Introduction to The Red Shoes (Powell, 1948) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, 11/12/11

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)

(This was the introductory public talk I gave for the screening of  Powell’s film during a short series of world classics)


The Red Shoes is one of the most celebrated films of world cinema and it is a striking measure of the esteem the film is held in that American director Martin Scorsese has a copy of the film’s poster mounted on the wall above his bed so that when he wakes up each morning he is reminded of what he is up against as a film-maker.

The film is the best-known work by the British director, Michael Powell, who produced a very distinctive body of work within the constraints of the commercial film industry from the 1930s through to the late 1960s. Powell was born in 1905 and began his career in the silent film industry in the South of France as a comic actor playing bit parts before following a conventional route of working his way up through the business. He began directing in the 1930s making ‘quota’ films. Like a number of European countries where cinema screens were dominated by American imports, the UK passed protectionist legislation in 1927 restricting the screening of US films in cinemas. This was intended to protect the British film industry, but also to protect British culture from creeping Americanisation by setting a quota for the proportion of British films screened so that cinemas were required to give at least 7.5% of screens over to UK films. In order to capitalise on the resulting growth in demand for British films, many studios rushed out cheaply made films that were known as ‘quota quickies’. These were B-movies, running at around an hour and had a fairly low critical status – Powell directed 23 films between 1931 and 1936, most of which have been lost, but this allowed him to learn his trade as a director and his 1937 film, Edge of the World, was the first film of his to receive any serious critical recognition.

It is about the depopulation of a small island in the outer Hebrides and was shot on location with much of the cast consisting of local inhabitants. It brings together documentary style with poetic, visually rich, representations of the landscape and in this respect demonstrates the characteristic qualities of many of his later films – a blend of realism with fantastic, mythic elements. As Powell explained, by contrast with the documentary aesthetic and serious social purpose of much British cinema of the time, ‘our business was not realism but surrealism. We were storytellers, fantasists…We […] started with naturalism and finished with fantasy.’ Although, Powell directed several war films and contemporary dramas, his work remained consistently out of step with British cinema’s emphasis on realism, and the final straw was the 1960 serial killer film Peeping Tom. That film, which explored the psyche of a cameraman who murders women while filming them, received such a critical mauling that it was impossible for him to get backing for film production in Britain. He moved to Australia, where he made a few fairly obscure films, and ended his career working in New York as a consultant to Martin Scorsese.


One of the most significant features of Powell’s film-making career is his dependence upon collaboration. Film-making is always a collaborative process, but Powell’s career demonstrates this particularly clearly. As he explained in the 1980s

‘It’s essential for the cinema. It’s a matter of life and death. The director doesn’t have to be responsible for the initial idea. His job is to get the best collaborators he possibly can and then suck their brains, take the money and put it up there on the screen, then leave the actors to take the brunt.’

The Red Shoes is one of the clearest examples of this collaborative approach to film-making, and is the product of three of Powell’s key collaborators.

The first is British cinematographer Jack Cardiff who worked on three extraordinary Powell films in succession, A Matter of Life and Death (1945), Black Narcissus (1947 – for which he won an Oscar) and this film (for which he was refused an Oscar nomination due to professional jealousy by American film-makers). Scorsese describes the film’s ballet sequence as a ‘moving painting’, and Cardiff’s work is indeed marked by a painterly sense of dramatic lighting, rich colour schemes enhanced by the use of Technicolor, and experimentation with a range of optical and photographic effects. Technicolor was a system of colour film production that required special cameras that exposed three strips of film simultaneously. These negatives were processed using coloured dyes to produce the characteristic deep, saturated colour of Technicolor film, which became a signature of Cardiff’s films. Cardiff wrote in his autobiography about Powell: ‘He was the most stimulating director I ever worked with. He’d encourage me to go ahead with any idea I had, however wild and experimental. Nothing was too risky for Michael and I always knew if I tried something he’d back me up.’

The second key collaborator on this film was the exiled German painter and theatre designer Hein Heckroth, who had worked on the previous two films as costume designer and on this film worked as production designer (in charge of the set designs) winning an Oscar for his efforts. Heckroth was a surrealist painter and his production design is characterised by a rejection of naturalism very much in sympathy with Powell’s aesthetic.

However, the most important collaborator for Powell was the Polish immigrant screenwriter, Emeric Pressburger. Powell met him in the late 1930s when they both worked for the Hungarian producer Alexander Korda, and they went on to form an independent production company, The Archers, through which they made 17 films in 18 years. One of the most striking features of the films is the success with which they blend commercially attractive themes with stylistic and narrative experimentation so that it is difficult to place their films within generic categories. Powell said of Pressburger that without him ‘I think I would have made a lot of very interesting, pictorial, but rather dull films. He brought a very necessary theatrical thrust into the films.’ It is significant that Peeping Tom, the film that more or less ended his career, was the second film he made after terminating his partnership with Pressburger.

Their production company was a means of establishing creative independence within the film business but it also amounted to an artistic manifesto. This was outlined by Pressburger in a letter to Deborah Kerr trying to persuade her to act in their 1943 film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp:

One, we owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit, not a loss.

Two, every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.

Three, when we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.

Four, no artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.

Five, at any time, and particularly at the present, the self respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on. They will fight or intrigue to work on a subject they feel is urgent or contemporary, and fight equally hard to avoid working on a trivial or pointless subject. And we agree with them and want the best workmen with us; and get them. These are the main things we believe in. They have brought us an unbroken record of success and a unique position. Without the one, of course, we should not enjoy the other very long. We are under no illusions. We know we are surrounded by hungry sharks. But you have no idea what fun it is surf-bathing, if you have only paddled, with a nurse holding on to the back of your rompers.

We hope you will come on in, the water’s fine.

Michael Powell was apparently a very difficult person to work with, someone who enjoyed being challenged by his collaborators, but who was also prone to bullying and he had very few friends within the British film industry.  Consequently many technicians and actors refused to work with him, and this was a particularly tough shoot. The dance sequences were shot on soundstages at Pinewood studios and the dancers had to perform for hours a day on concrete floors during a heat wave, conditions made worse by the need for very powerful lamps (since Technicolor film is quite insensitive). What made things more difficult for them is that since a film sequence is composed of multiple short takes from a variety of camera angles that are then edited together into an apparently continuous sequence, the dancers were required to repeat very short sequences of movement over and over again. Moira Shearer, who plays the protagonist Vicky Page, complained that the longest uninterrupted period they could dance for was 25 seconds and that:

‘when they came to look at the rushes, without fail they chose the least good performance because it was the one where they had got everything right cinematically. And so they threw away really good dancing […] I remember weeping in the dark in the little cinema at Pinewood when I saw it because I thought, this is a travesty of so much that a lot of people have done.’

The Red Shoes was an expensive film, especially in the context of post-war austerity. It over-ran its 15-week schedule by 9 weeks and the film-makers over-spent its £300,000 budget by a further quarter of a million pounds. When Pressburger screened a rough cut of the film for the executives at Rank, the company that financed the film, they walked out of the screening room without saying a word, convinced that the film-makers had blown their sizeable investment on making an arthouse film. As a result, the film was released in the UK without a premiere and very little publicity and it received mixed critical reviews. It was only when the film was picked up in the US for distribution that it began to receive very positive critical reviews and to generate a substantial return. People returned to see the film repeatedly, and in addition to winning three Oscars, the film became the highest-grossing British film ever. Despite this, it was the last time the film-makers would have this degree of independence, which is sadly ironic given that the subject of the film is creative freedom.

It tells the story of a young dancer and a young composer employed by the world famous Lermontov ballet company and gives us a view of the exotic and banal business of professional creativity. The story is based on the Ballets Russes, the ballet company run by Sergei Diaghilev and the film reworks the story of Sergei Diaghilev’s relationship with Vaslav Nijinsky who left Diaghilev to marry one of the other dancers in the company, Romola de Pulszky. This story of backstage romance, jealousy and conflicted loyalty centres around the development of ‘The Red Shoes’ ballet, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story. The performance of the ballet is the spectacular centrepiece of the film, and it is the realisation of an aesthetic ideal that Powell called ‘composed cinema’, a pure, non-narrative synthesis of sound, movement and image. Powell described the dance as a ‘Freudian film-ballet’ by which he means that when Vicky dances the Red Shoes ballet she is expressing her repressed fears and fantasies. In this respect it explores a theme that is common to a number of his films – that of female desire and repression. Powell’s films are very unusual for the period in relation both to British and Hollywood cinema for their depiction of women. Women’s bodies are rarely presented as erotic objects, but rather the films show bodies shot through with erotic emotion and desire. Crucially, too, female characters are often partners or central characters, rather than trophies to be won or accessories of the male protagonists. Instead, the films often present a woman’s point of view and invite the viewer to identify with the female characters as much as with the male characters.

For Powell, after years of films which had instructed people to die for their country, he said that this was a film which stressed the importance of passion and art, a point that was recognised in one of the rare positive reviews the film received in the British press upon its release. Writing in The Observer, CA Lejeune concluded that:

A film that is in love with the ballet is clearly not going to be everybody’s love; but enthusiasm is such a strong infection, and any picture that deals as single-heartedly with its subject as The Red Shoes will have something to say to people who know what it is to concentrate passionately on one job, to live for it and live in it.


Jack Cardiff (1997) Magic Hour: A Life in Movies. London: Faber and Faber

Ian Christie (2002) Arrows of Desire: the Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. London: Faber and Faber

Ian Christie, Andrew Moor (eds.) (2005) Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-maker. London: BFI

Kevin MacDonald (1994) Emeric Pressburger: The life and Death of  Screenwriter. London: Faber and Faber

Michael Powell (1990) Edge of the World: the Making of a Film. London: Faber and Faber

Michael Powell (2000) A Life in Movies. London: Faber and Faber