Tag: Marius Goring

The Red Shoes (1948)

The Red Shoes (1948)

Ballet and obsession go hand-in-hand in this beautiful, triumphant film

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: Anton Walbrook (Boris Lermontov), Marius Goring (Julian Craster), Moria Shearer (Victoria Page), Robert Helpmann (Ivan Boleslawsky), Léonide Massine (Grischa Ljubov), Albert Bassermann (Sergei Ratov), Ludmilla Tchérine (Irina Boronskaya), Esmond Knight (Livingstone Montague), Austin Trevor (Professor Palmer), Jean Short (Terry), Gordon Litmann (Ike), Eric Berry (Dimitri)

If there was a moment when “ballet” and “obsession” became synonymous in people’s minds, it might just have been the premiere of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. The founding text in the cult of en pointe, The Red Shoes mixes technicolour beauty and fairy-tale darkness with an elaborate meditation on the struggle to balance life and art. For many it’s the peak of The Archer’s cinematic artistry. While I don’t place it that high – I have too much fondness for the beauty of A Matter of Life and Death, enjoyment for the bonkers madness of Black Narcissus and too much respect for the pleasures of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – there is no arguing that this is vibrant, beautiful filmmaking, two masters firing on all cylinders.

The Red Shoes is the ballet battleground for the conflicting demands of three people. Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is a Diaghilevish impresario for whom everything is secondary to art, demanding complete obedience from his protégés. Julian Craster (Marius Goring) is a gifted young composer who values life and love over art. Between them is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), graceful once-in-a-generation ballerina talent who wants to both dedicate herself to Julian but also dance herself into legend with Boris. These three will make and break alliances on and off tour, touring Craster’s Red Shoes about ballet shoes with a mind (and dance) of their own.

On its release The Red Shoes became the most successful British film ever released in America (it even topped the end-of-year box office chart). Its popularity added even greater momentum to the wave of Hollywood musicals that turned into a tsunami. Would Gene Kelly have had the guts to end An American in Paris with a fifteen-minute ballet if Powell and Pressburger hadn’t stuck a 17 minute one in the middle of The Red Shoes first? Where The Red Shoes differs from Hollywood musicals that pirouetted in its footsteps, was it darkness and surprising bleakness, it’s clear, cold-eyed look at the limits of opportunity and the dangers of following your dream.

Because Victoria Page – played with a great deal of honesty and affecting vulnerability by professional ballet dancer Moira Shearer – is severely damaged by doing so. Inveigling her way into Lermontov’s company (despite Lermontov’s distaste at her mother’s forceful pushiness) she proves her spurs by a sensational performance in a small-scale Swan Lake at the Mercury Theatre (dancing to a recording rather than a live band) and is parachuted into a leading role in Lermontov’s productions. Vicky dreams of leaving the sort of mark few do – but she’s also human, unsuited at heart to the fierce, all-consuming obsession Lermontov expects from his stars. Shearer makes her vulnerable, gentle, lacking the force of personality to resist peer pressure.

Pressure is what Lermontov trades in. Played with a vampiric intensity by Walbrook, Lermontov is pale, Germanic and frequently retreats behind sunglasses. He commands there is no God but art and that he alone is its unquestionable high priest. He holds court in his office, where his staff come and go, rotating around his every whim and opinion. He lurks in the shadows at the rear of the theatre during rehearsals, quietly passing judgement. Vicky’s predecessor is dismissed for daring to get married. And there is the constant expectation that should he ask you for a sacrifice, it should be made in seconds.

He doesn’t care for conflict. In fact, any disagreement is met with summary dismissal. It doesn’t matter how much he’s invested in you. As Julian Craster discovers to his cost. Goring does fine work as the enthusiastic young composer (even if he is clearly a little old for the role) who we are introduced to excitedly watching his professor’s new composition for Lermontov only to discover all the melodies are his. While Lermontov is reluctant to do anything to ensure Craster gains the credit for his work (a sign of his own need to control all patronage and praise) he takes Craster on, who proves himself no flash in the plan. But no amount of time invested in Craster matters when the young composer dares to fall in love with Vicky. And even worse, she dares to love him back.

Because love and a life outside of the dance isn’t part of the plan. These ideas are all captured in The Ballet of the Red Shoes, the piece Craster composes for Vicky (the preparation for which is the catalyst for their burgeoning love affair). Based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the dancing shoes that had a life of their own, it neatly encapsulates Vicky’s problem. As Lermontov says summing up the story, it’s the tale of shoes that at first delight a young woman and then literally dance her to death. The entire ballet, like the film, is a grim reminder of the horrific price all-sacrificing excellence in the arts can lead to.

It’s fitting that this story is placed at the heart of such a hugely beautiful and fascinating film. Powell and Pressburger’s film are virtually a by-word for technicolour beauty. Jack Cardiff excels himself here as a photographer (only a reluctance to give this Brit outsider an Oscar two years running surely prevented even his nomination). The Red Shoes is crammed with exquisite imagery, gorgeous photography and striking, unforgettable colours. Hein Heckroth’s sets are magisterial (and Oscar winning), not least in the staging of the ballot that dominates the centre of the film.

The ballet is filmed quite unlike any other dance sequences in films. Powell in many ways breaks the cardinal rules of shooting dances. The ballet is a combination of quick edits and intricate camera moves. It is defiantly non-realistic: despite the setting, it is clearly (with its use of slow motion, super-imposed images and effects like the red shoes lacing themselves onto Vicky’s feet) not a faithful theatrical staging but highly cinematic. It beautifully, subtly suggests that we are at a tipping point between reality and imagination, that Vicky’s identification with the lead role has partially shifted her perception of the whole piece into a fairy tale turned real.

Is that partly why the whole film feels like we are walking in her own personal Hans Christian Anderson story? With Julian as the romantic prince, the theatre as a mix of enchanted forest and mysterious castle – and Lermontov as the beast who may be a prince in disguise or the wolf dressed as granny. It leads into the finales tragic ending, which blurs the line between reality, imagination and trauma into an undefinable mass. Do those red shoes exert a terrible, profound power of Vicky she hardly understands? Or are they just physical representations of her own ability to choose between the demands placed on her?

The Red Shoes is in some ways a traditional melodrama, not to mention another fable of a woman being unable to have both career and family (in the way, of course, that a man can). It is also a slim story, and the ballet – impressive as it is – depends on your relationship to that artform to work or not (I confess I find it drags slightly). But it’s also full of delightful behind the scenes sequences, from rehearsals to design meetings with Albert Bassermann’s Germanic designer to Craster’s coaching of the orchestra.

Visually rapturous, its directed with a great deal of flair and sympathy from Powell who draws some superb performances from his cast of mostly professional dancers. Although Shearer has no real chemistry with Goring, her performance as Vicky is beautifully observed and highly sympathetic and The Red Shoes is blessed with a definitive performance from Walbrook who is powerfully, imposingly domineering as Lermontov. The Red Shoes may at time dress its melodramatic heart in a little too much on-the-nose artiness, but it is also a sensational, ravishing film that lingers as long in the memories as Vicky’s prodigious dance steps.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A pilot is stranded between Earth and…somewhere else in this brilliant romantic fantasy

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast: David Niven (Peter David Carter), Roger Livesey (Dr Frank Reeves), Raymond Massey (Abraham Farlan), Kim Hunter (June), Marius Goring (Conductor 71), Robert Coote (Bob Trubshaw), Kathleen Byron (Officer Angel), Joan Maude (Chief Recorder), Abraham Sofaer (Judge/Surgeon), Richard Attenborough (Pilot)

In the final days of World War II, a plane glides across the Channel in flames. The crew has bailed out, leaving only their skipper behind. Unknown to them, he’s not got a parachute – and is facing a choice between jumping or crashing to certain death. With only moments left to live, when is there a better time to fall in love? Quoting poetry and embracing what life he can in his final moments, Peter Carter (David Niven) falls in love with American radio operator June (Kim Hunter), the last person he expects to talk to. It’s stirring, sweeping, hugely romantic – and then Peter jumps at 50,000 feet.

So that’s it, right? Wrong. Peter washes up on the shores of Britain, not dead and practically on June’s doorstep. Happy ending? Perhaps not: at the end of a huge escalator linking our world to another (maybe the next?) Peter was expected. His “conductor” (Marius Goring), a French fop executed during the Revolution, whose job it was to take his soul “up” lost him in the fog. Now a man who isn’t supposed to be alive is walking around on Earth falling in love. Can it be allowed? Or will Peter need to head up that staircase? Or is all of this in fact in Peter’s head, a product of a head injury diagnosed by Dr Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey)? Either way, Peter faces two trials: life-saving surgery on Earth and a tribunal in that other place to decide whether he stays on Earth or not.

When released in America, AMOLAD was renamed Stairway to Heaven – a title rightly hated by Michael Powell. Part of the magic – and there is a lot of magic realism here in the most beloved of all British filmic fables – is the film’s carefully measured ambiguity. The film superbly doesn’t give any answers. The two worlds are clearly, visually distinguished and when Goring’s Conductor and others descend to Earth to freeze time and converse with Peter, their appearance is always foreshadowed with the same symptoms (smells and headaches) Frank diagnoses as part of Peter’s condition.

The beauty of AMOLAD is how wonderfully gently it explores the struggle of two nations – here represented by Peter and June – to emerge from the trauma of war and return to everyday life. From a world where death lies around every corner – where your plane can plummet to fiery doom in moments – they must readjust to one of romantic picnics, amateur theatricals and games of table tennis. Peter’s struggle to survive his surgery is a beautiful metaphor for returning to a life full of hope, possibility and looking forward rather than backward.

It’s why the visual impact of the film is so important. “Heaven” is shot in crisp black-and-white. As the Conductor says when travelling down to Earth, “one is starved of Technicolor up there”. This Heaven is a place of peace, but also of bureaucratic efficiency. Arrival lounges are staffed with decent but practical Angels (Kathleen Bryon is marvellous as the first of these we meet – and there is a fabulous shot from Powell that frames her in front of a clock, making the edges of its face appear like a halo around her head). There are rules and paperwork – in fact a whole city of clerks and arrival lounges. What it doesn’t have is the warmth and passion – the colour – of Earth. Down here, everything is in luscious, gorgeous Technicolor. Up there life is restful, but monochrome.

Jack Cardiff’s photography of AMOLAD – combined with Powell’s astute visual eye – crafts one of the most ravishing films you’ll ever see. Blues, oranges and reds practically pour off the screen into your eyes. Filters add a golden hue to much of what we see. The ramshackle details of locations – Frank’s cluttered library with its piles of books, June’s country-house-base – see every single detail captured in painterly beauty, colours popping out. Only Peter’s surgery room feels like a bridge between ”Heaven” and Earth, cooler filters stressing their blues and cool icey whites.

This is what Peter is fighting to stay in. A world of colour, of joy and poetry. Perhaps “Heaven” is just his imagination of what the afterlife could be like. It resembles the military operations he has spent the last few years emersed in. It’s filled with the historical generations he taught at university. Familiar faces up there fight his corner and represent him at the great trial to decide his fate. His surgeon on Earth shares the face of his judge in “Heaven”. Powell and Pressburger don’t lean too far either way – it’s all gloriously left open to our imagination.

And who, in 1946, wouldn’t want to believe in a heaven as reassuringly welcoming as this. (On a side note it’s refreshing to see a film from the 40s that depicts such a racially diverse after life). One where all are equal and questions of colour and creed are left aside. “Heaven” is packed with soldiers from all across the world – and the sheer volume of uniforms up there reminds us of the trauma down here.

AMOLAD is all about the world we might decide to live in after the trauma of war. It’s also about forging lasting bonds between two nations bought together to fight. No one feels more English than David Niven: and AMOLAD is, arguably, his finest performance. He makes Peter a man of casual wit and lightly worn intelligence, but with hints of the burdens he has carried across years of war. He’s the best of us Brits – and now he has fallen in love with the best of America. June, wonderfully played by Kim Hunter, is practical, brave and grounded. Their love (and the life they could spend together) becomes the battleground at the heavenly trial.

On the one side: a prejudiced revolutionary American (played with gusto by Raymond Massey) – on the other the perfect embodiment of English decency. There could have been no better choice of actor for this than the glorious Roger Livesey. Livesey’s Frank Reeves becomes a mix of English eccentric, master surgeon and Prospero-like magus. It’s no coincidence that among his hobbies is a large camera obscura with which he observes events on his village streets with a protective, grandfatherly care. His study is lined with books, his knowledge is infinite and he is always open to Peter’s tales of heavenly staircases and visitations from mysterious conductors. Then as his advocate in “Heaven” it is he who has the clear sight and judgement to focus the jury not on what divides us, but what unites us – what makes us all human, not what drives us apart.

AMOLAD is about what brings us together. It’s open about the flaws of Britain – the first trial jury is awash with Boers, Indians and other victims of Empire – but also a celebration of its virtues. It celebrates the melting pot of America – the second trial jury is made-up of an incredibly diverse selection of American citizens – and is a hymn to personal freedoms. Farlan picks up on what divides Britain and America – cricket vs American dynamism – but what unites us is our desire for life. So what does it matter if Brits can be austere or Americans so brash they raid a coke dispenser on arrival in “Heaven”. We’re still cousins.

All this helps capture the film as a universal fable, of love being discovered in the magical boundaries between worlds (its no coincidence we see Midsummer Night’s Dream being rehearsed by an American cast under a British vicar). This is a quiet, decent struggle about emerging from the horrors of war into the chance of a new world of love. It’s a struggle for Peter and June that is both very personal and hugely universal.  Powell and Pressburger’s film captures this perfectly in a film that’s sublimely directed and never-endingly rich in dialogue and visuals. It perfectly offers up a universal fable that speaks to the heart. It’s perhaps why this is their most beloved – and finest – hour.

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

An enigmatic beauty finds fame but not happiness in Hollywood in Mankiewicz’ slightly muddled mix of satire, romance and tragedy

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Harry Dawes), Ava Gardner (Maria Vargas), Edmond O’Brien (Oscar Muldoon), Marius Goring (Alberto Bravano), Valentina Cortese (Eleanora Torlato-Favrini), Rossano Brazzi (Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini), Elizabeth Sellers (Jerry Dawes), Warren Stevens (Kirk Edwards), Franco Interlenghi (Pedro Vargas)

Rain hammers down on a funeral in the Italian Rivera. A group of (mostly) men gather to pay their respects to deceased film star Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner). In flashback, two of the men who discovered her as an exotic dancer in a Madrid nightclub, remember her. Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is the world-weary writer-director and her friend and mentor, Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) a publicist to power-mad producers and self-satisfied millionaires who wanted to use Maria for their own ends. Maria’s success goes with a growing loneliness and ennui: marriage to Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi) feels like a fresh start but leads only to further tragedy.

Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa was an attempt to do for Hollywood what he so superbly did for theatre in All About Eve. What’s fascinating is that it’s clear Mankiewicz loved the theatre – for all its bitchy acidness – but clearly didn’t like Hollywood that much. The Barefoot Contessa is a cold, cynical film where Hollywood is a shallow, selfish place with no loyalty and where people are only commodities.

The only exceptions are Dawes and Maria. Dawes – an obvious Mankiewicz stand-in (and who hasn’t wished they could be Humphrey Bogart?) – is an artist, with an abashed guilt about wasting his talents on shallow films. Played with a quiet, observational languor by Bogart (so ashen faced at times, he seems almost grey), Dawes narrates with a dry distance, seeing but avoiding involvement, an arched eyebrow for every event. He’s also got a level of principle and integrity largely missing from the other Hollywood figures.

What we see of them is often hard to like – could Mankiewicz already be so bitter about his profession, just a few years after dominating the Oscars? Maria’s first producer, Warren Stevens, is a spoilt millionaire (inspired by Howard Hughes), played with a stroppy greed by Kirk Edwards. Stevens humiliates underlings in restaurants, treats Dawes like a bellboy, demands total devotion from Maria (sulkily ordering her to stay away from a potential rival at a dinner party) and has not a shred of interest in art. Under his control, Dawes directs films which sound formulaic (Black Dawn!) and which he clearly despises. A screen-test for Maria is gate-crashed by a series of European producers who gossip about money, stars, finance and never art.

Maria rises above all this as a true romantic ideal, her tendency to go barefoot part of her defining characteristic as a natural free-spirit in touch with the Mother Nature (“I feel safe with my feet in the dirt”). Ava Gardner is perfectly cast as this romantic but enigmatic figure, an idealised figure we never quite understand. Introduced as curiously indifferent about auditioning for Hollywood (partly due to her instinctive dislike for Stevens), Maria almost drifts into stardom but finds little contentment. She lives the ultimate Cinderella story (as she comments on with Dawes) but never find a satisfying fairy tale ending after her rags-to-riches story.

The Barefoot Contessa starts as a Hollywood expose, but becomes an ill-focused study of this almost unknowable glamour figure. Gardner is, of course, nothing like what a Madrid dancer from the slums would look or act like, but she is perfectly cast as the idealised figure Mankiewicz wants for his Maugham-ish exploration of ennui and shallowness among the jet-set of Europe. They’re not that different from Hollywood producers: obsessed with status and class, and uninterested in truth and art. Marius Goring’s Italian millionaire turns out (for all his Euro-charm) to be as much a stroppy ass as Stevens (humiliatingly blaming Maria for his gambling losses). Her husband, the Count, seems to be her salvation, but turns out to be as much a deceptive empty-suit as anyone else.

I suppose it’s part of the point that we never get to hear Maria’s own voice, only the perceptions of the men around her. You could say the same about All About Eve’s Eve and Margo, but they were such rich characters our understanding of them was always clear. But Maria is never quite compelling enough and Mankiewicz never escapes from making her feel a variation on a fantasy figure (between sex bomb and earth mother). Mankiewicz was forced to compromise on his central conceit (rather than gay, her husband is cursed with ludicrous war-wound induced impotency) of Maria marrying the man least suited to giving her the family-life purpose she seeks.

The Barefoot Contessa – strangely for a film from a director whose best work was with women – eventually becomes a film about men, fascinated with a woman they can never really understand. Dawes gets the closest, the only man free of sexual desire for her, but to the others she is often seen as an unobtainable sexual figure (on a yacht, she defiantly confronts the lecherous stares of the men on board). When we finally see her dance, she has a freedom and naturalness you feel has been crushed by the circles she now moves in.

It feels like two films pushed together: one a Hollywood expose about a newly-grown star (that film is a broader, farcical one where Edmond O’Brien’s hammy Oscar-winning turn as a wild-eyed, famously sweaty publicist seems to fit); the other a novelistic musing on ennui in the moneyed jet-set classes, where an unobtainable woman is at last obtained by a man who can do nothing with her.

Mankiewicz’s weakness is not pulling these two narratives together into a coherent thematic whole. He himself was later critical of the films structure. It’s beautifully written of course – Mankiewicz is a master of theatrical pose – and Jack Cardiff’s technicolour beauty is outstanding. The Barefoot Contessa sits in the shadow, both of In a Lonely Place (Bogart’s vicious 1950 Hollywood expose) and films that loosely followed in its ennui-exploring footsteps, like La Dolce Vita. But it’s as if Mankiewicz got a bit lost (like Dawes) about what his intentions were in the first place.