Three films directed by Douglas Sirk were released in 1957, and of those, “Tarnished Angels,” in astringent black-and-white widescreen with pin-wheeling compositions and sharp, brute editing, is a bleak, thrilling compatriot of his 1956 masterpiece of familial betrayal, “Written on the Wind” (also produced by Albert Zugsmith), with its hothouse bacchanal of swirling cameras and rushing cars and blowing leaves and drunken hearts. The cast of the films is the same: Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack, but the moral hullabaloo this time is in New Orleans across three days at Mardi Gras during the Depression. (Please summon portents of death in profusion.)
Daredevil aerialist and World War I fighter-pilot hero Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) and his wife, LaVerne (Dorothy Malone) meet journalist Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) who’s dazzled—duh!—by LaVerne. Malone is the magnificent fulcrum of the film: in chiseled black-and-white, Malone matches her stupefying dances of death in “Written on the Wind” merely by standing still or leaning into a smolder. These three, they’re needy, cruel fuckers, they just are, and Sirk measures them without judgment and with a feast of attention. Lust is lavished and love is slandered, damage weighs on this damnable, damned trio. A fractured time scheme fascinates, too: the narrative is as splintered as Sirk’s settings. Even on this day 122 years since his birth, Sirk’s work feels serenely new and now.
Sirk, whose work as one of the leading directors of the German stage included Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” suggests the depth of his stage lineage in the endlessly expressive, relentlessly kinetic framings, not only of planes on the ground or in the air but how figures move, dance, tempt, resist contact in dimmed, dismal lodgings and public spaces. The aerodynamics come from blocking of humans, acting not only in heated verbal exchange or glowering tease or retort, but also with their entire bodies, simmering curlicues of magnificently modulated gesture. Here’s Sirk from an exchange with directors Monty Montgomery and Kathryn Bigelow, from the July 1982 Interview magazine:
Kathryn Bigelow: You’ve been quoted as saying that you learned to trust your eyes more than words. That the angles are the director’s thoughts, the lighting is his philosophy.
Douglas Sirk: The director has to control everything. The movement of the camera is important because this is his style. Otherwise he just becomes a director of the people. With film, a director should be in on everything. Never give up and don’t let them tell you they are the specialist. You don’t want any special kind of work, you want your kind of work. You see, a film is a visual thing. It’s not being told by words alone. Words are important, but almost to a minor degree. It’s the lighting, the angling, and it’s the cutting, too. I’ve always been from the first to the last minute, in the cutting room telling the cutter I want it this way and that way, because once in a while you take a whole sequence out of here and put it there and that makes a lot of difference. Believe me, maybe it will make the film.
Sirk is inevitably noted for importing a European sense of irony, not limited to Brecht’s influence, and there are moments in “The Tarnished Angels” speaking of war, heroism, sacrifice, love, duty, perfumed as much with contradiction as with kerosene. The trailer gives an excellent sense of how the unusual format—black-and-white Cinema Scope—provided yet another proscenium for the master director, whose own artistic history and those of his predecessors suffused each of his films, especially these precious, gleaming last few (including his last, “Imitation of Life”).
Adapted from William Faulkner’s novel “Pylon.” With Jack Carson, Troy Donahue. Robert Middleton, Alan Reed, William Schallert. Extras: the trailer and a rich, detailed audio commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith. 91m. (Ray Pride)
The Blu-ray of “The Tarnished Angels” is available from Kino Lorber.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.