Romantic obsession and the doomed attempts to grasp it is the core of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s vivid adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann. In making the picture, Powell and Pressburger (the legendary British filmmaking team known as The Archers) built upon the fantasy elements of their earlier films, particularly The Red Shoes, to create an entirely unique atmosphere in which to mount the stories of poet E.T.A. Hoffmann as seen through Offenbach’s eyes.
In a surrealistic theatrical space, Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) fancies three different women for each of the opera’s three acts. In Act 1: The Tale of Olympia, he is infatuated with a radiant dancing doll (Moira Shearer). In Act 2: The Tale of Gulietta, he is bewitched by a Venetian courtesan (Ludmilla Tcherina) and desperately tries to win her affection. Finally, in Act 3: The Tale of Antonia, Hoffmann passionately proclaims his love to an ailing singer (Ann Ayars). Each of these acts, as well as a prologue and epilogue, set Hoffmann up with an idealized woman, only to have her consumed by an older male with sinister intentions. Played in each vignette by famed ballet dancer Robert Helpmann, this older man — a crazed dollmaker, a satanic Svengali, and a seductive doctor — foils all of Hoffmann’s attempts at romance.
To mount this dark, operatic fantasy, The Archers enlisted production designer Hein Heckroth to create a lush arena where song and dance could convey the narrative to the camera. Heckroth had won an Academy Award for his work on The Red Shoes, and his bold, rich design for Hoffmann would earn him another nomination. Heckroth’s plans required an expert cinematographer, and The Archers chose frequent collaborator Christopher Challis, who had previously shot The Small Black Room, Gone to Earth and The Elusive Pimpernel for them. Aware that each act of the film was designed around a single primary color, Challis sought to convert the lighting effects of a staged musical or opera to the cinema frame. He noted that in live theater, the human eye could read the subtlest of shadings, and low light was often used to achieve distance effects. After determining that a wide-ranging use of light would be essential for Hoffmann, the cinematographer set up one of the most elaborate arc-light grids in the history of British cinema. Indeed, Challis noted in his autobiography (Are They Really So Awful?) that at the time of production, no other British film had ever used as many lamps for the Technicolor palette.
The Criterion Collection recently released Hoffmann on DVD with excellent results. The dual-layer DVD-9 boasts an effective home-screen realization of Technicolor’s three-strip process. Challis’ extraordinary lighting is well realized in a consistently pleasing picture transfer. The nearly pristine source material from the British Film Institute’s restoration internegative is crisp, featuring rich colors and deep shadings. The monaural audio track is free from age-related defects and plays smoothly.
Borrowing from its 1992 laserdisc edition of Hoffmann, Criterion has included an excellent audio commentary by director Martin Scorsese and film-music historian Bruce Eder. Both men make interesting points about the film, with Eder focusing more on the film’s place in the musical and opera-film genres and Scorsese noting numerous creative and technical flourishes. In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, supplements include production stills, a collection of Heckroth’s design sketches, a solid essay written by film scholar Ian Christie, Powell’s 1956 short film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and a charming interview with cult horror filmmaker George A. Romero. (Romero gushes over Hoffmann and notes its unusual influence on his own films.)
Criterion has once again dusted off a title from its laserdisc library and updated it for DVD with superb results. The Archers’ unique fantasy of seduction and betrayal is not for all tastes, but it is certainly a landmark in its approach to storytelling, musical performance, cinematography and production design. At a time when musical films have difficulty finding an audience, it is refreshing to be reminded of such a well produced, artistic and clever film treatment of an opera. In the storied career of The Archers, this is a crown jewel.