Friday, September 24, 2021

The Tarnished Angels


Douglas Sirk, left, with Dorothy Malone and Rock Hudson

Dorothy Malone and Rock Hudson

Dorothy Malone

Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack

William Faulkner











































THE TARNISHED ANGELS           A                                                                                     USA  (91 mi)  1957  ‘Scope  d: Douglas Sirk

A brooding, stunningly photographed black & white ‘Scope film, that from the opening look of the film of single-winged airplanes on an open airfield offers a feel of infinite spaciousness as far as the eye can see, quite a contrast from the closeted claustrophobic interiors Sirk is known for, one of the few German émigré filmmakers who did not specialize in film noir, instead known for his lush color-spectacled melodramas.  Getting to the hollowness behind the false idea of an American good life, viewing as one and the same America’s vitality and vacuity, its frankness and phoniness, as only an outsider could, this is an excellent George Zuckerman adaptation of an early, relatively minor William Faulkner novel, Pylon, one of the few not to be set in his fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County, set instead in New Orleans, where Faulkner lived and worked in the 20’s.  An exposé about daredevil pilots in the Depression-ridden 1930’s who risk their lives to win races and the prize money at air shows, a re-imagining of the novel by Sirk, growing darker as the film progresses, among his most despairing films, yet also perhaps his most moving film, examining the central characters with exquisite detail, offering some spectacular imagery shot by Irving Glassberg to guide us along the way, capturing extreme depth of space with wide angles and unusual complexity.  The film is about obsession, how we are attracted to things that fascinate us for a variety of reasons, and then can’t let go.  Incredibly pessimistic, to the point of bleak devastation, the film explores a dying art, featuring people existing on the fringes, barely able to eke out a living, yet they’re driven by the daredevil life they’ve chosen, where each day brings them just a bit closer to death.  Rock Hudson plays a New Orleans “90 proof” reporter who can’t help becoming entranced by the heroics and swagger of the husband and wife team of Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, he a death-defying WWI flying ace known for his reckless bravado and she, a beautiful blonde that parachute jumps out of airplanes, with Jack Carson as their ogling ace mechanic who can fix anything except his aching heart for the girl.  Hudson starts by treating their constantly abandoned son to an ice cream cone, and when he discovers money is tight, he offers them his own apartment as a place to stay during a New Orleans air show, which takes place simultaneously with Mardi Gras, so there are spectacular scenes of carnival rides and highly decorated floats on crowded streets, costumed party revelers and giant masks that figure prominently in what we see, as behind the mask beats the real heart of a human being.  There’s actually some interesting interplay through the persistent interest the reporter takes with his subjects, becoming more than casually attracted to Malone, especially when he hears her just-a-girl-from-Iowa-who-falls-for-a-flying-ace story, as the pilot’s first love is always flying, only feeling at home in the air, totally lost on the ground, where she appears to have been emotionally bruised and neglected in the arrangement.  Hudson loses his job in a fight with his editor for refusing to let go of the story, so personal obsession and irreconcilable desires become conflicting partners in this fascinating examination of lonely human beings desperately living on the edge of their own dreams.  Evolving from the “women’s picture,” this film is told from a male perspective, through the eyes of a drunken reporter, much like Written On the Wind (1956), with Robert Stack in each film, who is a doomed male protagonist who falls on his own phallic sword, a tragic figure whose flawed shortcomings and catastrophic inner drive eventually lead to his own death.  Given a short yet momentous moment to realize the waywardness of his ways, he promises to set things right immediately following the race, offering surprising clarity for one fleeting moment, then dies heroically. 

According to a French article in L’Express in the late 50’s, it said the Academy Awards as usual had slighted the two most important films of the year—Touch of Evil and Tarnished Angels.  Douglas Sirk reportedly stated in an interview this was the best film he directed, while William Faulkner believed this film to be the best adaptation of his own works.  The performances are excellent, even Hudson (with Sirk suggesting he read T.S. Eliot beforehand, The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot | Poetry ...), moving back and forth from one to another, largely contributing to the evershifting underlying mood exposing the sordid lives they lead, as the camera is always on the move, as are the featured characters, shown through a variety of tracking shots, crane shots, and pans, as life never for a single moment ever stands still.  In a curious literary reference, Malone takes an interest in reading Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, conjuring up images of lost Iowa farms, offering insight into her own past, suggesting deep under the surface lies a Midwestern farmgirl.  The flying sequences are spectacular, combining a mixture of visual and narrated sequences edited together for the final race which are nothing short of breathtaking.  Hudson is surprised others don’t see what he sees, compulsively driven “because they’ve got to do it.  They can’t help themselves,” where it’s not just a fascination with danger, but the bravery to build a life around a peculiar obsession during desperately trying times.  They understand each other in ways that others can’t, a tight-knit group with little use for outsiders, and Hudson remains an outsider, yet to others they’re just gypsies living out of a bottle, small-timers, viewed as one might think of carnival workers, always setting up their tent in the next town, just part of a circus act, living hand-to-mouth, always just a step or two ahead of destitution, and their interpersonal relationships are unorthodox and shocking by the standards of the times.  However, when he allows them to live in his home, he identifies with flesh and blood souls and takes interest in what drives them, utterly fascinated by how low some people can sink while pursuing their dreams.  But the air is taken out of the film once the race is over, as the picking up of the pieces has the typical melodramatic allure, and all life seems to have been sucked out of the film.  We’re left with what appears to be a steady accumulation of defeats, an ill-fated  study of failure, about tortured characters who can’t make a success out of their life, leaving a spectacular sense of emptiness and loneliness, revealing the incredible ways we continue to fool ourselves, forever drawn to the alluring power of illusions, needing to believe in lies, suggesting loneliness is easier to bear if we accept those illusions.  Hudson reminds us, “There’s an old saying, nobody really dies until they’re forgotten.”  There’s a gentle finale, somewhat out of pace with the adrenaline-laced hysteria of the earlier scenes, but Hudson goes on a drunken bender and wanders back to the newspaper bureau to display his contempt for their lifeless, feeble coverage of the racing event, which he then recounts with vivid recollection, providing the personal insight about just who these people are and why they are so different from the rest of us, mostly because they dare to be different, and in their chosen profession, they can’t afford to let mere human emotions get in the way, as they routinely defy death for a living.  It becomes apparent that Hudson loves more than just the subject matter, but has a special fascination for the girl. 

According to Jon Halliday, who interviewed Sirk extensively for a book entitled Sirk On Sirk in 1971, “I think his interest in ambiguity was accentuated by the fact that many of his close friends and colleagues became Nazis; the difficulty of trusting people—i.e. being convinced that one knows who someone else really is and how they will behave under intense pressure,—became a dominant factor in Sirk’s life.”  The use of an inquiring journalist is an excellent device to dig under the surface, making this a probing character study, as Malone especially feels a need to talk, largely ignored and dismissed in her marriage, where nothing is ever discussed, no heart to hearts, yet she’s expected to carry her load all on her own, a daunting prospect, something she’s been living with for some time.  The circumstances surrounding her marriage are as cheap and tawdry as they come, handed over to the winner of a dice game.  The Depression is hard enough, but these death-defying stunts really cover up their sexual frustration, an indication of what’s missing and remains unspoken in their relationships.  So Rock Hudson catches her at a time when she feels especially vulnerable, using each other and plenty of alcohol to struggle for an authentic connection and really explore the deep underlying implications of her inner life, finally opening up about the neglect and humiliation she has suffered.  Making matters worse, when Stack loses his plane in a crash, he sends in Malone to submit to the sexual advances of a wealthy promoter (Robert Middleton) in exchange for another damaged plane that he intends to repair for the next day’s race, which is all but impossible, but he has little alternative.  Hudson intervenes, sparing her the shame and disgrace, deceitfully promising the promoter invaluable front page coverage that he knowingly can’t deliver.  Happiness in this film is not only elusive, but remains perpetually out of reach, thus the title, featuring characters who have fallen from grace, yet as in all Sirk films, the studio changed the ending, believing happy endings made more money.  The forces of fate are on magnificent display, however, and while there’s plenty of high drama, the sheer look of the film is unforgettable, Malone’s presence at an airfield, magnified by her wind tunnel-like hair and dress in a hurricane-like feminine display, as every male eye turns her way, Dorothy Malone - 'The Tarnished Angels' clip. - YouTube (1:13), reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt getting blown up by an air blast from a steam grate in Billy Wilder’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1954), The Seven Year Itch - A Delicious Breeze Scene [60 FPS & 4K ... YouTube (2:05), repeated references to a blind man in dark glasses playing the calliope, emblematic for the uncomprehending characters who never really see the light, forever remaining in the dark, Hudson arriving at his apartment as seen though the unique vantage point of an overhead interior window where a nosy neighbor keeps popping his head out the door to spy on everyone, a theme Fassbinder re-used to perfection in ALI:  FEAR EATS THE SOUL (1974), New Orleans during a street-filled Mardi Gras, with torchlit floats and parades, including giant grotesque masks, spilling over to the apartment next door where a raucous costume party is in full swing, prominently featuring a blonde woman (a metaphorical reference to Malone’s alter ego) dancing seductively on a tabletop, with revelers dancing like hopped-up zombies to relentless Dixieland jazz, a blatantly obvious masquerade of happiness, leading to a stunning moment when Hudson and Malone are finally alone, but as they are about to embrace, a party reveler with a death mask breaks open the door, as if the voice of their subconscious guilt was on display, climaxing with a daredevil flying spectacle juxtaposed against a young boy on a flying carousel plane ride where unseen danger lurks around every turn.  This is a film that takes a nosedive into the tawdry world of basic instincts, and what lurks underneath is a murky atmosphere of highly imaginative disguises, each one a shadow of the human soul.  There is an explicit contrast between characters in Sirk films, between those who recognize the tragedy in their lives, like Dorothy Malone, and those who don’t, who deludedly refuse to recognize the obvious, like Robert Stack, except for a last minute revelation.  The distinction between depth and shallowness in his characters is central to Sirk and to the critique of American life these films reflect.  And this tragic consciousness pervades them all.

Video Essay. These Dead Souls: Douglas Sirk's "The ... - MUBI    video essay on THE TARNISHED ANGELS by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López, May 7, 2018 (11:00)

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