The Tarnished Angels (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt
Produced by Albert Zugsmith; directed by Douglas Sirk; screenplay by George Zuckerman, based on William Faulkner’s novel Pylon; cinematography by Irving Glassberg; art direction by Alexander Golitzen and Alfred Sweeney; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; music by Frank Skinner; starring Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Jack Carson, Robert Middleton, Alan Reed, Alexander Lockwood, Chris Olsen, Robert J. Wilke, Troy Donahue, William Schallert, Eugene Borden. Blu-ray, B&W, 91 min., 1957. A Kino Lorber release.
It’s official! Douglas Sirk is a longtime culture hero for cinephiles, and the Oxford English Dictionary has now taken note, adding the adjective “Sirkian” to its listings. Granted, 2018 was a banner year for auteur-based philology at the OED, where other new entries range from “Spielbergian,” “Scorsesean,” and “Godardian” to “Eisensteinian,” “Altmanesque,” and (God help us) “Tarantinoesque,” among others. But it’s heartening to know that Sirk’s appeal and influence are not limited to the rarefied sphere of critics and movie buffs, and his elevation to the OED might conceivably encourage more first-rate digital releases like Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray edition of his 1957 feature The Tarnished Angels.
Sirk was fascinated by aspects of American culture long before he left Nazi Germany in 1937, and literature by Southern authors—the best the United States had to offer, in his view—was of particular interest. He had discovered William Faulkner’s 1934 novel Pylon when he was still working at the German studio UFA, and he had a treatment with him when he arrived in Hollywood in the early Forties, although the story’s ripe sexuality made it an unlikely prospect for greenlighting during the Production Code’s heyday. Years later, he recalled being surprised and thrilled when producer Albert Zugsmith and screenwriter George Zuckerman asked him to direct an adaptation of Pylon as a follow-up to the smash hit Written on the Wind, which the three had made in 1956. Universal-International Pictures was game as long as the steaminess was toned down and the topliners of Written on the Wind regrouped in major roles. Most of them readily signed on—only Lauren Bacall demurred—and the result was The Tarnished Angels, starring Rock Hudson as a hard-drinking reporter, Robert Stack as a self-destructive stunt pilot, and Dorothy Malone as the latter’s discontented wife and show-biz partner. Filmed in black-and-white CinemaScope and replete with Sirk’s signature stylistic touches, The Tarnished Angels fell way short of Written on the Wind at the box office, but it works far better as a movie than Faulkner’s potboiler does as literature, and it looks downright splendid on the new Blu-ray disc.
Although fine work abounds in every phase of Sirk’s career, the conventional (and correct) wisdom avers that his greatest pictures were the Universal melodramas of the Fifties, starting with either All I Desire (1953) or Magnificent Obsession (1954) and culminating with the resplendent Imitation of Life (1959), his last Hollywood feature. The Tarnished Angels stands with the most accomplished of these productions, and with the most pessimistic, which is quite an achievement from a filmmaker whose view of the human condition was eminently, although not monolithically, bleak. Sirk’s enthusiasm for Pylon came partly from the similarities he saw between the novel’s New Orleans and the real world’s Weimar Germany, and, as Imogen Sara Smith observes in her perceptive Blu-ray commentary, his habitual critiques and ironies are right up front in the movie, not played against comfy, glossy surfaces as in many of his Fifties films. The characters are low on the socioeconomic ladder, Sirk’s usual eye-catching sets (favored by Ross Hunter, his frequent producer in this era) are replaced by dingy rooms and dreary fairgrounds, and New Orleans’s festive Mardi Gras becomes a danse macabre with Death as the choreographer. No wonder Rainer Werner Fassbinder called the picture “nothing but a series of defeats.” And no wonder Sirk sometimes said it was his best.
Faulkner took his title from the slender poles marking the “track” for an airplane race, setting the course for the contest and tempting pilots to shave off tiny increments of time by coming perilously close to the towers with each narrow turn. The film centers on a trio of barnstorming flyers. Roger Shumann (Stack) is a former World War I ace scratching out a living by racing his plane at carnivals and fairs, partnered by his wife LaVerne (Malone), who does a slightly daring double-parachute act that sends her skirt flying high while she skydives down, thereby delighting the crowds whose vulgarity Sirk clearly disdains. (Not that his camera turns decorously away during the money shots.) The third member of the team is Jiggs (Jack Carson), a beefy mechanic who’s been pining for LaVerne ever since pregnancy induced Roger to marry her; in the novel it’s ambiguous whether Jiggs or Roger is the father, but the movie’s Code morality makes Roger’s paternity clear.
Despite the cheerless routine that dominates their lives, the contrast between Roger’s war-hero past and sadly reduced present captures the imagination of journalist Burke Devlin (Hudson), who meets the troupe by chance, offers them a temporary home, and expends much energy trying to persuade his cynical editor that their exploits would make a terrific human-interest story. Secondary figures include Jack Shumann (Chris Olsen), the couple’s little boy, and Matt Ord (Robert Middleton), a capitalist involved in the carnival game. An approaching race triggers the climactic crises: Roger unsuccessfully offers Ord a tryst with LaVerne in exchange for a viable plane, and this infuriates Jiggs, who then angrily helps Roger get an unviable plane into the air. Tragedy ensues.
Nearly all of Sirk’s most celebrated Fifties films were shot by Russell Metty, a sensitive cinematographer ideally equipped to make the auteur’s eloquent mission statement—“The angles are the director’s thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy”—a lustrous reality on the screen. But the camerawork for The Tarnished Angels was done by Irving Glassberg, a studio staffer whose Fifties credits lean toward Francis the Talking Mule and Ozzie and Harriet comedies, although he had filmed Captain Lightfoot for Sirk in 1955. Sirk wasn’t entirely pleased with Glassberg’s work in The Tarnished Angels, but the imagery is so creatively drab and evocatively sad that the director may just have been second-guessing his own decision to enhance the somberness of the story with the somber sweep of widescreen black and white. According to Smith’s commentary, Sirk later concluded that the carnival background should have called for color; if so, I submit that the auteur’s revised opinion was dead wrong, since nothing about this picture is more scathingly sardonic than the shadowy frenzy of the Mardi Gras scenes. Grotesque costumes, distorted masks, and giant malformed heads barge into exterior and interior scenes alike, all sported by the kinds of people who also attend the air shows, accurately described by Smith as inane voyeurs gobbling munchies in the stands while awaiting potential disaster in the air. In his recent book The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions, critic Tom Ryan points out that interruptions and invasions of privacy are common Sirk motifs, and these become almost overwhelming in The Tarnished Angels, where the partiers intruding on a romantic moment may be doubles for the Grim Reaper and his minions. This is a morbid Mardi Gras indeed.
Another of the film’s recurring themes is addiction. Hooked on risking his life in an interminable series of cheap displays, Roger remarks before the big race that he needs a plane the way an alcoholic needs a drink, and Smith observes that LaVerne wouldn’t stay loyal to her mournful, masochistic husband if she weren’t addicted to him. Devlin has been downing drinks for years, and the circular substructures of the film—the races around the pylons, the plane-like carnival ride that little Jack enjoys, the repetitive craving for human connection that the characters can’t escape or transcend—give vivid cinematic shape to the story’s endless loops of love, loss, and obsession.
The dialogue contains prominent references to Willa Cather’s classic 1918 novel My Ántonia, a tale of Midwestern nostalgia that strikes a poignant contrast with the congested, machine-based environment that encloses the characters, trapping and stifling them as relentlessly as the smothering environments of Sirk’s more ornate dramas. It’s regrettable that the movie’s symbolism is a tad thudding at times, as when Jack gets stuck on the high-flying carnival ride while his father disastrously falters in the decisive race. That reminds me of the laughable toy-pony ride in Written on the Wind, and the pylons, which Smith likens to bony fingers of death, are as blatantly phallic as the model oil derrick that Malone memorably caresses in the 1956 film. But no work of art is perfect, and the flaws in Sirk’s canonic films are minor at worst.
According to Universal’s publicity, The Tarnished Angels was based on (you guessed it) a “book they said could never be filmed!” Yet, while the studio insisted on modifying the source material, Sirk and company took good advantage of the gradual late-Fifties loosening of the Code, inserting an occasional “hell” and “damn” into the dialogue and actually boosting the sleaziness of one remarkable scene: Faulkner has Roger and Jiggs determine which of them will marry LaVerne by rolling a die, and Sirk expands this by having Roger sullenly make the die with a sugar cube and pencil while the camera looks on. In this and countless other details, The Tarnished Angels is as Sirkian a film as Sirk ever made, and its broad design builds on Written on the Wind while anticipating the riches of A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), with its unhappy hero trudging through a different sort of decaying culture, and above all Imitation of Life, whose unsurpassed title could perfectly apply to a movie where everyone and everything in sight—the fliers, the Mardi Gras, the newspaper, the fairground, the blind musician playing a calliope, the passersby bizarrely reflected in funhouse mirrors—is part of a show, a performance, a facade, a smokescreen, an imitation of a life that will never be gratifyingly lived. Sirk doesn’t mock or belittle his characters, but he doesn’t overlook or underplay their failures, either. Tarnished though they are, his angels shine with a cool, crepuscular glow.
David Sterritt is editor-in-chief of Quarterly Review of Film and Video and author or editor of fifteen books.
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 4