1951's 'The Tales of Hoffmann' is a triumph of cinematic art

Kenneth Turan
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Film Critic
'Tales of Hoffmann' is a 1951 dance/operatic tour de force in Technicolor the likes of which you've never seen

They don't make films like "The Tales of Hoffmann" anymore. In fact, they never have.

Written, directed and produced in 1951 by the celebrated British duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, "Hoffmann" is an immersive aesthetic experience best thought of as an art form all its own.

A one-of-a-kind melding of opera, dance, acting and visual splendor, "Hoffmann" will be playing for a week at the Cinefamily in a new 4K-resolution restoration that, at 2 hours and 13 minutes, is the most complete version of the film ever shown in this country. You have to see it to believe it, but it's so delirious you may not believe it even after you've seen it.

Mastery of color, and the arts, is almost a given for the Powell-Pressburger team, known for such previous Technicolor extravaganzas as "The Red Shoes" and "Black Narcissus." Here, however, they were going for something different, something Powell described as a "composed film."

The project started with Jacques Offenbach's celebrated opera based on the stories of ill-fated love by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, with the libretto translated into English by Dennis Arundell.

Director and opera buff Cecil B. DeMille wrote Powell and Pressburger that he considered the film to be "Grand Opera as it existed, until now, only in the minds of those who created it," but to see it that way is to miss part of the point.

Unlike most features, which have the music written last, "Hoffmann" started with the opera recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London and conducted by the celebrated Thomas Beecham (who has a cameo at the film's conclusion).

According to Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who is also Powell's widow, this freed the filmmakers to jettison the huge sound-proof blimp that covered the three-strip Technicolor camera and to allow the apparatus to, in effect, move to the music in a way it otherwise could not.

The directors took advantage of that mobility by casting dancers for many of the principal roles and having opera stars do the actual singing. (Both halves of the character appear on screen together in the film's witty closing credits.)

Only two of the main "Hoffmann" characters are played by performers who both sing and act: The American Robert Rounseville plays the protagonist Hoffmann, he of the bad romantic luck, and Ann Ayars plays Antonia, one of his loves. By contrast, Hoffmann's lecherous nemesis, who has a different name in each story, is sung by Bruce Dargavel and memorably acted by the Nosferatu-like Robert Helpmann. (Horror maestro George Romero, who should know, says Helpmann was "the greatest Dracula there ever was.")

A key element in "Hoffmann's" success is the delirious, otherworldly spectrum of hues for which classic three-strip Technicolor is celebrated. The deepest teal, glistening green, fluffy baby blue, colors the real world never dreamed of come into their own here.

One reason "The Tales of Hoffmann" has never been a major popular success (besides its operatic roots) is that it is an omnibus film, narrated by Hoffmann and telling the stories of his three follies in love, all framed by a brief prologue and epilogue that detail a fourth infatuation, with the ballerina Stella (danced by Moira Shearer of "The Red Shoes").

Told first is the tale of Olympia, in which the student Hoffmann is tricked into falling in love with a mechanical doll (again danced by Shearer).

Next comes the tale of Giulietta, in which man-of-the-world Hoffmann (note the hipster goatee) becomes entranced with a sensual courtesan (raven-haired Ludmilla Tchérina) and nearly loses his soul.

Finally there is the tale of Antonia, in which the woman in question is a consumptive opera singer who could die if she sings too much. No need to guess what happens.

Clearly, "The Tales of Hoffmann" does not comprise vignettes in which love conquers all. Not even close. The triumph of aesthetics, of artistic filmmaking of a high order, is the victory to be celebrated here, and it is something you are not going to see every day.


'The Tales of Hoffmann'

No MPAA rating

Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes

Playing: The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, Los Angeles

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