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The Criterion Collection presents
The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

"Would you hear my three tales of the folly of love?"
- Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: November 20, 2005

Stars: Moira Shearer, Ludmilla Tcherina, Anne Ayars, Pamela Brown, Leonide Massine, Robert Helpmann, Robert Rounseville
Other Stars: Frederick Ashton, Lionel Harris, Philip Leaver, Meinhart Maur, Edmond Audran
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (brief violence)
Run Time: 02h:04m:47s
Release Date: November 22, 2005
UPC: 037429126226
Genre: opera


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A AA-B A-

DVD Review

Powell and Pressburger experimented with ballet and classical music through the medium of film in The Red Shoes (1948) to splendid effect. The interest that they had in such subject matter didn't disappear, but was instead incubated for several years while they fulfilled contractual commitments with Korda. Once they were able to make their own films as they wanted, they collaborated with eminent conductor Sir Thomas Beecham for this version of Jacques Offenbach's only surviving true opera, which would also prove to be something of a swan song of the Archers, as it was their last great film together. Heavily cut on release in the USA, this DVD presents the restoration of the picture by the British Film Institute.

Robert Rounseville stars as the poet Hoffmann, who is in love with ballerina Stella (Moira Shearer), who also holds a fascination for Councillor Linsdorf (Robert Helpmann). At intermission of the introductory ballet, Hoffmann and his friends adjourn to a tavern where Hoffmann tells them three tales of his past loves. The first, set in Paris, involves him falling in love with a doll, Olympia (Shearer), bewitched into believing she is real by the magic spectacles of Coppelius (Helpmann). The second tale centers on the Venetian courtesan Giuletta (Ludmilla Tcherina), who is tempted by the satanic Dapertutto (Helpmann again) to try to capture Hoffmann's soul. The third tale is a tragic tale of Antonia (Anne Ayars), who lives on a secluded Greek island. Blessed with a great voice, she also suffers the curse that if she sings, she will die. But the gaunt Doctor Miracle (Helpmann yet again) attempts to convince her otherwise.

The film version follows Offenbach's original well enough, with some rearranging and some abridgement, so purists may object to the changes, particularly the injection of the introductory material that is composed by Beecham based on Offenbach's themes. But considering the work that Powell and Pressburger created, quite a lot can be forgiven. Prior film adaptations of operas were generally just films of the opera performances, whereas this is a truly cinematic approach to the opera, while also adding numerous balletic influences so that much of the picture is filled with movement. The third tale is the only one that has no significant dance elements, which makes it feel a little static. At the same time, the directors make use of the lingua franca of operatic tradition to good effect. When Helpmann's character is seen in the prologue, he bears the traditional garb of the Commendatore from Don Giovanni, making it clear from the outset that there are supernatural elements at work in his presence; just in case the viewer has missed the point, Helpmann helpfully stops near a poster that promises Don Giovanni will be performed tomorrow.

Powell and Pressburger let out all the stops insofar as technique is concerned, with all manner of in-camera effects being employed from the sophisticated to the extremely crude (such as the jump cuts that transform molten wax into jewels in the second story). Particularly stunning is the concluding pas de deux, shot from four different angles and all simultaneously seen on the screen. The third story features a particularly clever if nightmarish sequence as Antonia attempts to escape Miracle, but keeps ending up in the same room, all without visible cutting. The production design by Hain Heckroth is intriguing, featuring any number of influences from the baroque to the surrealists and keeping a filmic approach while never quite giving up its stage-bound roots.

The picture features some amazing visuals, particularly in the use of color. Bold in places and highly subtle in others, the color palette makes for some memorable imagery. In the second tale, Giuletta's lips are impossibly red, a seductive force that tells the viewer all he needs to know. Helpmann gets to wear some intriguing makeups, most notably the gaunt death's head of Doctor Miracle; the design bears more than a passing resemblance to the chilling visage of Baron Orlok in Nosferatu. That the resemblance is not a coincidence is underlined by some of Helpmann's movements, which mimic some of the famous stills of Max Shreck as Orlok.

Perhaps inspired by the makeups, Helpmann turns in several memorable performances as the evil genius who thwarts Hoffmann's romances at every turn. Tcherina is stunning as Giuletta, a veritable force of nature in her sensuousness. Rouseville is rather bland in the title role, but as written he's a fairly passive character who has little control over his own fate. More interesting is his sidekick Nicklaus (Pamela Brown), who has a much higher level of awareness but is ignored as the poet's heart takes him away on flights of fancy. The fanciful elements presented here are nonetheless irresistible, with clear influences of Disney's Fantasia and the Silly Symphonies in the visual presentation.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame picture is quite attractive, with the three-strip Technicolor coming across nicely. Colors are very rich, and details and textures are quite vivid. There is a little bit of flicker in a few spots, but there are no serious defects to the gorgeous visuals.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Offenbach's French original was replaced by an English libretto done for the film by Dennis Arundell. The singing is quite clear, though the English subtitles are occasionally useful. The range is decent for 1950s mono, though there is no deep lower end, as one would expect. Hiss and noise have been substantially cleaned up.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Martin Scorsese and Bruce Eder
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:18m:01s

Extra Extras:
  1. The Sorcerer's Apprentice
  2. Galleries
Extras Review: Criterion, as is typical for their Powell and Pressburger releases, doesn't skimp on the extras here. First is a thorough commentary by director Martin Scorsese and film historian Bruce Eder. Scorsese handles the technical filmmaking aspect of the picture, while also giving a fine history of his own appreciation for the film. Eder fills in biographical information and further background, making them a good tag team (even though they were recorded separately and edited together). Film historian Ian Christie also provides a substantial essay in the accompanying booklet. Scorsese is not alone in his love for the film; zombie auteur George A. Romero also considers it his favorite film, and he explains why in an 18-minute interview, revealing that he and Scorsese both fell in love with the film at once, and were competing to rent the same 16mm print over and over.

There's a somewhat rough trailer plus some thorough galleries including about 75 stills, 10 posters and a set of lobby cards, plus around 40 pieces of bold and colorful concept art by Heckroth. The final extra is a rather beaten-up version of Powell's short ballet film The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1956). Edited down from 30 minutes to 13, it nonetheless covers the framework of Goethe's poem as set by Walter Braunfels (not the well-known score by Dukas used by Disney). It's presented in nonanamorphic widescreen, and it doesn't look so hot, with plugged up shadow detail, but it's an extremely rare piece that fans of Powell will certainly be happy to see included.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

Fans of opera, ballet, and movie technique will all find quite a lot to like in this classic from Powell & Pressburger, helped along by a lovely transfer and many extras.

 


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