With the name Douglas Sirk, Technicolor opulence no doubt springs to mind but his black and white pictures are no less diverting and still extremely attractive to look at with photography once more courtesy of longtime collaborator Russell Metty.
The cinematography is crisp monochrome filmed in voluptuous cinemascope. It’s hardly as flamboyant as we are accustomed to but then again, The Great Depression was far from a decadent time and the visuals suggest that malaise especially in the film’s latter half when the cracks and the dirt begin to show a little more.
The inspiration for the narrative’s morality play comes from a William Faulkner story, Pylons, an aptly chosen title if it weren’t true that “Tarnished Angels” is more in line with Sirk’s oeuvre and the director glides forward with his usual flair.
The year is 1932 and Mardi Gras festivities seem to be taking over the town as a traveling airshow makes its latest pitstop headlined by those intrepid barnstormers WWI flying ace Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) and his wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone). Subsequently, the stars involved make this picture a reunion of the previous year’s success Written on the Wind (1956).
Tarnished Angels is a picture that documents the morbid curiosity that often overcomes humanity with such feats of insanity as Shumann does crazy eights in the sky and his wife performs perilous stunts as a daredevil parachuter. The locals eat it up until it all goes terribly awry and then they want nothing to do with it.
A horrendous crash during the gripping race sequence is captured in surprisingly graphic fashion as the planes zoom around the course and from that point on the film goes into a tailspin that the characters can never really recover from.
The sheer pandemonium is underscored by the fact that the announcer continues to entreat the viewing audience to stay off the field and yet in the mayhem no one pays him any heed. It’s their gut emotions that are driving them now, not their rationality.
But despite the tragedy, Shumann is desperate to have his wings back and he reluctantly goes to veteran backer Matt Ord to pilot his plane. His wife agrees to go to the man’s apartment. Although it’s never explicitly stated, we know what it is for. It’s written on the faces of every man who is complicit or privy to the incident and stands by complacently.
Newsman Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) finds himself enthralled by Roger’s story as a fallen man while faithful mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson) is about fed up with all that Roger puts LaVerne through and yet she goes to Ord and they do little to stop her.
But it’s true that Devlin also finds himself falling for the other man’s wife after she gives him insight into her life thus far. An intimate moment is burst in upon by a drunkard in a skeleton mask. You have to see it to understand the utter tension that is felt and the collected sigh of relief because we are part of this.
But this is far more than a film about an illicit affair or a man who doesn’t know how to love his family. It gets far more tragic than that and Sirk dramatizes it with a pair of images. A boy helplessly trapped on a carnival ride, a mother restrained by local bystanders, one disconcertingly still wearing a mardi gras mask. And tragedy strikes again with a second crash landing.
Shumann was a man so obsessive with flying that it literally drives his entire life. He cannot love his wife and child as much as he relishes being in the air performing daring feats of aerial acrobatics. Take away his wings and it’s like a man addicted needing his fix. Driven to such levels of indelicacy he willingly sacrifices family or, more specifically, his wife for a flying machine. But in his final moments for a brief instant perhaps he rises above his past failings to shed his former self and show something else.
Rock Hudson gives a drunken monologue in the newsroom that silences any dissenters and naysayers at least for a minute because he developed an almost intimate relationship with this man’s life.
I can’t help but draw up comparisons between this picture and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951). Distinctively both films use journalism and a member of the profession to get at the material but their actions couldn’t be different.
Certainly, both are interested in stories. They are drawn to the spectacle. In the earlier film a miner is trapped in a mine shaft and in this picture Devlin is intrigued by that crummy carnival of death as it is so eloquently christened. But Hudson character hardly seems to be taking advantage of the situation because he offers up his home and proves himself a stalwart defender of children and women.
If he’s interested in a mere story at first, ultimately the whole ordeal takes hold of him so personally that it transcends any of that and proceeds to overshadow everything else. Kirk Douglas in his role might provide a harsher indictment of journalism’s capacity for creating a media circus. Sirk’s film is an equally telling portrait of human frailty as much as it chronicles callous indiscretion.