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The Tales of Hoffmann: The Criterion Collection

The cinema of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger is the ultimate in filmmaker's filmmaking. The duo — who began working together as writers, producers and directors under the title "The Archers" in 1939 — created such gems as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but their work never achieved the prominence of contemporaries like David Lean or Carol Reed, while having a huge impact on directors like Martin Scorsese and George A. Romero. It's easy to see why. As Powell once said, "I make films for myself. What I express I hope most people will understand. For the rest, well, that's their problem." Powell & Pressburger were working for a unique and personal vision, they are the very definition of auteurs. The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) is one of their most challenging works, a visual fantasia that, like Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, comments on their canon while taking artistic liberties that are both freeing and confounding. Hoffmann is an opera crafted from Jacques Offenbach's final, unfinished score, adapted by Sir Thomas Beecham (who had collaborated with Powell & Pressburger on The Red Shoes) that follows the poet Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) as he awaits the end of a performance by his lady love Stella (Moria Shearer). Councilman Lindorff (Robert Helpmann) also has a fancy for Stella, and he intercepts a note from Stella meant for Hoffmann. As Hoffmann and his sidekick Nicklaus (Pamela Brown) wait for the end of the show in a tavern, Hoffmann recounts three fantastical tales of lost love (similar in structure to the duo's Blimp) that cast Rounseville as the lead, Shearer, Ludmillla Tcherina and Ann Ayars as the women in question, and Helpmann as the usurper of Rounseville's love. An extension of the final passage of their earlier Shoes, Hoffmann is a filmed opera, but with Powell (considered the directing half of the duo) freed of some of the basic narrative concerns, the film is a spectacular example of style and opulence. Or, as Romero suggests, it's the first music video. The film has a pure visual drive that combines the fantastical and the practical in a way reminiscent of Jean Cocteau's work in Beauty and the Beast, in that the how of the visual flourishes can be determined, but such does not diminish the impact of it all. Due to the nature of filmed opera, The Tales of Hoffmann is very much an acquired taste, but it's also one of the most stunning and singular achievements of cinema — there simply is nothing else like it. The Criterion Collection presents the film in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) with a clear DD 1.0 soundtrack and optional English subtitles (helpful for those who can't always decipher the sung dialogue). As a Technicolor production, the transfer is mostly superb, with occasional moments of blurred, out-of-sync images that are the bane of three-strip Technicolor transfers. Supplements include an audio commentary with Martin Scorsese and music historian Bruce Eder, as well as an interview with George A. Romero (18 min.), who has long been infatuated with the film. Also included is Michael Powell's adaptation of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (14 min.), which is presented in 1.0 mono and anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), sketches from production designer Hein Heckroth, stills galleries, and the film's theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—DSH



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