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March 19, 2019

The Tarnished Angels


Douglas Sirk - 1957
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

At first glance, it might seem that the combination of producer Albert Zugsmith and director Douglas Sirk would be wholly incompatible. As one of Universal-International's house producers in the mid-Fifties, Zugsmith shepherded films with such lurid titles as Female on the Beach, The Tattered Dress and The Girl in the Kremlin. Sirk was known for the glossy melodramas produced by Ross Hunter, frequently starring Rock Hudson. With their two collaborations, Written on the Wind being the first, Sirk gave Zugsmith class, and an Oscar winning performance from Dorothy Malone. Zugsmith gave Sirk the support and freedom to make more adult films within the confines of the still extant production code.

Watching Dorothy Malone in The Tarnished Angels, and the combination of Zugsmith and Sirk, I thought about the scene at the Cinecitta screening room in Godard's Contempt and the film within the film. Fritz Lang is making a serious film about Greco-Roman gods. As far as the producer, played by Jack Palance, is concerned, Lang is making an arty film with scantily clad women. Malone was aware of how she was being used by both Sirk and Zugsmith. As LaVerne Schumann, Malone plays a woman who allows herself to be exploited by her husband, a former World War I ace pilot, now part of a traveling Depression era airshow. The first time we see Malone, the wind from an airplane propellor pushes the thin fabric of her white dress against the contours of her body. The outline of her panties are visible at one point. Later, Malone performs a stunt jumping from a plane, again wearing that thin, white dress. Malone's dress flutters up, while she is parachuting down, much to the delight of the male spectators at the air show, and presumably the male viewers of the film. Whether this is a critique or celebration of the male gaze may be up to debate.

The film was one of Douglas Sirk's most personal films. Having accrued enough success as a contract director at Universal-International, Sirk was able to adapt William Faulkner's novel, Pylon. The story is about a group of itinerant "barnstormers", pilots who performed races and stunts around the United States. A reporter sees a story about these people he describes as gypsies and becomes involved with them. Faulkner's original novel took place in a fictional city, with LaVerne in an active relationship with her husband and another stunt performer, with the paternity of LaVerne's son in question. The film takes place in New Orleans rather than "New Valois", and one character eliminated, and a careful use of dialogue required. Like other filmed adaptations of Faulkner that appeared in the mid-Fifties, there was a bit of work done to make the film pass the production code. In spite of the changes, this was the one filmed version of a Faulkner novel that the author liked best of those made during his lifetime.

While Malone always looks great, though LaVerne is a masochist, thanklessly in love with a man she idolized as young farm girl. The men in The Tarnished Angels are all seriously flawed, and this may explain in part why the film was not successful commercially in spite of the cast. Rock Hudson, as the reporter, is constantly disheveled, uncombed, occasionally drunk and unshaved. Hudson wanted to play against type, much to the horror of the studio suits. As was confirmed with Seconds, Rock Hudson was only popular with audiences when he played Rock Hudson, not a guy who finds that good intentions are not enough. Robert Stack's Roger Schumann is emotionally remote, addicted to the thrill of flying. Previously known for playing likable if not trustworthy sidekicks, Jack Carson as Jiggs portrays a mechanic who lives in the shadow of Roger, wishing for some reflected glory.

Of course the CinemaScope frame was invented to film Dorothy Malone lounging lengthwise on a couch. What many contemporary filmmakers can learn from Sirk is the idea of spatial unity. Almost every shot is of two or more of the characters sharing the space within the frame, the camera frequently gliding around often in a partial circle. When the character is isolated visually, it is there as a kind of punctuation to a scene, or is dictated by the narrative. The most significant example is when Sirk cuts between shots of Schumann losing control of his plane during a race, and his son, on an airplane kiddie ride, trapped and helpless, watching his father's plane on fire, both father and son seen behind their respective cages.

I have yet to hear a disappointing commentary track from historian Imogen Sara Smith. Aside from adding to the already available information about Sirk, Zugsmith and the cast, Smith also allows for spaces within the commentary to allow the viewer to hear the dialogue of a couple of choice scenes. Now that Kino Lorber has added films from Universal to their catalogue, I would hope that more films from Sirk and Zugsmith will be available. On my wish list is the Zugsmith produced waterfront drama, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 19, 2019 07:11 AM