The poet Hoffman (Robert Rounseville) is in love again, with the dancer Stella (Moira Shearer) who is performing in his ballet about an enchanted dragonfly, but he has not plucked up the courage to admit his feelings. However, this affection is mutual, and Stella gives an assistant a handkerchief with a message of love written on it to pass on to Hoffman; he is on his way to deliver it at the interval when he is intercepted by the poet's great rival Lindorf (Robert Helpmann) who bribes him to hand over the handkerchief so that Hoffman may not see what it says and realise his love would have been reciprocated. The gloomy writer retires to the local tavern for a drink and a smoke, and when he does the students there persuade him to tell them a story or three...
The reaction to directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, inspired by conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, when they released this spiritual follow-up to their widely acclaimed The Red Shoes was mixed to say the least, with many praising its pictorial qualities but otherwise accusing it of being a mishmash of colours and loud opera, not something the general public were going to get along with at all, never mind the cognoscenti who were thinking the duo were getting ideas above their station by this point, no matter their collection of masterpieces before it. That said, not everyone turned their noses up at it, for there was a following from its first appearance that guaranteed this an early cult film status before that concept had truly taken hold.
Two young members of that cult went on to be two very different directors, yet equally influential in their individual ways: Martin Scorsese, who caught it as a boy on his black and white television and recognised it as something special, and George A. Romero who stumbled across it quite by accident in the cinema and found it inspired him to become a filmmaker some years later. You can understand why; in Scorsese you would see the methods of allowing the music to dictate the imagery that would be a signature device of his work, and in Romero that use of the sinister and lurid to deliver his entertainments was very much in evidence here as Hoffman tells of three doomed romances where Helpmann under various guises managed to sabotage each.
Mind you, Hoffman only has himself to blame as time and again he places these women on an impossible pedestal and circumstances see to it he will be heartbroken by and by. The first tale he related was of the film's most celebrated sequence where Moira Shearer danced as a clockwork automaton, choreographed as with every ballet scene here by Sir Frederick Ashton, a meeting of two great minds in the terpsichorean arts that paid great dividends as the results were quite brilliant. Oddly, Shearer had no great love for Powell, yet made three films with him, each marked out by a scene of dancing, and if such a part here was not as venerated as her role in The Red Shoes, she certainly did not ease up on her commitment. Rounseville, sporting "magic spectacles" here, resembled a proto-Elton John or Dame Edna Everage, but it was Shearer who almost stole the whole picture.
After this segment, with its perversely humorous punchline, the second tale was more blatantly dark and mysterious as Hoffman visited Venice and fell for a courtesan played by Ludmilla Tchérina, another famed dancer from Europe, who leads him on but is in the thrall of Helpmann’s Satanic mentor so as to steal the poet's reflection in a mirror. Atmosphere was the thing here, along with the most recognisable extract from Offenbach's opera as Tchérina approaches in a gondola, as a whole almost challenging the first instalment for achievement. This left the third as a bit of a letdown, a rather static staging of Hoffman's relationship with the consumptive daughter (Ann Ayars) of a composer distractingly dubbed by the same bass baritone as Helpmann’s characters were. Not to worry, as the final scene added a poignant note as our narrator finds his metier, only to lose his love yet again. Overall, for their efforts in bringing an opera, naturally a stage experience, to Technicolor life, Powell and Pressburger deserved their fans' appreciation, not to all tastes but there was nothing quite like it, in a good way.