October 12, 2010
The Tarnished Angels (1957) is one of Douglas Sirk’s greatest accomplishments, and it was not available on DVD in the United States until last month (one had to nab Region 2 DVD editions in France and England previously). TCM released it on September 31st (in partnership with Universal) as part of the Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker Collection box set, along with Thunder on the Hill (1951), Taza, Son of Cochise (1954) and Captain Lightfoot (1955). It’s the latest production from TCM’s Vault Collection, which makes limited runs of hard-to-find studio titles, only available for purchase on-line.
Now is the time for the full disclosure bit. Since I’m writing for TCM, there’s a clear conflict of interest here. Proceed at your own peril, although all of the following thoughts are my own and are not influenced by my beloved corporate overlords (I promise).
Sirk made his reputation on the melodramas he directed for producer Ross Hunter, but this set shows off his versatility. It contains a murder mystery (Thunder), a western (Taza) and a swashbuckling adventure (Lightfoot) in addition to the more familiar Sirkian drama of The Tarnished Angels. Thunder on the Hill is a stagy whodunit set in a convent, based on the play “Bonaventure” by Charlotte Hastings. It finds Claudette Colbert’s meddling Sister Mary trying to clear the name of convicted murderess Valerie Carns (Ann Blythe). Valerie is being escorted to a prison to be executed, when a dramatically convenient storm maroons her in Sister Mary’s domain. The scenario is creaky but the actors are game, with Colbert’s earnest moon-shaped face beaming out of her nun’s habit. Sirk wasn’t happy with the project, complaining to Michael Stern that, “only on Thunder did I have a producer who was interfering with my work. He was the only one at Universal. After that film I believe they fired him.” A quick look at producer Michael Kraike’s IMDB page confirms it was the last film he worked on for the studio.
Despite the fraught working conditions, Sirk still displays his impeccable sense of composition, with DP William Daniels setting up B&W shots in depth, analyzing the power relations between characters. The triangle above finds Colbert flanked by a jealous nurse and the passive doctor, who will both be serious impediments to her investigation. Later, there’s a striking sequence where Colbert commiserates with Sister Josephine (Connie Gilchrist, a delightful busybody) about the case while the loyal town idiot Willie (Michael Pate) eats in the corner. The diagonal lineup of characters rhymes with the staircase in the background, a more harmonious arrangement for her informal deputies.
Taza, Son of Cochise is less satisfying, but does contain stunning color CinemaScope photography from Russell Metty. It’s an informal sequel to Broken Arrow (1950) and The Battle at Apache Pass (1952), where Jeff Chandler portrayed Cochise against James Stewart and John Lund, respectively. Here Chandler appears in an uncredited cameo as the Apache Chief, turning over his responsibilities to his son, Taza (Rock Hudson), who battles his brother Naiche (Rex Reason, a name for the ages) for control of the Apache tribe. The script is a tired reiteration of the Cochise story, and the film, which was originally shot in 3D, fails to display Sirk’s usual visual dynamism in 2D. The colors certianly pop, though.
Captain Lightfoot is an enormously entertaining comic adventure filled with revolutionary skirmishes in 1815 Ireland. It was the first Hollywood feature film to be entirely shot in the Emerald Isle (The Quiet Man just shot exteriors there), and Sirk and DP Irving Glassberg glory in the rolling hills and elaborate period finery for the color ‘Scope frame. Rock Hudson excels as young rebel Michael Martin, a small-time hood taken under the wing of Captain Thunderbolt (Jeff Morrow), a legendary Robin Hood resistance fighter and bon vivant (the scenario was lifted for Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Captain Lightfoot’s screenwriter W.R. Burnett was not kind to the remake: “He stole it. Son-of-a-bitch. I’m glad Heaven’s Gate flopped.”).
Burnett, an irascible sort, was also not pleased with his director (from Backstory 1): “Sirk was a very bad job of miscasting. He had no sense of humor.” I beg to differ. While Sirk does not opt for out-and-out slapstick, there is a tender, amused tone throughout, from Hudson’s dance lesson to his strategic cigar smoking in a duel. The compositions here are packed, often overstuffed with action and reactions. Thunderbolt’s elaborate ball is masterfully staged and executed, with Hudson continually framed near the center in his eye-grabbing matte-gray suit. When he’s interrogated by the inspector, all stares remain on him, as ladies gather expectantly behind a window. This cements his transition from the one who looks up to Thunderbolt to the one being looked at.
The centerpiece of the box set is The Tarnished Angels (1957) a downbeat study of a family of stunt-flyers in Depression-era New Orleans. Adapted from William Faulkner’s novel Pylon, it was a treasured project of Sirk’s. Screenwriter George Zuckerman recalled to Gary Morris of Bright Lights film journalthat, “But after the success of Written on the Wind, in conversation with Sirk, I suggested Pylon. His face turned white. He said it was exactly the property he had in mind.” He re-teamed Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone from Written on the Wind, now as the doomed couple Roger and LaVerne Shumann. Roger was a decorated WWI pilot, now reduced to winning dangerous prop plane races at county fairs. LaVerne does the parachute drops, her buffeted skirt giving the guys on the ground a thrill (Sirk: “[Producer Albert Zugsmith] didn’t want her to wear anything underneath!”). Roger’s constant circling around the pylons is a metaphor for their lives: always moving, never going anywhere. With their son Jack (Chris Olsen) and mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson), they travel the world seeking nothing other than their own anihilation.
Rock Hudson plays a reporter, Burke Devlin, who trolls for a human interest story amidst their wreckage and ends up in love with LaVerne and aghast at the society that produced their infernal little group. Sirk ironically layers images of Mardi Gras and the county fair over their travails, note the ferris wheel behind Dorothy Malone’s head in the group shot above, or the empty chasm of bleachers that opens up next to Hudson in the top-lining still. Then there is the motif of skull masks, which follow LaVerne throughout the film. During her first kiss with Burke, Sirk inter-cuts their clumsy romance with a raucous party next door, where a leotard-clad woman kisses and bites a man in a skull mask. They are instantly associated with death. And when a plane crashes later in the film, another masked man leads her away. The film swoons with metaphorical decay, and in Sirk on Sirk, the director recounts how he read T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to Robert Stack and Eliot’s Prufrock to Hudson, to drill in their respective destructiveness and isolation.
The camera is constantly moving on short tracking shots, similar to Roger’s peripatetic nowhere man. I’ll close with Luc Moullet’s provocative disquisition on these dollies, which rise above the level of narrative and celebrates the pure artifice of Sirk’s art (quoted in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia):
The whole film is made of short tracks, usually lateral, almost invisible, the camera perpetually strolling five or six meters above the ground. Why? No reason. Just Sirk’s pleasure in making the camera move…In art, there is only artifice. Let us therefore praise an artifice that is cultivated without remorse, which consequently acquires a greater sincerity rather than artifice masked by itself as by others under hypocritical pretexts. The true is as false as the false; only the archi-false becomes true. (Cahiers du Cinema no. 87, September 1958).
For a look at the technical quality of the set, DVD Beaver has reviewed it here.
I have no more words to spare on the New York Film Festival, but please check out David Bordwell here and Michael J. Anderson here on my co-favorite film of the festival (tied with Uncle Boonmee), Raul Ruiz’s magisterial The Mysteries of Lisbon.