The Red Shoes

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Synopsis

The Red Shoes, the singular fantasia from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is cinema’s quintessential backstage drama, as well as one of the most glorious Technicolor feasts ever concocted for the screen. Moira Shearer is a rising star ballerina torn between an idealistic composer and a ruthless impresario intent on perfection. Featuring outstanding performances, blazingly beautiful cinematography by Jack Cardiff, Oscar-winning sets and music, and an unforgettable, hallucinatory central dance sequence, this beloved classic, dazzlingly restored, stands as an enthralling tribute to the life of the artist.

Picture 9/10

The Criterion Collection releases yet another edition for Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s classic The Red Shoes, this time in 4K on a triple-layer UHD disc. Making use of the same 2009 restoration that was also the source for Criterion’s previous high-definition version (and sourced from the original 3-strip Technicolor negatives) the film is delivered here in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with a 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition encode in Dolby Vision. The release also comes with a standard Blu-ray disc presenting the film in 1080p/24hz high-definition. It appears to be the exact same disc used for their 2010 Blu-ray release.

Of the titles Criterion listed in their initial 4K announcement The Red Shoes, the lone Technicolor film in that list, was the one I was most curious about. Criterion’s Blu-ray already looked pretty damn good for the time—and I’d dare say it still does—so would the 4K format offer any sort of boost?

I’d answer that with a resounding yes! The presentation looks unbelievably good, glorious even, and it really comes down to how the presentation ends up rendering the film’s deep shadows and the general Technicolor look. A lot of this appears to come down to the implementation of Dolby Vision and HDR as I didn’t find the SDR presentation came as close to capturing the same look, so the SDR screen grabs supplied here don’t really do it the same justice. What surprised me was just how much cleaner and crisper things manage to be with this new presentation. The old Blu-ray’s image looks sharp, there’s no doubt on that, but going back to it after watching this things can look a bit too bright there, maybe even blown out at times, and you can, on occasion, make out those slight “seams” around the layering for Technicolor. Not a big deal, but it’s there. That said, the 4K manages to do a substantially better job with these sequences, with those brighter scenes (like in the opening party) being brought down a bit. This ends up pushing the Technicolor look to have a more stable and cleaner rendering, those “seams” no longer as obvious (at least most of the time), the colours looking to blend a bit better, and all without any loss of detail. In fact, those finer details are even richer now.

It’s astonishing already how better this presentation looks based on how much cleaner the Technicolor aspect of the presentation is, but we haven’t even gotten into the shadows yet. I haven’t seen the film in a few years admittedly, and I had forgotten, outside of the central “Red Shoes” dance sequence, how dark the film actually is and how heavy the shadows can be. Part of the reason for that may be related to the fact the Blu-ray has to pump things up a little bit, as to not lose any of those details in the shadows. The blacks and shadows are still there on the Blu-ray, and they look impressive, but the 4K presentation shows how much better things can be. Various shots in the numerous theater settings, or even Anton Walbrook’s office, are laced with shadows and deep blacks, but the fine details and the range in them is very wide, so despite the darkness, everything, from important characters to subtle details, still comes through clearly. In comparison to the Blu-ray’s high-def presentation I will stress this one does look darker overall, but you can still make out the details in the darker areas, and everything lit in the forefront still pops, so nothing is lost. The central dance sequence is really something else, and the range, even in the colours (especially those reds!), is just incredible.

Daytime sequences look lovely, too, without coming off overly bright. Criterion is again applying a deft hand when it comes to how bright things get, a few lamps sticking out, though in a tame manner. The wider range also helps in some of the smaller details, including how clear a drop of rain appears on a poster.

The base presentation is still solid itself, with film grain again being rendered beautifully, which aids in delivering those sharp details. The restoration itself is still incredible, the film coming off about as clean as possible, the only “issues” (if one can even call them that) being around some of the film’s optical effects, which would be inherent to the source materials anyways. All said and done, this upgrade really is an absolute knock-out, an incredible upgrade over Criterion’s previous Blu-ray and the best the film has ever looked.

Audio 7/10

I can’t say I noticed a difference between the monaural PCM soundtrack here and the one found on the Blu-ray, though I wouldn’t have expected to. Despite the film’s age I’m still pleased with how clean and sharp the audio is. Dialogue is clear, showing some modest range, but it’s the musical numbers within the film that really show off, reaching some decent highs without ever coming off harsh or edgy. There can be some subtle background noise but outside of that there is no significant damage. It still sounds great.

Extras 8/10

As they have been doing with their 4K UHD editions so far, Criterion only includes the alternate audio track supplements on the UHD disc, which can be played along with the main feature. The remaining video features are found on the included standard Blu-ray disc, which also presents a 1080p version of the film, and appears to be the same disc used for Criterion’s 2010 edition. From that edition:

First [up] is the audio commentary [originally] put together by film historian Ian Christie [for Criterion’s 1994 LaserDisc edition], which includes excerpts from interviews with Martin Scorsese, stars Marius Goring and Moria Shearer, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and composer Brian Easdale. This is a great track, with Christie acting as a sort of moderator I guess you could say. He provides general information about the film and production [along with] some analysis, then cutting to recordings from the various individuals mentioned to support his comments. Scorsese looks at how the film inspired him and other directors, recalling how the dance sequences helped him when choreographing the fight scenes in Raging Bull, while the other subjects talk about the production in more detail. Cardiff mentions his initial reluctance in doing a ballet picture and then talks about working out the look of the film, while Easdale covers the music. Goring and Shearer offer their own reflections, Shearer mentioning her initial reluctance that stemmed from many factors, including the fact she thought the script was terrible. Christie gets into detail about the production history, how it was a project originally created for Alexander Korda and how Powell and Pressburger ended up getting it away from him. He then covers its initial reception and how its popularity grew over the years. It’s an incredibly packed track, filled with great information that covers every aspect of the film and its production. If you haven’t heard it before (it was originally recorded for the Criterion laserdisc in 1994) it’s certainly worth listening to.

[Audio exceprts featuring] actor Jeremy Irons reading the Powell and Pressburger’s collaborative novelization of the film [is then found on an] alternate track that plays over the film. Irons only provides excerpts but despite some obvious jumps in narrative he’s able to hide some of the gaps rather well. The novel appears to stay very close to the film, though there are a few additions here and there, such as more focus on Victoria during the dinner party where she’s to perform for Lermontov, the latter of whom managing to come off a little more detestable in the novel. Iron’s reading is good, his voice being one of those that can keep one’s attention no matter what he’s saying, even if he’s slurring his lines as he does in something like Dungeons and Dragons, though I’m not sure if some may find a couple of his characterizations offensive. I wouldn’t say it’s something that’s necessary to listen to, but it offers some intriguing additions to the film, including in some of the inner monologues that are now present (like Victoria’s during the Red Shoes [dance] sequence).

The remaining supplements are found under the supplements section [on the standard Blu-ray].

First is a presentation about the restoration demonstration, which consists of an interview with Martin Scorsese. This quick 4-minute feature breaks down the restoration and describes all the hard and painstaking work that went into it. Examples are given, and there are plenty of before-and-afters. I’ve always liked these, and I found this one particularly interesting because it gets heavier into the technical details. It’s also interesting just how bad the original materials looked, and it makes the finished product that much more impressive.

[The release yet again presents a] 25-minute documentary around the film made in 2000 and called Profile of “The Red Shoes,” featuring interviews with Pressburger’s grandsons Kevin and Andrew Macdonald, historian Ian Christie, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, cameraman Chris Challis, production designer Hein Heckroth’s grandson Christian Routh, and dancer Darcey Bussell. The documentary manages to cover a lot of the same material found in the commentary, particularly the project’s origins, the 17-minute ballet sequence, Shearer’s reservations about starring in the film, and Cardiff’s original feelings that ballet was nothing but a bunch of “sissies prancing about.” But it offers more information on the film’s special effects—which were done in-camera—the producer’s original reaction to the film, more information on Walbrook, and a decent collection of photos. This material, along with the fact the documentary is short and swift, makes it worth viewing.

Also new is an interview with Michael Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, which was taken at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival where the new restoration premiered and lasts 15-minutes. She talks a bit about her husband and the film, but focuses mainly on the restoration, the raising of the money, and the help of all of those involved, including Martin Scorsese. She then talks a bit about working with Scorsese in the editing room on his films (apparently with a TV in the background tuned to TCM) and talks a bit about what would have been the [then] upcoming Shutter Island, even pointing out a direct homage to The Red Shoes that appears in that film. She also talks a bit about art and the current state of films, and then mentions that money was being raised for restorations for other films, singling out The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp [which would finally receive a new Blu-ray release from Criterion in 2013 using that restoration]. It’s a great interview and I’m glad Criterion included it, even if a lot of the material didn’t relate to The Red Shoes directly.

Criterion includes a stills gallery presenting various production and publicity photos along with a couple of shots from deleted scenes, all of which have been carried over from [their original] DVD. Criterion has added some new [photos] as well, presenting plenty of designs, sketches, and paintings made in designing the film.

Martin Scorsese’s Red Shoes memorabilia is presented again in a gallery, though unfortunately not everything has been carried over [from the original 1999 DVD edition]. There are posters and lobby cards, along with some sketches, though close-ups of the sketches are missing, and for whatever reason a couple of books haven’t been included. The original DVD presented a “Red Shoes Ballet Book” and pages and pages of photos of the content, but for some reason this is all missing here. We do get some new material, though. It appears Scorsese was given the original red shoes used in the film (signed by the cast) and he also has what looks to be the shooting script for the film with an inscription by Powell. There are also storyboards present. It’s a little disappointing everything hasn’t been ported over, but the added material is rather good. Like the original DVD this section is navigable using the arrows on your remote.

Red Shoes Sketches is similar to the multi-angle/multi-audio feature found on the original DVD. As mentioned in the commentary and in more detail in the documentary, a short film was put together using the paintings by Hein Heckroth representing the Red Shoes ballet sequence with the music and this is supposed to be it. Running 16-minutes it’s basically a slideshow presentation of the paintings to Easdale’s score. One improvement [over the original DVD] is the short film has been restored, removing a lot of the scratches and damage, while also improving colours. There is also a multi-angle feature allowing you to switch to a split screen comparing the actual ballet sequence in the film (using the newly restored film for the comparison) on the right to the paintings on the left. The presentation also stretches the split screen out to fill your widescreen television (the original DVD’s was made for a 4:3 television). There is also an alternate audio option presenting Jeremy Irons reading the original Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Red Shoes”.

The disc then concludes with the same theatrical trailer found on the original DVD, though slightly restored and with no macro-blocking (the reds in the trailer on the DVD were horrendously blocky).

Missing here, which was found on the original DVD, is a filmography for Powell and Pressburger, but considering we live in the age of IMDB it’s not a huge loss.

The booklet comes with a great essay by David Ehrenstein on the film and its production history, followed by more notes on the film’s extensive restoration. Missing is Ian Christie’s essay found in the insert of the original DVD edition.

Again, it’s disappointing some material didn’t make it over from Criterion’s original DVD edition, but it’s still an impressive set of material.

Closing

The presentation is a knock-out, the 4K upgrade with Dolby Vision appearing to do a better job in rendering the film's Technicolor look and the rich shadows found in the photography. I think it’s a hell of an upgrade.

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Year: 1948
Time: 134 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 44
Licensor: ITV Global Entertainment
Release Date: December 14 2021
MSRP: $49.95
 
4K UHD Blu-ray/Blu-ray
2 Discs | BD-50/UHD-100
1.33:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Regions A/None
HDR: Dolby Vision
 
 Introductory restoration demonstration with filmmaker Martin Scorsese   Audio commentary from 1994 by film historian Ian Christie, featuring interviews with actors Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, composer Brian Easdale, and Martin Scorsese   Profile of “The Red Shoes,” a 2000 documentary on the making of the film, featuring interviews with members of the production team   Interview with director Michael Powell’s widow, editor Thelma Schonmaker Powell, from the 2009 Cannes Film Festival   Audio recordings from 1994 of actor Jeremy Irons reading excerpts from Powell and screenwriter Emeric Pressburger’s novelization of The Red Shoes and the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Red Shoes”   Collection of rare publicity stills and behind-the-scenes photos   Gallery of memorabilia from Scorsese’s collection   The “Red Shoes” Sketches, a 1948 animated film of Hein Heckroth’s painted storyboards, with the Red Shoes ballet as an alternate angle   Trailer   An essay by critic David Ehrenstein and a description of the restoration by UCLA film archivist Robert Gitt