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A magnificent spectacle. A truly filmic version of a classic
opera. Often mentioned as a favourite movie and constant inspiration for
young Martin Scorsese.
With the audacity that Powell & Pressburger were famous for we are presented with a wonderful performance of a truly "composed" film. All the soundtrack was recorded by Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and then the filming was all done on the open stage (it didn't need a sound stage) at Shepperton.
With choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton and performances by ballet luminaries such as Moira Shearer, Ludmilla Tchérina, Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine and Sir Frederick Ashton himself. Assisted by opera stars such as Robert Rounseville and Anne Ayars and the Sadler's Wells Chorus. All this backed by the designs of Hein Heckroth and the experienced team of technicians that worked regularly under the banner of The Archers leads to a treat to behold.
The plot - from a 1951 (year of release) programme.
The Prologue : The Opera House in Nurnberg (Nüemburg). Hoffmann sits in the auditorium watching a performance of the Dragonfly ballet. He is in love with Stella, the prima ballerina, who seems the embodiment of all his past loves. In the interval Hoffmann goes to Luther's Tavern. Here young students greet him. He sings them the ballad of Kleinzack. But the sight of Stella has reopened old wounds. "Would YOU hear the three tales of my folly of love?" lie asks. The students gather round the punch bowl, with Hoffmann's companion, Nicklaus, who has accompanied him throughout his adventures, and his enemy Lindorf.
The Tale Of Olympia : As an inexperienced student in Paris, Hoffmann was tricked by two puppet-makers, Spalanzani and Coppelius, into falling in love with their latest creation, the doll Olympia. Spalanzani passes Olympia off as his daughter and hopes by this means to get some money from Hoffmann. At a ball given for her, Olympia sings the "Doll Song" and dances a ballet. Hoffmann is entranced. Only when Spalanzani and Coppelius fall out, and Coppelius destroys the doll in revenge does Hoffmann realise how he was fooled.
The Tale Of Giulietta : As a young man of the world, he was enslaved by a beautiful Venetian courtesan, Giulietta. Acting under the influence of the magician Dapertutto, Giulietta captures his reflection and so gains possession of his soul. Hoffmann kills her former lover Schlemil in a duel, to get the key to her room. He hurries back to her, but finds she has left with Dapertutto. Mad with rage, he flings the key against her mirror. It cracks, and his reflection reappears. He has regained his soul.
The Tale Of Antonia : As a mature artist and poet, Hoffmann falls in love with Antonia. Her mother, a singer, has already died of consumption (Tuberculosis). Crespel, her father, through grief at his wife's death, is now the half-mad wreck of a formerly great conductor. Crespel keeps his daughter in seclusion on an island in the Greek Archipelago and forbids her to aggravate her own weakness by singing. He also forbids his deaf servant Franz to admit either Hoffmann or the quack Dr. Miracle who killed his wife. Franz misunderstands, and in turn shows them in. Hoffmann realises Antonia is ill, and she promises him not to sing again. Dr. Miracle persuades her it is her mother's wish she should disobey. She does so, and dies in his arms.
The Epilogue : On the stage of the Opera House, it is the finale of the Stella Ballet. In the tavern Hoffmann's audience is spellbound. Hoffmann's tales are told and with the telling Hoffmann finds his true destiny as a poet. Stella appears at the door of the tavern and looks down at him. But Lindorf, who has also understood the meaning of the Tales goes to meet her and together they pass out into the town.
I saw this film when it first came out and was overwhelmed by the music (by Jacques Offenbach) and the gorgeous 3-strip Technicolor. I even bought the LP soundtrack album (twice). When the Criterion laserdisc version came out, I forked out beaucoup bucks for it -- and was not disappointed! I suspect this film was the first music video, for all the sound (singing and music) was pre-recorded, which gave it a more pure quality. Nearly all the on-camera players were ballet stars, who lip-synced singing by opera stars! It is an opera, after all, so perhaps it could be accused of being a bit stagey, but so what!! It is a pure delight, and I am now happy to report that Criterion has released the DVD! It has been restored and digitally remastered for a truly glorious presentation. Comments by Martin Scorcese only add to the release!
Rational? I cannot be rational about this mad cinematic gem. I was
spellbound as a child watching it over and over again on the Million
Dollar Movie (on B&W TV, no less!) Like Martin Scorcese's mother, mine
too would call from the kitchen (when I was sneaking yet another look)
"Turn that off! You watched it yesterday and the day before. Now we've
heard enough of that thing!"
Run, do not walk, to purchase the newly released Criterion DVD. It is worth every penny. Never has the color been so lush and the detail so finally delineated. And I know, I have pursued (rare) showings of this film nearly all my 50 years. If you think you've seen Hoffman before, wait until you see this!
What a splendid film is this combination of opera and ballet for those partial to this type of fare. The performance of Robert Helpmann in four roles is exceptional and dancer Leonid Massine makes a chilling villain as Schlemil in the utterly fantastic "Tale of Giuletta". Ludmilla Tcherina as Giuletta is an alluring sex-goddess and enslaver of men. I am totally absorbed whenever I watch this episode. Having said all this, I must also say that the "Tale of Antonia" is a severe letdown after the two preceding episodes. It is not just the film version that is bad -- it was actually a letdown the first time I saw the opera live at the old Metropolitan Opera 45 years ago. Actually, there have been suggestions that the "Antonia" episode be moved from last to first episode sequentially in the opera, however I doubt if this would make a significant improvement. If I am correct, the "Antonia" episode was completed by another composer, Offenbach having died before completing Tales of Hoffmann. Ahhh...that hauntingly beautiful "Barcarolle"....nothing can compare to it!! And the film version is just icing on the cake.
"The Tales of Hoffmann" (1951) - a beautifully photographed film
version of Jacques Offenbach's opera, his final masterpiece is a magic
(and there is no other word to describe it) blend of Adventure /
Romance / Fantasy / with an endless stream of gorgeous melodies,
seductive and tender love scenes, bizarre characters - comic, romantic
or villainous, and tragic climaxes. The film was a follow-up to "The
Red Shoes" (1948) a fantasy/musical/romance/drama set in the world of
ballet with the same directors, stars, and production designers.
In "The Tales of Hoffmann", Robert Rounsevill stars as E.T.A. (Ernst Theodore Amadeus) Hoffmann, the poet and writer who tells three stories of his great but unhappy loves all ending tragically thanks to the meddling of his enemy, a supernatural villain (Robert Helpmann as quadruple evil, Lindorf, Coppelius, Dapertutto and Dr Miracle). Objects of Hoffmann's love and admiration include Olympia the wind-up doll (Moira Shearer who also plays Stella the dancer, the fourth and yet another Hoffmann's misadventure), Giulietta, the Venetian courtesan who sails away after trying to capture Hoffmann's soul (Ludmilla Tchérina -absolutely brilliant as the siren and the seductress who elegantly walks over the dead bodies, literally), and Antonia the beautiful opera-singer with the fatal voice and deadly illness. One of the greatest choreographers and dancers of the last century, Léonide Massine shines in three absolutely different roles demonstrating his talent as a dancer, strong emotions and tremendous humor.
What makes "The Tales of Hoffmann" not just an ordinary screen adaptation but the stunning unforgettable event, the film which had inspired the future famous directors George Romero and Martin Scorsese to become the filmmakers is the perfect combination of fantasy, classical music, ballet, singing, stunning visual effects, imaginative and often bizarre and even disturbing images that would fit a horror movie (deconstructing Olympia the doll is horrifying), incredible but calculated feast of colors, their mixture, the unique color palette to match each story, camera work that is so innovative and dynamic that even now, 56 years after the film was made, looks fresh and modern. The feast for eyes, ears, and feelings, "The Tales of Hoffmann" is the love child of incredibly talented people from different epochs and countries. The opera by Jacques Offenbach, the French composer is based on the dark romantic fairy tales by the German E.T. A. Hoffmann. The team of two directors known as "The Archers", the British Michael Powell and the Hungarian Jew Emeric Pressburger who had to flee his country before the WWII, and their international team of stars, color consultants, choreographers and production designers made this miracle happen. The last but not the least is legendary Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I first saw this as a 14-year-old in an art theater in San Antonio, Texas. I was impressed by what to me then was the complexity of the action, but the overall stories were explained by the theater manager over the speakers before each act started.
The overall effect was stunning to a growing boy. I'd seen The Red Shoes, but this was the whole schmear -- opera, ballet, and movie effects all at once.
It was not until much later that I understood the film to reflect the phases of a man's romantic perspective. The first tale was of a doll -- pure beauty. The second stage was purely sexual, with the action focusing on desire, up to and including a fight to the death to enter the woman's "private place" -- in this case, the boudoir. The final stage was the frailty of humanity, with Hoffmann urging the lovely Olympia to forego her great talent to save her life.
In all cases, Hoffmann remained unfulfilled -- even in the epilog.
The presentation was excellent for its time. The "artsy" effect helped establish the film as being set in a world other than ours, which added to the effect. Some special effects were uninspired; others, very good. A high point was Hoffmann losing his reflection.
Powell and Pressburger made this overblown opera a few years after their ballet film, The Red Shoes. Featuring good performances from Robert Rounsville, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann and Pamela Brown and some fantastic images; plus that great music from Offenbach (not always easy to follow the stories but they are enjoyable) and lots of garish Technicolor. I think Olympia might be my favourite of the stories but I did find them all equally excellent. Hard to categorise this movie but in the P&P canon it stands as one of their best.
TALES OF Hoffman Powell & Pressburger This colorful film adaptation
of an by Offenbach is a musical in the truest sense, meaning every bit
of narrative and dialog is put forth by means of song. I am not in
general the biggest fan of such endeavors, but it works quite well for
this film, although some of the love paeans may be outstaying their
In the story a poet Hoffman tells in episodic fashion about the many times that he has loved and lost. There have been several films made with such a theme but Hoffman stands well apart because of the Goth-fantastic nature of the narratives. Hoffman, in turn, falls in love with Olympia - a puppet, Guiletta - the temptress of a soul-stealing demon, and Antonia - a singer doomed by fatal consumptive illness.
This narrative is complemented by the brilliantly supportive artistic design of the film. The makers construct a deliberate stage-like ambiance, with the use of representative backdrops, suitably exaggerated props and striking motifs to convey the settings and moods of the various episodes. In this aspect it shares strong kinship with Masaki Kobayashi's period ghost story anthology Kwaidan. You also have the concept of the same actor returning to play different parts in the various episodes of Hoffman's life, the most notable of which is Robert Helpmann who portrays the sinister element in all the episodes (and with his vampiric menacing look, does a terrific job of it, although his motive for evil in the Antonia episode goes unexplained).
The fantastic elements of the plot, color-drenched distinctive look, intricate balletic choreography and excellent fit of all the actors in their roles make Tales of Hoffman a very interesting watching experience on the whole.
One of my caveats with the film is that Hoffman's companion Nicklaus is never properly explained. Who is this woman in man's garb and why is she doing what she does?
I liked the Red Shoes more, but Tales of Hoffmann is still an excellent Powell & Pressburger movie. While I did have trouble understanding the English opera (my first one at that), the episode character lists really helped. It's interesting to note that as Hoffmann tells his tales, the women in each episode become more "real." It did seem to drag on a bit at times, but I think it might be one of those movies that looks better with a second or third viewing. Still a wonderful and dazzling movie with amazing set & costume designs & expertly directed.
I'm not a fan of ballet but I've always loved Powell and Pressburger's
THE RED SHOES (1948); so, naturally, I've been looking forward to this
one ever since it was first announced - years ago - as a Criterion
release! However, THE TALES OF HOFFMANN features the added element of
opera; indeed, the entire film is sung!
On first viewing, my reaction to it was mixed: it's impossible not to be impressed by the visuals (particularly the stylization of Hein Heckroth's colorful and imaginative designs) but, since I'm no expert in classical music, I wasn't bowled over by Jacques Offenbach's score (apart from the celebrated "Barcarolle" piece) - especially since the lyrics, despite being an English translation, aren't easily followed! However, listening to it with the Audio Commentary, I could better appreciate the way it was made and the special effects that were adopted; especially interesting was the fact that it was filmed silent, thus allowing freer camera movement. The main cast, apart from Pamela Brown, is made up of ballet performers and opera singers - with the former, mostly recruits from THE RED SHOES, carrying the more compelling screen presence.
The framing story - featuring an additional ballet composed by the film's conductor Sir Thomas Beecham - is a bit short, so that we mostly learn about the characters played by Robert Rounseville (as Hoffmann) and Robert Helpmann through their various guises in the former's three tales (which are themselves variable in quality):
i) the "Olympia" sequence, highlighting Moira Shearer and Leonide Massine, is overlong but quite charming; Helpmann's distinctive features are rather buried under some quaint make-up - though his violent destruction of Shearer (who plays a doll) makes for a quite unsettling moment!
ii) "Giulietta" is the best and most interesting sequence, but also the shortest: Ludmilla Tcherina is a very sensuous heroine, while Helpmann and Massine are wonderful (and wonderfully made up) as respectively an evil magician and a (literally) soulless officer under both their spell; this sequence features some incredible imagery - like Tcherina's reflection in water picking up the aria she is singing, her walking over sculptures of dead bodies, Rounseville and Massine's saber duel set to music (i.e. presented without any sound effects) and the scene in which Rounseville loses his reflection when tempted in front of a mirror by Tcherina
iii) the "Antonia" sequence is again too long (it was severely cut in the original U.S. theatrical release) and, because it's mostly straight opera, emerges as the most labored segment: Massine is pretty much wasted here, while Ann Ayars is nowhere near as captivating as Shearer or Tcherina; however, Helpmann's belated entrance as the satanic Dr. Miracle takes the sequence to another level, and especially memorable here is the scene where Ayars exits a room only to re-enter it from another door (which must have inspired a similar incident in Mario Bava's KILL, BABY, KILL! ) and the one where Ayars and Helpmann's dancing figures are divided into four to fill up the entire screen - with the latter taking each of his guises in the different segments and, likewise, the former being replaced with the heroines of each tale (Moira Shearer appears twice here as she also plays Stella, Hoffmann's love interest in the framing story!)
The Archers' films are among my favorites - though I was somewhat underwhelmed by I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING! (1945; I still haven't purchased the Criterion SE), THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE (1956; amazingly, both of my two attempts to view it in the past have only managed to put me to sleep!) and, now, THE TALES OF HOFFMANN. I've yet to watch 4 of their collaborations - CONTRABAND (1940; I've been tempted, time and again, to buy Kino's bare-bones DVD but the over-inflated price always got in the way!), THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL (1950), GONE TO EARTH (1950; this troubled production isn't likely to see the light of day on R1 DVD anytime soon, but is at least available via a budget-priced R2 edition), and their last 'musical' together OH, ROSALINDA! (1955). I would also like to watch Powell's solo films HONEYMOON (1959) and BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE (1964), which are yet two more musically-oriented ventures.
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