their combined teeth into. Some years earlier Pressburger had penned a script with Merle Oberon in mind, based on the Hans Christen Anderson fairytale ‘The Red Shoes’, but the project came to nothing. Excited by the experimental & allegorical possibilities, Powell convinced his partner to reclaim the screenplay, and they set to work fleshing it out. Initially the idea was to have a view on the creative process of a Ballet Company putting on a production of ‘The Red Shoes’, in the mode of the traditional Hollywood show within a show, but with particular emphasis on the destructive relationship between Art and the Artist. Specifically, between a Svengali like Director Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), and his protege Ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer)who initially thrives under his attentions, but is ultimately destroyed when she is forced to choose between Art & love, between the dance and young composer Crastner (Marius Goring). Powell felt strongly that there was  was a need for such a film to lift British Cinema out of the B&W gloom that had lingered in Post war Britain. A cathartic need if you Powell put it – ‘..we had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy, for this and for that, and now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go and die for Art.’


‘A great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.’


From the very beginning Powell had two clear things in mind. He wanted a real ballerina, and he must have a twenty minute Ballet of the Red Shoes within the story. Pressburger winced at the the second stipulation, worried that such a thing was impossible in cinematic terms, that audiences would glaze over. Powell acquiesced by three minutes, chopping his vision to seventeen minutes, but would go no further.  ‘I don’t want a theatre-ballet, I want a film-ballet. I want such a ballet as audiences have never seen.. I want to see what she’s feeling, while she is dancing.’ This intensity of creative vision somewhat blurs the line between Powell & what can be seen as his alter-ego the controlling Director Lermantov, for whom his Art is everything, all consuming and beyond reproach. Powell coaxed an unwilling Moira Shearer from the world of Ballet because of his fixation for her..her absolute rightness for the part. Eventually Shearer would be left uncomfortably in the position of being a filmstar who had no ambitions to act, whilst being a dancer who was too well known for her looks to truly dance.

P&P gathered together some of the finest dancers & Ballet choreographers in the world, including Massine, Robert Helpmann (the Child Catcher in ‘Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang’), Albert Basserman and of course.. flame haired beauty Moira Shearer, who despite having had no experience as a film actor, shone in the lead role. Although a production of P&P’s company ‘The Archers’, The Red Shoes still required the financial backing of a weighty distributor..and with that backing came commercial sensativity. “A 17 minute ballet?! And what happens to the girl? She leaps to her death in the final scene?!” In short, the backers (the British ‘Rank Organisation’) hated it, and refused to even grant a Premiere, nor even an official film-poster at that. It ran for a few pitiful weeks without publicity and vanished. The film’s saviour came in the shape of a William Heinmann, who ran a small independant Cinema in New York City. He was leased a copy of what was called ‘..some British arty thing about ballet’. It ran for an unprecedented two years, and became a global sensation..everywhere except for Britain of course. Even today, when The Red Shoes  appears on just about every official Best Film list, the British DVD release is distributed with little finesse by a small Regional TV company (Carlton) in an almost apologetic fashion. Gene Kelly told Powell that he played The Red Shoes to countless MGM executives to convince them to green light his script for ‘An American in Paris’..the similarities between the two films are glaringly obvious with this in mind. P&P went on to collaborate on two other smaller projects, but it would be Powell alone who would make cinema history once more with his daring tale of obsession ‘Peeping Tom’.


‘You can’t alter human nature? I think you can do even better than that. You can ignore it! You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never!’


“Mr Powell! I can jump over the balustrade onto a mattress, if you have one.” She asked. A mattress was found. “Mr Powell! Shall I jump like a girl committing suicide, or like a ballerina?” She asked.. I thought.. “Like a ballerina.” I said.

‘Nearly all the British critics, having failed to understand the rest of the picture, picked on this final scene as typical of the bad taste of..Michael Powell. Why all this blood, they asked. why all this sorded realism in a romantic and beautiful fairytale? The poor bastards had obviously never read Hans Christian Andersen, the author of the original story, in which the girl got a woodcutter to cut off her feet with an axe, with the red shoes still on them, and danced to Heaven on the stumps. The whole point of the scene was the conflict between romance and realism, between theatre and life. But I suspect that what they really wanted was a happy ending. Our public knew better.’



‘..seventeen pairs of ballet slippers dyed in seventeen shades of red.’



‘She was very..spectacular looking..her cloud of Titian red hair, as natural and beautiful as any animal’s, flamed and glittered like an autumn bonfire..’

‘One Saturday morning several years ago, a skinny moppet with a turned-up nose and a mass of unruly carrot-coloured curls hurried through the streets of Ndola, on the borders of Northern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo, to her first ballet class. She was at that time living there with her mother and father, a civil engineer in the British Colonial Service. Their decision to send their daughter -Moira Shearer- to the local dancing class laid the foundations for her brilliant career as one of Britain’s most promising young ballerinas, for by the greatest fortune, the teacher was Ethel Lacey, former member of the Diaghilev ballet and pupil of Cechetti. Acting upon Miss.Lacey’s advice, Moira was taken to the celebrated Russsian teacher, Nicholas Legat, on returning to England..and on to the Sadlers Wells Ballet Company..’


‘The big Faust-like scene in which Lermontov and Crastner fight for Vicky’s body and soul..the selfishness and cruelty of the two men who loved and killed Victoria Page suddenly flared into reality. They mishandled Moira as if she were a beautiful thoroughbred, pulling her head this way and that. Because the two men were both refined and cultivated artists, the brutality of the scene was all the more disturbing. This was no longer acting, Moira, the centre of this savage combat, got frightened, missed her cues and started to cry..turned blindly from one man to the other like a broken doll between them..the mascara was running. She snatched at her lines wildly, and after Crastner made his exit she seemed to neither see nor hear as Lermontov raises her to her feet and led her towards the door, saying: Vicky, little Vicky! Now you will dance as you have never danced before.’



Excerpt from ‘The Ballet of the Red Shoes’




Kate Bush, Miranda Richardson, Lindsay Kemp / Written Kate Bush / Cinematography Roger Pratt /  Produced Margarita Doyle / Directed Kate Bush

I thought it would be interesting to include this experimental short film made by Kate Bush in the 90’s, to accompany her 7th album ‘The Red Shoes’. It’s essentially a string of music videos tied together with dreamy interludes, but with some lovely little oddball touches and references to the Powell & Pressburger film. ‘The Line, the Cross & the Curve’, was a natural progression from  her highly imaginative music videos, that were in themselves short films of beautiful quality. It was inevitable that Kate would try her hand at something more ambitious, but sadly it didn’t really make much of an impact upon it’s release, and marked the last project until her recent ‘Ariel’ album more than a decade later. Okay, some of the spoken lines fall a little flat, but there’s some wonderfully theatrical set pieces, a gorgeous use of colour and the songs are hauntingly beautiful. It clocks in at about forty odd minutes, and loosely sticks to the story told in the ballet sequence of the P&P film, with the addition of another dancer who passes on the curse (Miranda Richardson). The cinematography was handled by Roger Pratt, who went on to shoot ‘Chocolat’ & the Harry Potter films interestingly enough. As far as I know this is only available on VHS, although there’s various digital copies in WWW circulation.


Here’s the build up to ‘The Red Shoes’ song..



PEEPING TOM (1959) Moira Shearer


‘Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?’

Karlheinz Bohm, Anna Massey, Moira Sheaer, Maxine Audley, Brenda Bruce, Esmond Knight, Martin Miller, Jack Watson, Pamela Green / Screenplay Leo Marks / Soundtrack Brian Easdale / Cinematography Otto Heller / Produced & Directed Michael Powell

Whilst Britain dragged it’s feet through a monotony of drab, ‘keep the home fires burning’ war stories, Powell & Pressburger almost singlehandedly kept the British Film Industry afloat with a series of bold masterpieces. Despite a wealth of literary, theatrical and poetic traditions to draw inspiration from, British cinema had begun to idle in a routine of dusty, formulaic productions, with just the occasional flashes of inspiration from the likes of David Lean and a certain Mr.Hitchcock. Director Michael Powell & Hungarian Producer Emerick Pressburger confronted this lingering malaise with a series of passionate films that luxuriated in gorgeous colour experiments and provocative subject matter: ‘A Matter of Life & Death’, ‘Colonel Blimp’, ‘The Red Shoes’, ‘Black Narcissus’, and most subversive of all, Powell’s solo project ‘Peeping Tom’ (1959). With the New Wave set to engulf the entire world’s artistic communities, the transition for a still somewhat Victorian Britain would not be an easy one, and Powell would ultimately pay the price for his creative efforts.

Screenwriter Leo Marks approached Powell with the initial idea for Peeping Tom, a short story about a voyeur who kills what he observes. Grounded quite literally in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey .. ‘For let it be known, that each man kills the thing he loves. Some do it with a bitter tongue, some with a flattering word. The coward does it with a kiss. The brave man with a sword.’ Powell had been seeking a pet project to sink his teeth into, and took the project to heart. Understand, that for Powell to even consider such a topic was shocking. P&P may have been a groundbreaking team, but they were nonetheless solidly rooted in the establishment. Inevitably the critics were going to ask why a Director of such quality would waste his time on such trash? But, as with Chaplin’s ‘Monsieur Verdoux’ & Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, nothing of any worth has ever been produced by taking the easy path.

The screenplay presents us with cameraman, Mark Lewis who kills his subjects in search of capturing their most extreme moments of fear.. an attempt to make the ultimate snuff film. The product of an abusive childhood at the hands of his Psychiatrist father, a sociopath who used his son as a test subject in his studies into the human fear response. Filming his son’s every childhood moment, inducing fearful situations & ultimately imprinting upon the son his own Scoptophiliac voyeuristic obsession. Powell makes Mark a very modern madman though – quite unlike any Norman Bates or other such character of the period, being in full possession of his faculties and most importantly, the knowledge of how his compulsion came about. He explains to Helen (Anna Massey) and thusly to us his observers what his father did to him, and we feel sympathy for his case..that if only the right girl came along, then he wouldn’t have to do all this unpleasant killing.. then our minds chastise us for sympathising with this murderer. This is essentially what worked the critics up into such a sweat, and at the same time casts it in such a modern light. The lines are blurred, forcing the audience to recognize the grey area wherein the killer is also the victim..that monsters aren’t born, but are rather a product of the worlds in which they find themselves.


Mark’s lair, to which he brings his prized films for processing is the loft of a suburban house where he lives a secretive existance, seperate from the fellow residents who unbenownst to them is actually their landlord. ‘..but you walk about as if you haven’t paid the rent.’ exclaims a puzzled but intrigued Helen from the groundfloor flat. In Helen we have a rational attempt to probe the killer’s psyche. ‘I like to understand what I’m shown.’ she urges, drawn in by the mystery that we ourselves have a horrible fascination for. ‘This many’s so..completely unexpected.’ Helen’s mother is a blind, house bound Maxine Audley, prone to drunkeness, and instant threat to Mark’s visual bias. She bids Mark take her to his cinema.. and being that his films are silent, he is briefly able to project his secrets before an unknowing audience, but her closeness to Helen protects her from any serious harm. Moira Shearer doesn’t fare quite so well, falling prey to Mark’s killing camera. Her fate mirrored by her role in the earlier P&P film ‘The Red Shoes’, where she again dies for art’s sake.

The childhood incarnation of Mark, as shown to us by way of home movies was portrayed by Powell’s own son, and Powell himself is momentarily seen in turn as Mark’s father. The effect is somewhat autobiographical then, and provided more fuel for the film’s critics upon release. On the cabinet in Mark’s dark room sits Powell’s first camera, and Mark’s name is merely Leo Mark’s surname (the author of the screenplay). Such interactions between life & art are commonplace in cinema today..fuel for the DVD featurettes. The revelation that Mel Gibson insisted it be his own hands to hammer the nails for the crucifiction scene in his ‘The Passion’ is infinately more suspect to me than Powell’s use of his own son for a scene or two, that seems more disturbing on film than it was no doubt to act.

Shot in wonderful old Eastman colour by Otto Heller (Ipcress File, Ladykillers, Alfie..) Peeping Tom has more tricks up it’s sleeve than a blog can fairly explore: A biting criticism of Studio System production; Early prediction of the importance of street, hand held filmmaking (Cinema Verite); Use of overheard soundtrack (borrowing from incidental record players, tape recorders & street sounds), later used to high effect in Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’.. and so on.. At the time though, all the critics could see was an attack on their cosy cinematic world, and they lashed out with a tirade of vitriolic abuse for Powell and his creation that verged on the hysterical. With the revolutions of the 60’s just around the corner, their last act was to consign Peeping Tom to the scrapheap & oust Powell from British cinema. The filmset that Mark works at in ‘Peeping Tom’ is shooting a film by the precient title of ‘The Walls are Closing in’.. For Powell & the 1950’s.

The film’s influences on later cinema are numerous, from Antonioni’s ‘Blow-up’ & Brian DePalma’s ‘Body Double’..Hywell Bennett’s whistling killer in ‘Twisted Nerve’ (which in turn found it’s way into Tarantino’s Kill Bill) and Scorsese sights Powell as a major influence on his development (personally paying for Peeping Tom’s re-release after nearly 40 years in obscurity).

I’ll leave the finale of ‘Peeping Tom’ a secret for those who have yet to experience ‘..what the most frightening thing in the world is.’



‘In the three and a half months since my name last appeared at the
head of this page I have carted my travel-stained carcase to (among
other places) some of the filthiest and most festering slums in Asia. But
nothing, nothing, nothing – neither the hopeless leper colonies of East
Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay nor the gutters of Calcutta – has
left me with such a feeling of nausea and depression as I got this week
while sitting through a new British film called Peeping Tom..’

Daily Express – 8th April 1960

‘The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom
would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest
sewer. Even then the stench would remain.’

THE TRIBUNE 29th April 1960

Sunday Times 1994 apology

‘Michael Powell has long been known as one of this country’s most distinguished film-makers. But when, in 1960, he made a horror film, I hated the piece and, together with a great many other British critics, said so. Today, I find I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. If in some afterlife conversation is permitted, I shall think it my duty to seek out Michael Powell and apologise. Something more than a change of taste must exist. The original story and screenplay come from Leo Marks; at their centre is a cameraman (played by Carl Boehm) whose scientist father used him in childhood in a study of fear. The boy grows up obsessed by images of the human face frozen in extremes of terror. He multiplies them by himself photographing death, and, in fact, becoming a multiple killer. With so gifted a director this can hardly be anything but a frightening movie, but its object is the examination of emotion and not titillation. Interesting that it should be revived now when there has been much concern about the influence of cinema. All the more reason to distinguish between the serious and the merely sensational horror. Reading now what I wrote in 1960 I find that, despite my efforts to express revulsion, nearly everything I said conceals the extraordinary quality of Peeping Tom.’