This is the odd-film-out in the major works of Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger — rarely spoken of in the same breath with their standard classics, The Life and Death of Col. Blimp, Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, yet clearly part of the same creative impetus behind those films.
Why? Well, it may simply be that while the lengthy ballet that climaxes The Red Shoes was palatable to audiences because it was tied to a larger story, an ambitious attempt to bring an entire opera-ballet to the screen was just too much culture in one sitting for most moviegoers. My own reservations about it are more complex — starting with not being overfond of the source opera by Jacques Offenbach and ending with the film’s curious inability to be emotionally convincing. These things, however, don’t keep it from being a visually amazing work (though some of the imagery has the feel of classical album covers) that ranks among the duo’s best.
It’s a bit slow-going at first — the framing sequence that sets up Hoffman (Robert Rounseville) telling the three tales that make up the bulk of the film is a bit on the awkward side and is mostly enlivened by Robert Helpman’s sinister Boris Karloff impression and his elegant mastery of his cape. Once the film gets going, however, there’s almost never an uninteresting moment, a false camera move, a wrong-headed edit or, indeed, a false note of any kind.
And in some ways, it’s this seamless quality that keeps the movie from being anything other than an astonishing exercise in technical creativity (it’s no surprise that the film’s greatest admirers have all tended to be filmmakers). It’s a nonstop barrage of gorgeous color and precise filmmaking — with a perfect ending bit involving the legendary conductor Sir Thomas Beecham and a nicely defiant final touch that reminds us how British films were generally perceived at the time. That it seems to be suffering from the Tin Woodsman’s complaint of lacking a heart doesn’t prevent it being a glorious fusion of sight and sound unlike anything then seen — or much seen since.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke