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A flamboyant cinematic flourish and romantic vitality runs though all of the films of Michael Powell, who directed his greatest film in collaboration with screenwriter and co-producer Emeric Pressburger, his creative partner in The Archers. There's a delight in their cinema, a love of the expressionist possibilities of the medium, that lights up their films with energy, color, and the magic of love and life. The Red Shoes (1948), a lavish Technicolor ode to the romance and beauty of ballet, was one of their greatest critical and commercial successes and it inspired in Powell an ambition to create an entirely "composed" film. That is, a film designed and shot to serve and compliment music already composed. Unfortunately, he found little interest from producers until meeting with Sir Thomas Beecham, the famous British conductor and international music impresario who had worked with Powell and Pressburger on The Red Shoes. Beecham suggested Powell look to opera and brought his attention to Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, adapted from the strange fantasy tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Beecham had a special connection to the opera he conducted the premiere British performance in 1910 and eagerly signed on as the film's musical director. The idea and the stamp of artistic pedigree of high art with a popular dimension intrigued producer Alexander Korda, who agreed to finance the film, and the production came together surprisingly quickly.
The film opens with the atmosphere of a live performance, the sounds of orchestra tuning over the credits, and then the score jolts to life and the camera takes us into the highly stylized set of the framing sequence, a ballet performance (featuring Moira Shearer) with a smitten Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) in the audience. When the curtain falls, our lovestruck hero retires to a lively beer garden with his school chum, Nicklaus (Pamela Brown), and tells three tales of doomed, devilish loves: a poet tempted by a life size doll (Moira Shearer) brought to life by clockwork mechanics, a courtesan (Ludmilla Tcherina) who helps her lover steal souls with a magic mirror, and a terminally ill woman (Anne Ayars) who will die if she sings. It's not a slavish adaptation of the opera, but a creative reworking to marry opera, ballet and cinema (the part of the living doll was changed from a singing to a dancing role) and musical director Beecham was a dynamic partner in the collaboration, shifting music around to match Powell's narrative changes and cinematic inspirations. Powell paid tribute to Beecham's contribution by ending the film on Beecham himself conducting the final bars of the score.
There is no dialogue, only a sung libretto, and the entire score was prerecorded. Rounseville and Anne Ayars were the only cast members to record their own vocal performances but all of them lip-synched to the playback for the camera. "We were virtually making a silent film," wrote Powell in Million Dollar Movie, the second volume of his autobiography. It's an apt description for a production where the performances are entirely in dance, mime and song, all stylized expressions closer to the expressionistic qualities of silent cinema than the realism of even the most fantastic sound films. Even the special effects were accomplished with simple techniques that recalled the glorious imagery of silent fantasies.
Powell brought back many of the cast members of The Red Shoes. Along with featured dancers Moira Shearer and Ludmilla Tcherina were Leonide Massine (who took dynamic parts in each of the three acts) and Robert Helpmann (playing Hoffmann's scheming nemesis in the framing sequence and the demonic trickster behind each of the temptations). The part of Hoffmann's buddy Nicklaus was traditionally played by a female mezzo-soprano on stage. "The idea of an androgynous being accompanying a Gothic-style hero in his amatory adventures appealed to me," wrote Powell, and he cast Pamela Brown, a longtime collaborator, in the role of the skeptical observer watching his nave friend fall time and again into emotional booby traps. The participation of the internationally acclaimed Beecham helped secure New York opera star Robert Rounseville, who made his screen debut in the role of the gullible, romantic Hoffmann.
Powell secured the largest soundstage in Britain, which was unsuited for sound recording but perfect for a production without a second of live sound. Hein Heckroth designed the impressionistic sets in broad strokes against open spaces and deep colors. They are more suggestions than literal locations, executed with an exaggerated theatricality and a cinematic flamboyance created with scrims and curtains and painted backdrops and sculpted in the lighting. Powell secured the services of Sir Frederick Ashton to choreograph the dance sequences (he also danced two small roles) while Beecham personally auditioned the vocalists and arranged and recorded the score.
The Tales of Hoffmann has a lavish, rich look, yet the production itself was relatively inexpensive. "It was a composed film, you see," wrote Powell. "We all knew what we were doing, and why we were doing it, and the music told us how to do it." Production was completed in nine weeks, with two weeks of extensive rehearsals and another two weeks to shoot the puppet chorus. Powell was well pleased with the finished film, Korda less so, who found the dramatic energy of the first sequences drained by the static quality of the final act. That sequence was cut for its British premiere but reinstated for subsequent showings. Reviews were mixed. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, comparing the film to The Red Shoes, described it as "splendid and cold," and Milton Shulton of the Evening Standard proclaimed it "the most opulent, most expensive, most courageous and most exhausting effort yet made to bring opera to the screen" while warning audiences that "Not for a single moment will The Tales of Hoffmann move you to laughter or tears."
In many ways, The Tales of Hoffmann is an entire feature film in the fantastic style of the surreal, almost nightmarish central ballet of The Red Shoes. Despite the brightness of the production and the fantasy of the stories, it's a dark, emotionally grim story with a hero felled by his own gullibility and emotional vulnerability, a pathetic victim of his own romantic idealism and naivet. For all the spectacle, it is more abstract than involving and the film never pumps with the blood of romantic passion that flows through so many Powell movies. Yet it's also a sumptuous film of rich colors, elegant camerawork, gorgeous sets and dazzling choreography, and the dark fantasy is embraced by such diverse directors as Martin Scorsese, Derek Jarman and George Romero (who sees it as a kind of horror film). Powell's imaginative and dynamic marriage of music, movement, and decor is breathtaking and the film is one of the most dedicated and effectively realized marriage of the arts (opera, ballet and music) ever put to cinema.
Producers: Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Dennis Arundell, Jules Barbier, Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell, based on stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann
Cinematography: Christopher Challis
Art Direction: Arthur Lawson
Production Design: Hein Heckroth
Music: Thomas Beecham, conductor
Choreography: Frederick Ashton
Film Editing: Reginald Mills
Cast: Moira Shearer (Stella/Olympia), Ludmilla Tcherina (Giulietta), Anne Ayars (Antonia), Pamela Brown (Nicklaus), Leonide Massine (Spalanzani/Schlemil/Franz), Robert Helpmann (Lindorf/Coppelius/Dapertutto/Dr. Miracle), Frederick Ashton (Kleinsach/Cochenille).
by Sean Axmaker