Director: Douglas Sirk
Stars: Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, Robert Stack
Douglas Sirk is most commonly remembered as a short-circuit to lush, vivid melodramas of the 1950’s; a sphere in which he excelled, producing a number of the genre’s greatest and most respected pictures. Titles such as All That Heaven Allows, Written On The Wind and Imitation Of Life tend to be mentioned first and foremost, yet pry just a little further and you’ll find The Tarnished Angels, a film every bit as rich and giving as those better known pictures.
Perhaps it is because this film doesn’t display his generous eye for colour and therefore doesn’t feel as redolent of that post-war American ripeness seen souring in his most keenly observed work. Arriving in the wake of Written On The Wind and with many of the same cast and crew members, The Tarnished Angels instead favours crisp and bleak black and white CinemaScope.
It’s setting, too, sets in apart. Based on the novel ‘Pylon’ by William Faulkner, it displaces Sirk’s run of 50’s suburban tales by regressing to the 30’s and the dusty desolation of Depression-era New Orleans. Much of the picture takes place out at an airfield. It isn’t rooted in the domestic, instead depicting a kind of perpetual no man’s land. It’s central characters are commonly referred to as gypsies; members of a travelling airshow that aren’t tethered to one location. And yet The Tarnished Angels is one of the great 50’s melodramas, not to mention one of the era’s most beautifully lensed black and white pictures.
Sirk mainstay Rock Hudson (the Kyle MacLachlan to his David Lynch, the De Niro or DiCaprio to his Scorsese) plays journalist Burke Devlin, sniffing out a story at the carnival. He befriends the Shumann family who have no place to stay and invites them to his apartment. Married couple Roger (Robert Stack) and LaVerne (Dorothy Malone) perform aerial stunts together, and come with their son Jack (Christopher Olsen) and mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson).
Malone smoulders on the screen as though displaced from a classic Hollywood noir. Her first stay at Burke’s apartment is astonishingly sexy as she slinks out of her clothes only to be wrapped up in shadows cast by cinematographer Irving Glassberg. She reclines and in hushed tones recalls for Devlin her marriage to Roger some nine years previous. Sirk positions the two of them in the frame like psychiatrist and patient, feeding into the film’s first flashback. The situation of the proposal is revealed as anything but romantic, but also sets up a strained love triangle a full decade in the making. Devlin seems quickly set to turn that into a quadrangle.
Emotions are close to the surface in The Tarnished Angels, as in much of Sirk’s work of the period. LaVerne’s memories pour out as hushed reveries. Roger carries within him a complex stir of shame and failure that suggests a tempestuous nature. A tempestuous nature also exists within Devlin, who tosses around papers in a tantrum when his editor denies him his story. And though enamoured with LaVerne (Malone’s skirt-billowing parachute act evokes Marilyn Monroe’s already-famous scene in The Seven Year Itch), Devlin vocalises the prejudices against travelling stunt performers in this same scene, describing the family as something less than human. The Tarnished Angels tackles the ugliness of class divides just as readily as All That Heaven Allows.
An accident leaves Roger without a plane and he is quick – shockingly quick – to suggest LaVerne prostitute herself to obtain another one. Here the film seems set on siding with Devlin’s preconception of his subjects, yet it is more an indication of Roger’s state of mind than anything indicative of the family as a whole. Jiggs is just as appalled as Devlin; LaVerne wearily used to her husband being less than the man she deserves. Faulkner’s writing frequently features dejected and desperate family members turning their venom on those closest to them. Sirk’s film keeps these vicious sentiments firmly in tact.
There’s an overt strangeness all around The Tarnished Angels as one might associate with carnival theatrics. The New Orleans floats look glittering and glamorous, but a closer inspection of a papier-mache head reveals something all together more grotesque. Funhouse mirrors warp a kissing couple. In what passes for a genuine jump scare, a romantic clinch between LaVerne and Devlin is interrupted by a reveller from a nearby party, who guffaws at them through a skeletal mask like a drunk grim reaper. A veritable harbinger of death.
And later on, when another aerial race spirals out of control for Roger, LaVerne is restrained from running toward the carnage by a figure in a clown mask whose disturbing visage ups the sense of hysteria in the moment.
This bravura sequence also allows Sirk to insidiously place the audience within the scene. Nearby, young Jack is trapped on a fairground ride, unable to get off of the relentless merry-go-round. As the mania within the doomed race scene intensifies, we too are Jack; unable to avert disaster, fitfully and uselessly wriggling for another outcome. It’s a Hitchcockian level of torment. The aforementioned aerial action sequences are very well presented, showing Sirk just as capable with shooting action for suspense as he is intimate character confrontations.
The film exits leisurely following this dramatic peak, offering a long goodbye that allows each character their dues, leaving the remaining narrative one at a time. Like the 30’s themselves, the people of The Tarnished Angels fade away, back into the dust, their resurrection for this movie as transient as a carnival.
With The Tarnished Angels, Sirk makes these characters tragic, romantic and exceptional. I’ve grown increasingly fond of these heightened depictions of emotional conflict, indicative of a style of filmmaking that has mostly fallen by the wayside. Occasionally these choices are resurrected by modern filmmakers such as Anna Biller or Todd Haynes. In these cases, they are not mocked but held in the highest regard, recreated with love and attention as valid stylistic choices. As well they are. More often though the old adage remains true; they really don’t make them like they used to. Biller and Haynes are the exceptions to the rule.
And because of that, movies such as this one feel like important time capsules, gloriously evocative of the era and its sensibilities. The setting might be the 30’s, but Sirk’s execution is thoroughly modern from his standpoint in 1957. In his greatest films – including this one – Sirk reveals the holes in post-war America, the faulty mechanics of the American Dream. Such notions in cinema are still claimed as subversive when broached today. They were surely more provocative in the heyday of this so-called golden era. Melodrama took over from noir as the breeding ground for such biting social commentary, and Sirk was truly its master.