Learning From The Masters Of Cinema: Douglas Sirk's THE TARNISHED ANGELS
While the name Douglas Sirk has long been a familiar one, The Tarnished Angels marks the first of his films I have actually taken the time to watch. After building his name on high profile studio melodramas, this particular film indicates a somewhat less commercial venture for the German-born director. Given free reign by Universal after the success of All That Heaven Allows and There's Always Tomorrow among others, Sirk chose to adapt William Faulkner's downbeat Depression-era novel, Pylon, and cast the three lead performers from his earlier film, Written On The Wind, in far darker, more compromised territory.
Rock Hudson stars, way against type, as Burke Devlin, a dishevelled, drunken newspaperman who stumbles upon the bizarre, nomadic lives of travelling daredevil pilots. Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) is a former World War I fighter pilot struggling to find his place in post-war Louisiana. He scrapes together a meagre living participating in (mostly) death-defying flying races, while his wife Laverne (Dorothy Malone) performs parachute tricks for the same eager rural crowds. Their bizarre family unit also includes Roger's war buddy and mechanic, Jiggs (Jack Carson), equally at odds with the world during Peacetime, while Laverne's young son, Jack, is an added burden, with the question of his father's identity hanging heavy over their heads.
At first looking to write a story about these curious barnstormers, Devlin soon falls for Laverne and becomes increasingly embroiled in their freakish destructive love triangle. Laverne, it transpires, fell in love with Roger's picture on a poster, and has been devoted to him ever since, despite being treated like garbage by a man passionate only about his plane. Jiggs, in turn, is dedicated to doing the right thing by Laverne, even offering to marry her himself, but he is perpetually shunned from all sides. Devlin's appearance only further complicates matters, despite young Jack warming to him, and these characters appear to share the same fate as the pilots - to wildly circle the pylons until they inevitably crash and burn.
Like many German filmmakers working in Hollywood at the time, Sirk had fled his homeland in the 1930s to escape the tyranny of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Having previously worked for German film studio UFA (Universum Film AG), Sirk was heavily influenced by the Expressionist movement of that era, and jumped at the opportunity to shoot The Tarnished Angels in black and white cinemascope. This was a stylistic departure from the grand technicolor epics on which he had made his name, but perfect for capturing the high speed aerial races, as well as composing a number of dynamic standoffs between his embroiled protagonists as they vye for each other's affections
At the time of its original release in 1957, The Tarnished Angels was savaged by the critics, with Variety calling it "a stumbling entry...lacking in punch", while the New York Times labelled Sirk's direction as "elaborate and absurd". As the only film of Sirk's I have seen to-date, it is difficult to know how the film compares to his previous efforts but it is widely noted that Sirk was only regarded as a true auteur worthy of further appreciation many years after the fact, with the success of his films widely attributed to the onscreen star power at the time, rather than his contributions behind the camera.
But there is clearly plenty to enjoy and appreciate in The Tarnished Angels, despite its relatively simple story and downbeat mood. Irving Glassberg's cinematography is at times breathtaking, and shows an incredible dynamism and agility that proves just as effective navigating confined spaces as when displaying the vastness of the Louisiana skies.
Despite the uniformly miserable characters in the film, the performances keep the viewer fully invested in their plights. Robert Stack is infuriatingly closed-off as the single-minded pilot, willing even to prostitute his wife if it will keep him in the air for one more race. Dorothy Malone - an actress with whom I was unfamiliar before now - is at once a desirable femme fatale, a forthright woman of action (when leaping from aeroplanes), yet also tragically handicapped by her own girlish fantasies.
Sirk got in serious trouble with the studio for allowing Rock Hudson to play such an unheroic character, but the actor was fully onboard to get his teeth into something other than the typical square-jawed hero roles Universal regularly gave him. And it pays off wonderfully, as Burke Devlin proves a brilliantly flawed protagonist, disappointing the audience with his increasingly desperate behaviour as much as those around him and himself.
The result is an intriguing, not to mention gorgeous looking, film about the agonies of passion and desire, set against a background of deadly exhibitionism and the sultry decadence of New Orleans at Mardi Gras. Despite being singled out as an atypical entry in Sirk's canon - not to mention a personal favourite of the director's - The Tarnished Angels has been a fruitful introduction to the man's work, and Masters of Cinema's work here has me primed for their forthcoming release of Sirk's A Time To Love And A Time To Die later in the year.
This new release proves an incredibly fruitful package, fronted by a stunning new transfer that brilliantly complements the bold, expressionistic look of the film. An audio commentary from Australian film critic and Sirk expert Adrian Martin provides wonderful insight into the director's style and body of work, while a host of new and archive interviews with the cast, the director and critic Bill Krohn shed further light on the film's production, release and reception. The accompanying booklet includes a number of excellent writings on the film, especially from acclaimed filmmaker and self-confessed Sirk fan, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Overall, Eureka have excelled themselves with this bountiful release of a largely undiscussed slice of 1950s melodrama that is ripe for rediscovery.
Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, 26th August.