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Tales of Hoffmann, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Beautiful but no 'Red Shoes'."
3 stars

There are probably a great many movies that inspired and influenced both Martin Scorcese and George Romero, but "The Tales of Hoffmann" - a 1951 production by the great team of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger - is one of the places where they've gone on record as saying as much. Scorcese is the one behind the new restoration that is popping up in theaters, and it's easy to see how it could leave an impression on young future filmmakers. It's also a thing that you might need to be in the right mood for.

The Hoffmann of the title is a poet in Nurnberg, in love with the ballerina Stella (Moira Shearer), though he has a rival in the wealthy Lindorf (Robert Helpmann), who intercepts the love note Stella sends during her performance. During the intermission, Hoffman (Robert Rounseville) regales the rest of the audience with stories of the women he loved before meeting Stella: An automaton (Shearer) in Paris, a Venice courtesan (Ludmilla Tcherina), and an ailing opera singer (Ann Ayars) on a Greek island.

Though Powell & Pressburger made other films in between, it's easy to see this as a follow-up to The Red Shoes, their 1948 film starring ballerina Moira Shearer; it's another gorgeous Technicolor production built in even larger part around the sorts of performance that are not exactly motion picture staples. As with The Red Shoes, it feels like a special presentation, using cinema as much to present other performing arts in a new way as to simply tell a story.

And there's no denying that the presentation is spectacular, from the beautiful opening credits to the opening ballet performed by Shearer and Edmond Audran to the puppetry by John Wright to the fantastic art direction by Arthur Lawson throughout. Christopher Challis's Technicolor cinematography is as gorgeous as one expects from a Powell & Pressburger picture, making everything the filmmakers come up with look fantastic, with creativity and exceptional staging showing up in every frame.

For roughly the first half or so of this movie, that's enough, but after a certain point, it starts to wear. The thing about opera is that, even if one speaks the language of the liberetto, the actual lines can be incomprehensible, depending how much the performer opts to sing notes rather than words. That happens a lot in The Tales of Hoffmann, and with the number of times that the story switches up in just over two hours, it gets easy to lose track of just what is going on, and that tends to highlight how each of the four segments (prologue, "Olympia", "Siulietta", and "Antonia") is just a little flabbier than need be, creating a cumulative effect.

The cast does fine work regardless, though Robert Rounseville and Ann Ayars are the only ones who both act and sing their parts, with the rest of the cast dubbed. Moira Shearer turns in a pair of outstanding physical performances as Stella and Olympia (the automaton), while Robert Helpmann plays a downright demonic quartet of roles as Hoffmann's nemeses from Paris to Nurnberg.

The new restoration is beautiful, and seeing that projected on the big screen is worth a ticket on its own - something that's doubly true if one has any sort of fondness for opera. It's not the movie that will make you a fan, though, and can leave a less-enthusiastic viewer struggling to get through even while admiring what is showing up on-screen.

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originally posted: 04/13/15 15:14:38
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  13-Jun-1952 (NR)
  DVD: 22-Nov-2005

  26-Nov-1951 (U)


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