I’ve always loved seamless and elegant mise-en-scene and I’ve always loved romantic and family melodrama. Therefore, among my favourite film makers are The Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), Jacques Tourneur, Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minnelli and Max Ophuls . And of course, Douglas Sirk, whose stylistics can be breathtaking.
Apart from scattered childhood memories, my first major confrontation with this man’s remarkable work came in the late 60s at a weekend devoted to his “delirious” late Universal period when he made the glossy melodramas produced by Ross Hunter. Bruce Hodsdon was then screening a selection of them in fairly pristine 16mm prints at the duplex he then lived at in Neutral Bay. It became for me a personal epiphany which changed my view of mainstream Hollywood 1950s cinema.
Childhood memories of Magnificent Obsession came flooding back to me as I revisited this film with its trappings of rich colours, surface glamour, interesting textures and high contrast lighting . I now saw with a more sophisticated eye what had so thoroughly seduced me as a kid. I had then accepted its audacious, preposterous plot manipulations at face value; I had been thrilled and moved by the film’s mysticism, with its power to redeem “fallen” Rock Hudson through the intervention of fate; I had responded to the Christ-like Otto Kruger who carried the dead Dr Phillips’ spirit of selfless service performed “in secret” in a manner that gave the film a mysterious and strange momentum; I had also loved all the stuff around Jane Wyman’s blindness without really understanding how sophisticated Sirk’s metaphors of vision and blindness really were; I was certainly swept along by the beautiful and lush Chopin-derived score without any knowledge of the conventions of romantic melodrama.
Now in middle age, having so often and so rewardingly revisited Sirk’s best work, I never cease to marvel at the haunting and mysterious power and beauty of these films. They certainly have obvious formal beauty in the way characters are framed against glass, or reflected in mirrors, or set against screens and partitions or photographed amidst billowing fabrics and sensuous surfaces of all kinds. Sirk displays a formal confidence and visual audacity shared by few film-makers. Written on the Wind’s colour intensities, for example, are remarkable even by the standards achieved in many 50s films (Vertigo, The Searchers, Rebel Without a Cause, Lust for Life, A Star is Born and Sirk’s own Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows).
Sirk’s delight in flowers (vases full of lilacs) and trees enriches many of his films but especially All That Heaven Allows, where autumn colours and New England rural landscapes are given centre stage. I love the way Rock Hudson as the gentle gardener Ron Kirby tells Jane Wyman’s Carey the story of the Chinese Golden Rain tree; and proudly names his plants in his greenhouse (“That’s a Coleus”). This film is, I suspect like Sirk himself, very soulful. The spirit of Thoreau is present not only in overt references to Walden but in the whole character of Hudson’s “natural man”.
His compassionate humanism has a harder edge, though; Sirk is an astute social critic of middle American values. He delineates the destructive materialist ethos-and its alienating effect on its lost and misdirected “children”-with crystalline clarity of vision, often through visual correlatives of upper bourgeois comfort and security. The trappings of this lifestyle frequently stultify and enclose the leading characters especially in everyday domestic settings. Sirk’s middle America is strewn with unhappy victims of ‘happy’ homes and marriages (very overt in There’s Always Tomorrow). They fall victim to the stigma of small town scandal and gossip (All I Desire); to wealth, status and self-destructive alcoholism (Written on the Wind); to convention and respectability, even to their own children (All That Heaven Allows).
But while the films critique the ethos, they are far from judgmental of its victims. The most tragic figures-like Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind – are treated more sympathetically than the conventional leads; their dilemmas and downfalls invite catharsis in the viewer.Beyond all these considerations, Sirk’s seamless narratives and commanding visual fluency are a textbook model for the possibilities of romantic and family melodrama. The spirit of melos is everywhere in these films in the pulsating orchestrations of classically derived scores using some of the styles and themes of Brahms, Chopin and Schumann; or in jazz arrangements like those driving the highly charged visual narratives of Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life. Images resonate on literal and symbolic levels; for example, the colonnaded house in Written on the Wind with its massive columns and grand dominating central staircase literally represents the status and wealth of an oil-rich Texan family dynasty but it symbolically incarcerates its miserable inhabitants; the sleek red and yellow sports cars racing across miles of oil wells in the same film are literally vehicles of speed and excitement and powerful toys of the rich but ironically they convey the “lost” Hadlee children to illicit rendezvous, cheap seedy diners and the violence and tragedy that accompany them.
Sirk’s visual set-pieces are rhythmically exciting in the grandest operatic sense with bold, emotive colours, frenzied soundtracks and choreographed conflict that builds to crashing crescendos like Jane Wyman’s in Magnificent Obsession: having learned that she will probably never regain her sight, she stumbles across a darkened room to a balcony where she knocks over a flower pot and sends it crashing to the ground; the scene’s expressivity arises out of a potently measured and cumulative sense of disorientation and despair caught through her moving in and out of pools of light and shadow all set to a mockingly lush crescendo of strings and culminating in the broken pot. This climax condenses in a single stroke her broken life. The boldest of all Sirkian operatic climaxes occurs in Written on the Wind, significantly on and around the grand spiral staircase, the grand artery connecting the Hadlee dynasty’s many rooms. As Dorothy Malone whips herself into a frenzy of frustration over her unreciprocated feelings for Rock Hudson (himself carrying a one-sided torch for her brother’s wife), she performs a dance-cum-striptease to a very fast jazz arrangement of “Temptation”. In the middle of it, her father suffers a fatal heart attack on the staircase and plunges all the way to the bottom. His daughter-in-law Lauren Bacall races to his lifeless form while Malone’s dance hits fever pitch. All fast, dizzying camera movement and a paradigm of cross-cutting skills, it is perhaps the most exciting set-piece in any Sirk film.
All That Heaven Allows is my favourite Sirk film and for me, the film of the year in 1956. All the characteristic stylistic trademarks are present: high contrast lighting; precise, tight framing; expressive colour; and liberal use of reflected images and domestic interiors framed around objects like screens and windows that suggest entrapment and confinement. Sirk is dealing here with lives repressed by social conventions and projections of surface respectability.
Gardener Rock Hudson in his best screen performance falls for small New England town widow Jane Wyman-it’s fascinating to observe an older woman/younger man liaison presented in a 1955 film with dignity and total lack of self-consciousness-but is faced with interference from her children, her friends and social circle, and small town morality and hypocrisy.
Sirk details this milieu with telling examples of how family togetherness can stunt emotional growth; how bourgeois comfort and wealth can produce spiritual emptiness; and how hypocritically patronising and mean-spirited much of society’s outward displays of kindness are. Against Hudson’s Thoreau-inspired “natural man”, the artificial offerings of Stoningham’s elite are shown as the trappings of a spiritual wasteland, best summated in the much commented upon image of Jane Wyman’s tortured face reflected in the TV set she didn’t want, but that her children thought she “had to have” for Christmas.
The film is full of beautifully worked out images and set pieces that capture the characters’ inner lives and conflicts. Sirk’s high contrast lighting precisely expresses the anguish created in Rock Hudson by Jane Wyman’s vacillations as she decides how to cope with her divided loyalties towards her children, friends and the only life she has known on the one hand; and her strongly aroused romantic/sexual awakening to a man unwilling to compromise his notion of personal integrity on the other. The warm burnished browns of the old mill house interiors lovingly restored by Rock Hudson are set in opposition to the hard marble white surfaces surrounding Jane Wyman’s living room/fireplace area. Its sense of order and tradition is also compared unfavorably with the roughly-crafted log cabin style interiors that characterise Mick and Alida’s laidback social existence where friends just “drop in” and party on.
There are many other oppositions set up in the film: the Stoningham Country Club’s vicious and predatory colony of gossips, with its cheating men on the prowl (Howard), loveless marriages (Mona) and incongruous older man/young bimbo couplings is set in vivid relief against the love, respect and warmth of Mick and Alida’s circle with its impromptu dancing, sing-song and communal spirit of sharing and giving by all. It creates a kind of “coming out” for Cary and a spiritual as well as a romantic awakening. One of the film’s other insightful parallels contrasts the relative suitabilities of Harvey (Conrad Nagel) and Ron as prospective marriage partners for Cary. Outwardly, Harvey has it all over Ron. Cary’s children approve of him, he is courteous and traditional presumably in the mould of her late husband, he mixes in the same social circles and in the eyes of Cary’s daughter at least, he “acts his age” meaning he is relatively mature (read sexless). Ron, on the other hand, is from a “lower” social class (vide Ned’s haughty responses: “The only Kirby I know is old Kirby the gardener”), he doesn’t half try to fit in, he drives the wrong type of car, and is clearly sexually potent. But observe Cary’s face when Harvey suggests she’d hardly want romance or that type of thing in a marriage and you’ve got the reason why in the end it’s no contest. Harvey can mix a mean cocktail and has distant memories of male bonding with Cary’s departed husband. Ron has built a magnificent window (for his large, open soul) and the young deer which appears in it suggests the coming of spring to Cary’s wintry life and no doubt after Ron is nursed back to health by her loving hand, he will be for her as strong-and erect-as one of his beautiful trees.