The Tales of Hoffmann


2h 18m 1951
The Tales of Hoffmann

Brief Synopsis

A famous writer broods over his three lost loves.

Film Details

Also Known As
Met Opera Series, Tales of Hoffmann, contes d'Hoffmann
Genre
Drama
Adventure
Dance
Musical
Fantasy
Music
Release Date
1951
Distribution Company
LOPERT PICTURES/RIALTO PICTURES; Acacias Cine Audience; Public Media Inc.; Rialto Pictures

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 18m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1

Synopsis

This a film version of the opera "The Tales of Hoffmann", however it is NOT just a film of a staged performance. 'Michael Powell' & Emeric Pressburger (and the rest of "The Archers") work their usual magic here. The opera dramatises the three great romances in the life of the poet-hero presented in a series of flashbacks. Hoffmann's tales depict the struggle between human love and the artist's dedication to his work. Hoffmann loses each of the women he loves but gains instead poetic inspiration -- the ability to transform painful experiences into art.

Film Details

Also Known As
Met Opera Series, Tales of Hoffmann, contes d'Hoffmann
Genre
Drama
Adventure
Dance
Musical
Fantasy
Music
Release Date
1951
Distribution Company
LOPERT PICTURES/RIALTO PICTURES; Acacias Cine Audience; Public Media Inc.; Rialto Pictures

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 18m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1

Award Nominations

Best Art Direction

1951

Best Costume Design

1951

Articles

The Tales of Hoffmann - The Tales of Hoffman


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 naïve 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 naiveté. 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).
C-138m.

by Sean Axmaker
The Tales Of Hoffmann - The Tales Of Hoffman

The Tales of Hoffmann - The Tales of Hoffman

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 naïve 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 naiveté. 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). C-138m. by Sean Axmaker

The Tales of Hoffman - Jacques Offenbach's Operatic Fantasy Interpreted by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger - THE TALES OF HOFFMAN on DVD


Synopsis: In the prologue, the German poet and tale-spinner E. T. A. Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) is enamored with the ballerina Stella (Moira Shearer), but Councillor Lindorff (Robert Helpmann) also has designs on her. Hoffmann, accompanied by his faithful friend Niklaus (Pamela Brown), drinks in a tavern and recounts three tales of ill-fated romances that reflect aspects of his beloved Stella. In the first tale, set in Paris, Hoffmann falls in love with the mechanical doll Olympia after viewing her through magic spectacles. In the second tale, set in Venice, Hoffmann falls in love with the courtesan Giulietta, who schemes with the demonic Dapertutto to rob Hoffmann of his shadow. In the third tale, set in Greece, Hoffmann's beloved is the gifted but frail singer Antonia, whom the untrustworthy Dr. Miracle wants to return to singing, even at the cost of her life.

Review: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) is the arguable peak of a certain Technicolor aesthetic that flourished in the late Forties and early Fifties. In Hollywood, directors such as Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen combined color, dance, music, camerawork and editing in remarkably sophisticated ways in musicals such as An American in Paris (1951), The Band Wagon (1953) and Singin' in the Rain (1952). On the opposite shore of the Atlantic, the directing and screenwriting team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were pursuing a parallel path with their notion of the "composed" film in Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann.

While the Hollywood musicals drew mainly upon American popular music and dance and the Powell-Pressburger films were inspired more by the European cultural tradition, they nonetheless share some striking similarities in their great set-pieces. This is not surprising, since Michael Powell was a devotee of Walt Disney and of Fantasia (1940) in particular, and since Gene Kelly reportedly screened The Red Shoes for studio executives while trying to get approval for An American in Paris. We even find both Singin' in the Rain and The Tales of Hoffmann incorporating rather obvious allusions to Surrealist painting in the visual designs of the "Broadway Melody" number and the "Olympia" sequence, respectively. For me, The Tales of Hoffmann deserves a special mention due to its sheer creative boldness. With its remarkable art direction by Hein Reckroth and photography by Christopher Challis, it is surely among the most beautifully designed color films ever made.

The first time I watched The Tales of Hoffmann, I have to admit that I found the whole thing a little overbearing and "arty." Still, I felt compelled to watch the entire film again a few days later just to savor its eye-popping details, such as Moira Shearer's mechanical dance as Olympia, or the vivid red sculptures of bodies writing in infernal torment, on which the courtesan Giulietta treads in the Venetian sequence. After several such viewings in the space of a couple weeks, I have to say that few films are as rewarding on a repeat basis. Offenbach's memorable music helps. It may not wind up as one of my favorite films of all time, but I can understand why it might be for directors such as George Romero and Martin Scorsese.

The film is heavily laden with trick effects, including slow and reverse motion, flash frames and jump cuts, and there are many self-conscious stylistic choices such as obviously painted trompe-l'oeil sets and the alternation of puppets with live dancers in the Olympia episode. For the most part, such devices fit perfectly with the fantastic atmosphere that the film conjures up. Robert Rounseville may have a somewhat stiff screen presence compared to the dancers Robert Helpmann, Leonid Massine, Moira Shearer and Ludmilla Tcherina, but he works well enough considering the function of the Hoffmann character within the narrative as a whole. Rounseville is above all an accomplished tenor, and the role of Hoffmann as conceived in the film demands someone who can really sing. The multiple visions of the Villain and the Beloved, on the other hand, are more flexible and benefit from the visually striking personas embodied by the aforementioned dancers. I've never been a great fan of ballet per se, but I came away with unqualified admiration for Helpmann, Massine, Shearer and Tcherina not just as dancers, but as actors. Their incredible control and expressiveness, especially in terms of their facial expressions, make them ideal collaborators within the film's artistic vision. Tcherina is especially memorable as Giulietta, the ultimate sleek seductress.

However, it must be said up front that the Powell and Pressburger film is not for opera purists. The "Enchanted Dragonfly" ballet is not part of Jacques Offenbach's original opera, but rather is a reworking of themes by Offenbach. The libretto has been translated into English, a practice that most opera companies would avoid today. Also, in Offenbach's original conception, Hoffmann's three loves--Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta--must be played by the same singer, strengthening the opera's underlying unity. Lastly, Offenbach originally had Hoffmann's companion Niklaus (who is traditionally sung by a female like many operatic roles depicting young men) double for the Muse, who appears at the end of the opera to console the poet. It's a shame that this element wasn't retained in the final version of the film, because it gives the story a crucial dramatic payoff and provides stronger motivation for the presence of Niklaus. Still, the basic appeal of the opera, with its famous set-pieces such as Olympia's "doll song" and the languid Barcarolle, shines through.

To be fair, the opera itself has had a complex history. Offenbach died before the opera's premiere in 1881 and the score was not yet completely orchestrated. Ernest Guiraud and other editors made a number of changes in the score over the years, among them altering the order of the acts--the Antonia act originally came before the Giulietta section. Thus many of the seeming peculiarities of the film reflect the opera's performing traditions up to that time. One should also keep in mind that the conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, in fact worked closely with Powell and Pressburger from the start , and that his primary concern was to shape the film into a viable cinematic work. If you approach The Tales of Hoffmann with an open mind, then it remains one of the few truly successful filmed operas from a cinematic standpoint.

Considering the sheer exhilaration that emanates from the screen, it makes one a little sad to think that a project like this probably can never be duplicated. It would be difficult to imagine studios today investing in such massive and stylized sets for an "opera film," to say nothing of cultivating the talent required to execute such a vision both in front of and behind the camera. Admittedly, Baz Lurhmann's recent musical Moulin Rouge (2001) comes very close, but one film doesn't signal a renaissance.

The Disc: Criterion's DVD has gorgeous color and detail, as we should rightfully expect with a film like this. Without having seen a 35mm print previously, I suspect that they put a great deal of care into conveying accurately how it looks on film. There are a few minor problems with the alignment of the three color layers as often happens with Technicolor prints, but nothing to detract seriously from one's appreciation of the film as a whole. Mostly, it looks dazzling. The mono sound is very clear, which is critical considering the nature of the film, and the disc helpfully includes English subtitles for those who want to understand every word of the libretto.

The special features include an essay by the noted film scholar Ian Christie, a video introduction by George Romero, a collection of production design sketches by Reckroth, and a full-length commentary track by Martin Scorsese and Bruce Eder. Scorsese demonstrates his obvious affection for the film as he points out all sorts of interesting details. Eder offers a great deal of well-researched and useful information on the production's history. The disc also includes the rare Michael Powell short The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1956). It uses much of the same technical crew as The Tales of Hoffmann, but with vastly diminishing returns. Ultimately, that film is the sort of straightforward ballet film that I was initially afraid The Tales of Hoffmann might turn out to be. The Tales of Hoffmann, which has been seen relatively little in the U.S. up to now, is a great discovery.

For more information about The Tales of Hoffman, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Tales of Hoffman, go to TCM Shopping.

by James Steffen

The Tales of Hoffman - Jacques Offenbach's Operatic Fantasy Interpreted by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger - THE TALES OF HOFFMAN on DVD

Synopsis: In the prologue, the German poet and tale-spinner E. T. A. Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) is enamored with the ballerina Stella (Moira Shearer), but Councillor Lindorff (Robert Helpmann) also has designs on her. Hoffmann, accompanied by his faithful friend Niklaus (Pamela Brown), drinks in a tavern and recounts three tales of ill-fated romances that reflect aspects of his beloved Stella. In the first tale, set in Paris, Hoffmann falls in love with the mechanical doll Olympia after viewing her through magic spectacles. In the second tale, set in Venice, Hoffmann falls in love with the courtesan Giulietta, who schemes with the demonic Dapertutto to rob Hoffmann of his shadow. In the third tale, set in Greece, Hoffmann's beloved is the gifted but frail singer Antonia, whom the untrustworthy Dr. Miracle wants to return to singing, even at the cost of her life. Review: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) is the arguable peak of a certain Technicolor aesthetic that flourished in the late Forties and early Fifties. In Hollywood, directors such as Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen combined color, dance, music, camerawork and editing in remarkably sophisticated ways in musicals such as An American in Paris (1951), The Band Wagon (1953) and Singin' in the Rain (1952). On the opposite shore of the Atlantic, the directing and screenwriting team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were pursuing a parallel path with their notion of the "composed" film in Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann. While the Hollywood musicals drew mainly upon American popular music and dance and the Powell-Pressburger films were inspired more by the European cultural tradition, they nonetheless share some striking similarities in their great set-pieces. This is not surprising, since Michael Powell was a devotee of Walt Disney and of Fantasia (1940) in particular, and since Gene Kelly reportedly screened The Red Shoes for studio executives while trying to get approval for An American in Paris. We even find both Singin' in the Rain and The Tales of Hoffmann incorporating rather obvious allusions to Surrealist painting in the visual designs of the "Broadway Melody" number and the "Olympia" sequence, respectively. For me, The Tales of Hoffmann deserves a special mention due to its sheer creative boldness. With its remarkable art direction by Hein Reckroth and photography by Christopher Challis, it is surely among the most beautifully designed color films ever made. The first time I watched The Tales of Hoffmann, I have to admit that I found the whole thing a little overbearing and "arty." Still, I felt compelled to watch the entire film again a few days later just to savor its eye-popping details, such as Moira Shearer's mechanical dance as Olympia, or the vivid red sculptures of bodies writing in infernal torment, on which the courtesan Giulietta treads in the Venetian sequence. After several such viewings in the space of a couple weeks, I have to say that few films are as rewarding on a repeat basis. Offenbach's memorable music helps. It may not wind up as one of my favorite films of all time, but I can understand why it might be for directors such as George Romero and Martin Scorsese. The film is heavily laden with trick effects, including slow and reverse motion, flash frames and jump cuts, and there are many self-conscious stylistic choices such as obviously painted trompe-l'oeil sets and the alternation of puppets with live dancers in the Olympia episode. For the most part, such devices fit perfectly with the fantastic atmosphere that the film conjures up. Robert Rounseville may have a somewhat stiff screen presence compared to the dancers Robert Helpmann, Leonid Massine, Moira Shearer and Ludmilla Tcherina, but he works well enough considering the function of the Hoffmann character within the narrative as a whole. Rounseville is above all an accomplished tenor, and the role of Hoffmann as conceived in the film demands someone who can really sing. The multiple visions of the Villain and the Beloved, on the other hand, are more flexible and benefit from the visually striking personas embodied by the aforementioned dancers. I've never been a great fan of ballet per se, but I came away with unqualified admiration for Helpmann, Massine, Shearer and Tcherina not just as dancers, but as actors. Their incredible control and expressiveness, especially in terms of their facial expressions, make them ideal collaborators within the film's artistic vision. Tcherina is especially memorable as Giulietta, the ultimate sleek seductress. However, it must be said up front that the Powell and Pressburger film is not for opera purists. The "Enchanted Dragonfly" ballet is not part of Jacques Offenbach's original opera, but rather is a reworking of themes by Offenbach. The libretto has been translated into English, a practice that most opera companies would avoid today. Also, in Offenbach's original conception, Hoffmann's three loves--Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta--must be played by the same singer, strengthening the opera's underlying unity. Lastly, Offenbach originally had Hoffmann's companion Niklaus (who is traditionally sung by a female like many operatic roles depicting young men) double for the Muse, who appears at the end of the opera to console the poet. It's a shame that this element wasn't retained in the final version of the film, because it gives the story a crucial dramatic payoff and provides stronger motivation for the presence of Niklaus. Still, the basic appeal of the opera, with its famous set-pieces such as Olympia's "doll song" and the languid Barcarolle, shines through. To be fair, the opera itself has had a complex history. Offenbach died before the opera's premiere in 1881 and the score was not yet completely orchestrated. Ernest Guiraud and other editors made a number of changes in the score over the years, among them altering the order of the acts--the Antonia act originally came before the Giulietta section. Thus many of the seeming peculiarities of the film reflect the opera's performing traditions up to that time. One should also keep in mind that the conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, in fact worked closely with Powell and Pressburger from the start , and that his primary concern was to shape the film into a viable cinematic work. If you approach The Tales of Hoffmann with an open mind, then it remains one of the few truly successful filmed operas from a cinematic standpoint. Considering the sheer exhilaration that emanates from the screen, it makes one a little sad to think that a project like this probably can never be duplicated. It would be difficult to imagine studios today investing in such massive and stylized sets for an "opera film," to say nothing of cultivating the talent required to execute such a vision both in front of and behind the camera. Admittedly, Baz Lurhmann's recent musical Moulin Rouge (2001) comes very close, but one film doesn't signal a renaissance. The Disc: Criterion's DVD has gorgeous color and detail, as we should rightfully expect with a film like this. Without having seen a 35mm print previously, I suspect that they put a great deal of care into conveying accurately how it looks on film. There are a few minor problems with the alignment of the three color layers as often happens with Technicolor prints, but nothing to detract seriously from one's appreciation of the film as a whole. Mostly, it looks dazzling. The mono sound is very clear, which is critical considering the nature of the film, and the disc helpfully includes English subtitles for those who want to understand every word of the libretto. The special features include an essay by the noted film scholar Ian Christie, a video introduction by George Romero, a collection of production design sketches by Reckroth, and a full-length commentary track by Martin Scorsese and Bruce Eder. Scorsese demonstrates his obvious affection for the film as he points out all sorts of interesting details. Eder offers a great deal of well-researched and useful information on the production's history. The disc also includes the rare Michael Powell short The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1956). It uses much of the same technical crew as The Tales of Hoffmann, but with vastly diminishing returns. Ultimately, that film is the sort of straightforward ballet film that I was initially afraid The Tales of Hoffmann might turn out to be. The Tales of Hoffmann, which has been seen relatively little in the U.S. up to now, is a great discovery. For more information about The Tales of Hoffman, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Tales of Hoffman, go to TCM Shopping. by James Steffen

Moira Shearer (1926-2006)


Her contributions to film may have been brief, but for at least one film, Michael Powell's dance opus The Red Shoes (1948), this elegant, gorgeous redhead became a film icon for her balletic performance. Sadly, that actress, Moira Shearer, died on January 31 in Oxford, England of natural causes. She was 80.

Born Moira Shearer King on January 17, 1926 in Dunfermline, Scotland. Her father, an engineer, moved the family to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where she was pushed into dance lessons by her mother. After the family returned to Scotland, she received lessons from the legendary Russian dance teacher Nikolai Legat. When she was just 16 she joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet and made her big national debut at 20 as Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House in London.

In 1948, Powell and co-director Emeric Pressburger cast Shearer in the title role of Victoria Page, the young ballerina who sacrifices all for her career. The plot might have been a touch old fashioned, but the glorious technicolor and Robert Helpmann's florid, dazzling choreography, made this film as exciting on both sides of the Atlantic; and Shearer, complete with lucid beauty and captivating movements, a star.

After the film, Shearer returned to ballet, and following a brief U.S. tour in 1950, she made her second film, again for Powell in The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). A few more movies followed, The Story of Three Loves (1953), The Man Who Loved Redheads (1955), and a third film for Powell, the notorious Peeping Tom (1960), where she meets a grisly death at the hands of a psychotic photographer (Karl Boehm). Shearer concentrated on stage work afterwards before retiring to raise a family. She is survived by her husband of 56 years, Ludovic Kennedy; a son, Alastair; and daughters, Ailsa, Rachel, and Fiona.

by Michael T. Toole

Moira Shearer (1926-2006)

Her contributions to film may have been brief, but for at least one film, Michael Powell's dance opus The Red Shoes (1948), this elegant, gorgeous redhead became a film icon for her balletic performance. Sadly, that actress, Moira Shearer, died on January 31 in Oxford, England of natural causes. She was 80. Born Moira Shearer King on January 17, 1926 in Dunfermline, Scotland. Her father, an engineer, moved the family to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where she was pushed into dance lessons by her mother. After the family returned to Scotland, she received lessons from the legendary Russian dance teacher Nikolai Legat. When she was just 16 she joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet and made her big national debut at 20 as Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House in London. In 1948, Powell and co-director Emeric Pressburger cast Shearer in the title role of Victoria Page, the young ballerina who sacrifices all for her career. The plot might have been a touch old fashioned, but the glorious technicolor and Robert Helpmann's florid, dazzling choreography, made this film as exciting on both sides of the Atlantic; and Shearer, complete with lucid beauty and captivating movements, a star. After the film, Shearer returned to ballet, and following a brief U.S. tour in 1950, she made her second film, again for Powell in The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). A few more movies followed, The Story of Three Loves (1953), The Man Who Loved Redheads (1955), and a third film for Powell, the notorious Peeping Tom (1960), where she meets a grisly death at the hands of a psychotic photographer (Karl Boehm). Shearer concentrated on stage work afterwards before retiring to raise a family. She is survived by her husband of 56 years, Ludovic Kennedy; a son, Alastair; and daughters, Ailsa, Rachel, and Fiona. by Michael T. Toole

Quotes

Trivia

'Powell, Michael' began the project after hearing Thomas Beecham playing the score on piano and singing all of the parts.

Miscellaneous Notes

Limited re-release in United States March 13, 2015

Released in United States on Video April 28, 1992

Released in United States 1994

Released in United States Spring April 1951

Limited re-release in United States March 13, 2015 (New York & Los Angeles, 4K restoration)

Released in United States on Video April 28, 1992

Released in United States 1994 (Shown at AFI Film Festival (Opera on Film) in Los Angeles June 23 - July 7, 1994.)

Released in United States Spring April 1951