Old Hollywood Villains: Boris Lermontov in The Red Shoes (1948)

Today, I'm looking at the character of Boris Lermontov as played by Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes. He is with Moira Shearer in this photo.

This article is part of The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings, Speakeasy, and Shadows and Satin.

Some old Hollywood villains commit their crimes for money, while others do it love. Boris Lermontov, as played by Anton Walbrook in the British classic The Red Shoes (1948), has a very different motivation. The single-minded impresario sacrifices the body and soul of a young ballerina for art, which is the all-consuming focus of his life.

The Red Shoes begins with Lermontov, shrouded in shadows, watching the production of his company's new ballet, "Hearts of Fire." At the after party, he meets a young dancer named Vicky Page (Moira Shearer). Lermontov has little interest in her until her sees her fiery performance in Swan Lake, after which he design a new ballet around her called The Red Shoes. Vicky is a triumph in that role, which leads Lermontov into a deeper and deeper obsession with his new prima ballerina.

The Red Shoes began in the 1930's as an original script by co-director Emeric Pressburger for British producer Alexander Korda. Korda envisioned The Red Shoes as a grand soap opera about a love affair between a ballerina and an impresario that would star his future wife, Merle Oberon. 

That version of The Red Shoes never got off the ground, but Pressburger resurrected the idea a decade later, after a string of successful movies with his directing partner Michael Powell. Powell and Pressburger revised the script to make it more about dance than romance, and they worked tirelessly to cast some of the best ballet dancers in Great Britain, including Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine, Ludmillla Tcherina, and Shearer, who gives an unforgettably heart-rending performance as Vicky.

Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann (center), and Leonide Massine in The Red Shoes (1948).

Powell and Pressburger had difficulty getting some of the ballet stars to sign on, especially Shearer, but they had no trouble casting the crucial role of Lermontov. The directors specifically tailored the role for Walbrook, an Austrian emigre who had become a star in British films like Victoria the Great (1937) and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). 

The role of Lermontov was loosely based on Serge Diaghilev, who was the founder and impresario of the Ballets Russes, but Powell and Pressburger also added elements of Walbrook's own personality into the character, such as the actor's aloof manner, habit of eating alone, and penchant for wearing oversized sunglasses even at night.

At the beginning of The Red Shoes, Lermontov appears to be a garden-variety controlling narcissist, a la Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), but as the movie progresses a more sinister side to Lermontov emerges, especially in his relationship with Vicky. While he demands absolute loyalty and complete obedience from most of his cast, he demands even more of Vicky, who is the only ballerina he has encountered who has talent, ambition, and a work ethic that match his own.

There has been much speculation about the nature of Lermontov's obsession with Vicky, but I don't think he views her in a romantic light (in an interview included in David Ehrenstein's The Criterion Collection essay, Powell describes the character's "homosexuality"). Instead, Lermontov is interested in Vicky as a vessel for his grand artistic vision. Lermontov refers to the ballet as his "religion" at one point in the movie, and as such, he is its most devoted supplicant. He practices his craft with all the self-denying aestheticism of a Medieval monk, and if it means that he must sacrifice a vulnerable young woman on the altar of his art, in Lermontov's twisted mind, that is a completely reasonable demand. 


I'll leave you with The Red Shoes 15-minute ballet sequence (clip above), which is the film's emotional and artistic highlight. The ballet, based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, amplifies the rest of the film, especially as a metaphor for the relationship between Vicky and Lermontov.

The Red Shoes is available on DVD, Blu ray, and video on demand.


  1. You know, I've never seen this film in its entirety, and certainly not the gorgeous ballet sequence which you posted. Your post has shown me I have a big hole in my movie-watching experience!

    I can only imagine how fabulous Anton Walbrook is in this role. I adore him, which is all the more reason to see this soon!

    Thanks for joining the blogathon, and for bringing Boris Lermontov with you!

  2. John Barrymore plays a ballet impressario with Lermontov tendencies in 1931s "The Mad Genius". I've never seen it mentioned as inspiration for "The Red Shoes", but there are definite similarities. I think you would enjoy the comparison.

    1. Wow, thanks! I've never seen it, but from what I read in Leonard Maltin's movie guide it does sound a lot like The Red Shoes. According to the Criterion Collection, Pressburger wrote the original script in 1934, so it's very likely that he saw this movie.

  3. I only just saw this last year, but found it absolutely riveting. I love that they went out of their way to cast real ballet dancers, too. It's interesting, as you say, how he commits his crimes for art, which isn't the most common cause for crime.

    1. The Red Shoes is one of those movies that you never forget.

  4. I've always loved The Red Shoes and much of it is due to the character of Boris Lermontov. He always impressed me as an artistic variation of the mad scientist, only instead of doing things in the name of "science" he is doing them in the name of "art". I definitely have to agree with you about his obsession with Vicky. I don't think it was romantic or even sexual at all. She was simply his tool for achieving what he wanted from his art. Anyway, he is definitely a great villain!

    1. I like your comparison to a mad scientist. By the end of the movie, he does become somewhat of a Dr. Frankenstein.

  5. THe Red Shoes is a film I adore with all my heart, and I agree with you that Lermontov has no love interest for Vicky. But he is a rare villain, who could do anything and sacrifice other people for art - which other villain does such a thing? I can't think of any other.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  6. Hey Amanda. I loved reading your article on "The Red Shoes". I haven't seen this movie for years, but I must treat myself to another viewing.

    Don't forget to check out my contribution to the blogathon.


  7. I saw this for the first time recently and was bowled over by the look and writing. I see Boris as being motivated by that obsession with Vicky, and wanting to protect what he sees as potential and artistic perfection. Creative choice for this blogathon, thanks for taking part!


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