When The Red Shoes was released in 1948, it was the fifth triumph in five years for the director-writer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The roll began with lyric wartime love stories: the haunting idyll of 1944’s A Canterbury Tale; the windswept romance of 1945’s I Know Where I’m Going; and the romance interruptus of 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death, which takes place on earth and in heaven. Then the focus shifted. Black Narcissus, in 1947, was the eerily eroticized tale of a nuns’ order in the high Himalayas. In 1948, The Red Shoes told the story—gorgeously—of a ballerina’s consuming need to dance. This unexpected, record-breaking sensation brought a new audience to classical ballet and sent generations of little girls to the barre.

Love. God. Art. Powell and Pressburger pursued their theme of passion into stark, steep, and...

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