“Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on.”
Loosely based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, The Red Shoes is a lavish drama about a ballerina (Moira Shearer) torn between two men. Impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) demands she makes the most of her talent and gives everything up for her art including the affections of composer Julian Craster (Marcus Goring). Early on Lermontov asks her “why do you want to dance?” and she replies “why do you want to live?” Eventually she must make a choice between what she loves and whom she loves.
The work of writer/director team Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell has proven influential over the years. You can see their hand in the work of Baz Luhrmann while the recent Black Swan (2010, Darren Aranofsky) owes much to The Red Shoes. Pressburger was a Hungarian émigré who moved to Berlinto work as a journalist before turning to screenwriting. After the Nazi’s rise to power Pressburger left Germanyfor Englandfinding work in the film industry with Alexander Korda’s studio. Michael Powell worked prolifically in the 30’s providing quickly made features to meet the British film industry’s quota for home grown films. However The Edge of the World (37), loosely inspired by the evacuation of St. Kilda showed a developing style and an interest in mysticism.
Korda put Powell and Pressburger together on the war film The Spy in Black (39) and they became friends. Forming their own production called The Archers and working with total autonomy within the Rank Organisation they began to make highly distinctive and idiosyncratic films often in Technicolor, a process which saturates the frame with bright colours and would later become synonymous with the musical. During the 1940’s they created a series of classics, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (43), I Know Where I’m Going! (45), A Matter of Life and Death (46), and Black Narcissus (47).
Despite its success The Red Shoes went over budget bringing them into conflict with Rank who cut them loose. They returned to low-budget filmmaking for the underrated The Small Back Room (49), about a troubled bomb disposal expert, and then back to Technicolor for the opera Tales of Hoffman (51) but neither made much impact at the box-office. Their films became increasingly compromised by studio interference and they separated in 1957. Powell effectively destroyed his career with the haunting serial killer film Peeping Tom (1960) which caused outrage in Britainon its release. In the 60’s British cinema tended towards realism and Powell and Pressburger’s movies with their love of the fantastical, high emotions, and bright gaudy colours fell out of fashion.
A critical reappraisal of their work began in the 70’s when Martin Scorsese began to champion Michael Powell and cited The Red Shoes as being his favourite film.
Just back from the latest screening at the Station. Mike Nichols film has held up well and remains one of the most interesting films from that particular period in American cinema. Here are my accompanying notes for the screening programme.
The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols)
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at this, you lose
‘Mrs Robinson’ Simon & Garfunkel
Anticipating the aimless troubled protagonists of the late 60’s and early 70’s in American films like Midnight Cowboy (1969, John Schlesinger), Five Easy Pieces (1970, Bob Rafelson), and Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese), The Graduate is a darkly comic movie about a young man’s affair with an older woman. Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from college as an award-winning scholar and track star. Everybody wants to know what he plans to do next but Benjamin has no idea. His parents are pressurising him to go to Grad school but Benjamin would rather just take it easy for a while. Drinking her way through a bad marriage, whatever dreams Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) may have had are long gone. Cynical and embittered she may be but Mrs Robinson is still a very attractive woman and she seduces Benjamin despite his weak attempt at preserving his innocence. But their secret relationship becomes awkward when her pretty daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) returns from university.
The clash between the younger generation and the establishment was playing out across America with anti-Vietnam protests, civil rights demonstrations, and an emerging counter culture which rejected many of the ideals their parents believed in. Director Mike Nichols and his screenwriters Buck Henry and Calder Willingham present this generational conflict in The Graduate. Though the story is told from Benjamin’s perspective he is as flawed as his elders. The older generation are presented as being decadent and burnt out, yet they do at least know what they believe in. Benjamin is drifting, terrified by the lightness freedom can bring.
Nichols won a Best Director Oscar for his work on The Graduate. Having tasted success with his adaptation of the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Nichols work here is more formally daring often foregoing narrative for observing Benjamin as he wanders around looking lost or hangs out by the pool. Simon and Garfunkel’s music is an integral part of the film. Though only the track ‘Mrs Robinson’ was written specifically for The Graduate the songs taken from their album ‘The Sound of Silence’ lend a haunting atmosphere to the film.
“She’s a phony, but she’s a real phony.”
Based on a 1958 novella by Truman Capote Breakfast at Tiffany’s turned its gamine star Audrey Hepburn into a fashion icon. In her Givenchy gowns and Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses Holly Golightly brings to mind the modern trend for socialites to be described as ‘It Girls’ in society magazines. Yet Holly’s a faker, a hustler, a runaway, and in Capote’s novella a prostitute. Director Blake Edwards softens Capote’s story but keeps the essential narrative intact. The biggest change is the contemporising of events. In the novella Holly is long gone and the narrator reflects on their time together many years afterwards. There’s sadness in the novella which the film maintains but never at the expense of entertainment. Much of the dialogue is taken straight from Capote’s novel though Edwards and screenwriter George Axelrod favour a more comic tone. Indeed Edwards would later become best known as a director of comedies after the success of The Pink Panther (1963), the first of many films to feature the hapless Inspector Clouseau.
While Capote suggests most people don’t get what they want Hollywood movies tend towards the opposite. So instead of a little guy observing a beautiful woman he can never have Breakfast at Tiffany’s becomes a romance. Enter George Peppard as Paul Varjak, a handsome but down on his luck writer. Like Holly he relies on the favours of others to survive, in his case a rich married woman who pays his rent in return for services rendered. Paul is a realist who can see Holly for the damaged soul she is and wants her to stop dreaming. Admirers of Capote dismiss the film as fluff but this is unfair. Hollywood is a dream factory, the ultimate destination for drifters and wannabes. The novella’s Holly would have been more suited to Marilyn Monroe, whose own life was a tale of reinvention, alcohol abuse, and romantic failures. But the quirky and spirited Hepburn suits the film Edwards has made. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is pure escapism and it works on its own terms. There is one breathtakingly awful miscalculation though. Mickey Rooney’s casting as Holly’s Japanese neighbour has to be seen to be believed. “Miss Gorightry…”
Audrey Hepburn (1929-93)
Audrey Hepburn is regarded as the quintessential cinema style icon. Born in Brusselsand raised in Holland, she started her career in Englandwith small roles in movies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, Charles Crichton). Her big break came with Roman Holiday (53, William Wyler) which turned her into a major star and won her a Best Actress Oscar. Sabrina (54, Billy Wilder) and Funny Face (56, Stanley Donen) cemented her fame. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is something of a departure allowing her to play a much more complex role for a change. Charade (Donen, 63) and the musical My Fair Lady (64, George Cukor) were huge successes. After the nervy thriller Wait Until Dark (67, Terence Young) Hepburn worked infrequently. She was a surprisingly earthy Marian opposite Sean Connery in the elegiac Robin and Marian (76, Richard Lester) but in later life she focused much of her time on her work as an ambassador for UNICEF.
Blake Edwards (1922-2010)
Edwards started out as an actor before turning to writing and directing. He peaked early and Breakfast at Tiffany’s is arguably the highlight of his career. His next film Days of Wine and Roses (1962) is an interesting companion piece focusing on the descent of a young couple into alcoholism. Latterly though Edwards made broad comedies including eight Pink Panther movies, the Dudley Moore/Bo Derek smash hit 10 (81), cross-dressing comedy Victor/Victoria (1982), and gave Bruce Willis an early leading man role in Blind Date (87), his last real box-office hit.