I. The Red Shoes (1948)
The Red Shoes is about the rise to stardom of a dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) who falls under the strict control of one charismatic, but elusive and mysterious company director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). Page becomes truly famous after appearing in Lermontov’s ballet “The Red Shoes”, but soon finds herself torn between her new love – composer of “The Red Shoes” – Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and her professional life. The film is brilliant in terms of cinematography, camera-movements and visual impact. The beautifully-designed production and the ballet, that incorporates a story of one girl whose red shoes take control over her life, are memorable. The film also makes certain observations on the creative process of a theatre/ballet production, and on art and artistic input. It asks – what price a person will be willing to pay for the sake of artistic glory and full professional realisation in theatre/ballet? The story of one girl whose red shoes control her (a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale) mirrors the story of Victoria Page who, ultimately, has to choose between her romantic interest and her blind devotion to the demands of the man behind the “The Red Shoes” genius – Boris Lermontov.
This great film was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who also directed Black Narcissus below, and what probably distinguishes these two films and what these two films have in common are breath-taking cinematography/visuals, but also, unfortunately, – a relatively “weak” and odd narrative content. The cinematographer of both films was a pioneer in film photography Jack Cardiff (The African Queen (1951)), but the stories in both films still come across as rather “thin”, with some very inconsequential scenes and elements. 9/10
II. West Side Story (1961)
This film-musical is currently being remade by Steven Spielberg, to be released this year. West Side Story was adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name, taking the story of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet as its basis, and sets it in one area of New York City in the 1950s where two opposing gangs battle for territory – the Sharks (a Puerto-Rican community) and the Jets. Lovely Natalie Wood plays Maria, a Puerto Rican girl, a daughter of strict parents and a loving sister to the leader of the Sharks – Bernardo. In spite of their different backgrounds, Maria falls in love with Tony, whose best friend Riff is the leader of the Jets. Will the love between these two end the rivalry between the two street gangs or lead to more tragedies? The exquisite choreography and musical numbers in West Side Story will steal any heart, and this film-musical also has brains since it deals thought-provokingly with the issue of immigrants’ lives in New York, as well as more than hints at police bias and the underlying causes of youth delinquency.
Perhaps the modern audience nowadays will simply not have the required patience for the length of West Side Story, and it may also be true that some directional choices can be questioned, including that first meeting between Maria and Tony and the ending. Also, some actors look too old to play street teenagers, and it is unclear whether some moments in the film really have the appropriate and intended effect. However, in essence, West Side Story is still this timeless film with many beautiful, fun, and tense moments (the darkness of the latter descends rather unexpectedly in the plot). Even minor characters in this story have their deserved spotlight, the cast is inspirational, the music by Leonard Bernstein – memorable, and the whole film puts an interesting spin on the best-known love story we have. 10/10
III. Black Narcissus (1947)
In this film, which is based on a book by Rumer Godden, a group of Anglican nuns establishes a convent deep in the mountains of the Himalayas. They are led by one inexperienced Sister Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and have to get used to a new climate and way of life. When on the scene comes aloof, but obliging Mr Dean (David Farrar), one nun in particular – troublesome Ruth (Kathleen Byron) – sets her heart on getting romantically involved with him, leaving behind her religious vows. Other nuns also experience memory flashes and cannot account for their strange feelings in the new place. Moreover, such eccentric personalities as the Young General and Angu Ayah begin to add something unusual and exciting to the convent’s life. One thing is clear about Black Narcissus – it has some of the most splendid production designs and cinematography ever. There is some underlying humour in this picture, and the arising intriguing sexual tension between the characters is a curiosity all in itself. The character study of Sister Clodagh is fascinating, even if unfinished, and the atmospheric setting and the vivid images that the film puts a stress on, such as the bell tower, will probably stay with the viewers for a very long time, if not forever.
However, when it comes to the story itself, it is soon evident that Black Narcissus is not a perfect film. I have not read the book by Godden, but one word does come to mind when describing the story in the film – unfocused. It is very difficult to guess where the script here tries to place its main drama, and, even though it has odd elements that work delightfully together (and would not probably work in any other movie), the film also has many somewhat needless characters, as well as narrative threads and romance that go nowhere. Maybe Black Narcissus is too nuanced and much must be read into in every scene, but some plot-lines do end abruptly only for others to begin, and there are plenty of scenes that should probably have been cut because they do not add anything to the story. Perhaps one explanation for this is that this British film wanted to be as realistic as possible – and this is simply how the events would have unfolded in real life. The main action comes in the last ten or so minutes of the film, but, if it was really the main drama of Black Narcissus – then the film is rather strange. This time I will rate a film mainly on its artistic thematic vision and, hence, my high score of 8/10.