Tarnished Angels (1957)

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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.

4/5 Stars

Review: Written on the Wind (1956)

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Douglas Sirk’s films are always lovely to look at, almost to the point of making you sick. The panoramas swell with color. They’re too perfect. The sets are gaudy — the cars the same — to the point of almost being unsightly in their over the top artificiality. Try to find any amount of authenticity and you will most likely fail.

The people within the frames are even more glamorous than the rooms they fill and arguably more colorful.  Namely the dashing Rock Hudson, a Sirkian mainstay and then Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone, and Robert Stack, all Hollywood talents playing character types with names and dialogue straight out of a trashy romance novella. We wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s exquisite.

Because everything is played with the utmost of seriousness from starting credits to the closing shot and yet it just doesn’t take. Sirk seems to be working against his material and that’s where the enjoyment of this picture really lies. It makes Written on the Wind the zenith of the soap opera tradition.

Like any good melodrama, it begins with a shooting, it ends with a murder inquest and the in between is filled in with drunkenness, romantic interplay, familial strife, impotence, fist fights, childhood dynamics, and anything else you can imagine in such a sleazy affair. Still, when everything has run its course, our leading man and his leading lady are able to drive through the pearly mansion gates off on a perfect life together.

Though Rock Huson and Lauren Bacall are arguably our stars, it is their fairly typical and straightforward roles lay the groundwork for the true show put on by Malone and Stack as the Hadley siblings.

Malone sheds her librarian role in The Big Sleep (1946) for the performance of her career as the uninhibited, diabolical, sex-crazed platinum blonde. And Stack is a far cry from Elliot Ness. He lives like he’s never even heard of prohibition as he lets his characterization go completely off the rails in a fantastic manner.

Their father (Robert Keith) is one of the richest oilmen around and they’ve grown up as brats accustomed to wealth and yet their lives are an utter shambles with flings, booze, and personal demons leaving a wake of tumult that rips through the tabloids.

Mitch Wayne (Hudson) and Lucy Moore (Bacall) meet in a boardroom as nice as you please. You would guess that romance is kindling except that the impetuous Kyle (Stack) inserts himself in the situation trying to win her over with jet flights and a steady stream of charm. Somehow it works and they are wedded soon thereafter. It has all the signs of a trainwreck given Kyle’s track record but miraculously it works for a while. But he’s devastated by some news from his local doctor (Ed Platt) which drives him back into a constant stupor and drunken tirades.

Meanwhile, his sister relishes watching him falter because they’ve never seen eye-to-eye on anything. Her main focus is seducing Mitch their lifelong friend who has never allowed himself to fall prey to her wiles. In retaliation, she looks to search out any man who can show her a decent time. She doesn’t much care who it is. But Mitch is hardly jealous for her, only protective, and his eyes are set on Lucy nee Moore anyways. If the entanglements aren’t clear already they present themselves obviously enough.  It’s gloriously sensationalized nonsense.

Still, so many others owe an undying debt to this film and those like it. Fassbinder came from here as did Todd Haynes. Dallas, Dynasty, or any other 80s soaps found their roots right here too. After all, this is the original version of “Who Shot J.R.” Thus, the debt must be paid to Sirk’s films and people have.

Because his style is very easy to admire. Contemporary audiences undoubtedly ate it up and we do now years later. The artificial interiors and the airbrushed Technicolor palette helps define what many people deem to be 1950s Hollywood. It’s luscious, easy on the eyes, decadent, all those apt superlatives. But if that was all that he had to offer, Sirk wouldn’t be as interesting to a great many people now.

It’s the very fact that he seems highly self-aware and he’s so wonderful at staging and creating this environment, beautifully photographed by his longtime collaborator Russell Metty, that the whole composition tells us something more. It’s rear projections and painted backdrops. Sets and stages that accentuate this piece of drama. It’s all sending us a collective wink to see if we get the joke. Those who do will be greatly rewarded.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Pushover (1954)

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A film such as Pushover is easy to admire for the simple fact that it does not waste a moment in telling its story. As the credits roll a bank job is already in full progress laying the basic groundwork for what will unravel in the subsequent minutes.

The introduction of our stars follows soon thereafter in a meet-cute happening outside of a local theater, the pretense being engine trouble. It’s enough of an excuse for them to make a connection — two people who started the evening on their own but felt enough of a spark to wind up together.

Of course, when we pull back it’s easy to realize a pretense is all that it was. Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) is a cop tasked by his police chief (E.G. Marshall) to help recover the $200,000 that was nabbed in the bank job. The alluring young Lona McLane (Kim Novak) ties into it all because she was the one-time moll of wanted thug Harry Wheeler.

Thus, the police soon have her apartment under surveillance and her phone tapped for any hint of contact with the gangster. But what they weren’t counting on is for Sheridan to fall for her and put his own stake in getting back the missing money. Meanwhile, his partner Rick trusts him completely and the old vet Paddy is just trying to limp by to retain his pension.

What develops is this strange dichotomy between what is the ethical long arm of the law and what is pure voyeurism encroaching on a person’s right to privacy. Though it doesn’t explore the topic as Rear Window (1954) did that same year, there are still some interesting issues to be culled through.

Further still, despite being a policeman, Sheridan’s personal philosophy seems to be that money makes the world go around. Although he’s quite a bit older, there’s still much to enjoy about Fred MacMurray. Even if his occupation has changed, there is a sense that he’s playing another thinly veiled version of Walter Neff, that pragmatic everyman not fully prepared for playing with fire. Since that role was one of the ones that lit up his career, if this is a mere copy, it’s still a fairly enjoyable one placing him opposite Novak’s femme fatale.

There are passionate kisses that strike like lighting, some gorgeous shadows that easily help to put this into the dark recesses of the noir canon, also reflected by the number of cigarettes smoked and the loose morals that run through the narrative.

Even in her scintillating debut, Kim Novak’s voice is as husky and sultry as ever. Whether wearing her mink coats or driving her sleek wheels. Smoking her cigarettes and coolly spilling her drinks on anyone who gets fresh with her.

But she is not one of the independent strong-willed dames out of the war years. She is not Phyllis Dietrichson. She comes from a different generation and so, far from being a manipulator, it feels far more like she is willingly complicit in Sheridan’s plan as he takes the reins. In fact, it’s difficult to call her a femme fatale at all in the typical sense. It’s really the men around her who are crooked and more than anything she garners sympathy.

Phil Carey plays the stalwart cop who stands by his colleagues but he’s also no schmuck when it comes to laying down the law. The ever-active nurse next door (Dorothy Malone) who shares an adjoining wall with Lona becomes the object of his desire and it conveniently sets up parallel love stories. We now have two cops and two gals. Two romances and a line of entanglements as Sheridan tries to sidestep his colleagues and get the payoff for his own and for his beautiful new accomplice. Pushover develops into a delightfully messy piece of drama full of police corruption and avarice. But it’s a small-time story too. That’s part of its charm.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

4 Living Legends Part 3 (sort of)

800px-dorothy_malone_-_written_on_the_wind_-_studio_publicity_photoFor my ongoing series of living legends, I chose 5 individuals actually who in some way had an impact on the film industry as we know it today. Without further ado, here are a handful of living legends.

Gene Reynolds (1923-): So Gene Reynolds began as a child actor back in the 1930s first appearing ni the Our Gang shorts and also making appearances in films such as Captains Courageous and Boys Town. Truth be told, I have yet to see one of his early performances. It’s unforgivable I know. However, Reynolds also had a great affect on me because of the many television shows he created/directed/produced later in his career. The list begins most prominently with MASH which he co-created but also Leave it to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, Hogan’s Heroes, and Lou Grant.

Billy & Garry Watson (1923 and 1928): Okay, so this entry is a little unique because Billy and Garry Watson are hardly known on their own but as two parts in an acting entity, The Watson Family. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s not necessarily unbelievable, but this group of siblings shared the screen with many of the great stars of the 1930s. Their film credits include the likes of Showboat, Young Mr. Lincoln, and perhaps most memorably, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Lola Albright (1924-): Lola Albright had a long and varied career in both film and television. Perhaps her most memorable role was opposite Kirk Douglas in Champion (1949) as one of his many flings on his way to the top of the boxing world. However, with the popularity of television, she also took many guests spots and even had a stint filling in for Dorothy Malone on Peyton Place.

Dorothy Malone (1925-): Dorothy Malone will best be remembered for her work in some of Douglas Sirk’s greatest melodramas including Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels. She also took on a particularly memorable cameo opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. She too dabbled in television with her most prominent role being that of Constance Mackenzie on the syndicated television version of Peyton Place.

Private Hell 36 (1954)

privatehell1There’s not a whole lot to it. Aside from a wonderfully pulpy title, Private Hell 36 feels like a pretty straightforward endeavor from director Don Siegel. The low budget procedural nevertheless boasts a surprisingly good cast. The tale is framed by a nice bit of narration from the sitting police chief played by the always enjoyable Dean Jagger, in a particularly compassionate role.

Our story opens on a perfectly normal night where one copper seems to quell a drugstore burgle while he’s off duty, and another cop gets it in the crossfire between rival gangs. It causes the police to go on high alert.

When some street vermin rolls into the station to get booked, he’s found with some nifty paper. Detective Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) and Jack Farham (Howard Duff) are assigned to follow the trail of a counterfeit $50 bill that’s pinned on a killer. So it’s more than hot money now. There just might be a murder rap at the end of it. Their canvassing leads them right to the lap of self-assured night club singer Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino).

Farham is a relatively honest chap with a doting wife (Dorothy Malone) and a kid already. Bruner has a propensity for recklessness, and he also takes a liking to Ms. Marlowe, especially after they spend so much time together.

privatehell2The temperature begins to rise when the two colleagues get caught up in a car chase with their counterfeiting adversary. All the days casing the local race track with Ms. Marlowe finally leads to some action. In the aftermath, one car goes careening off the road, and the boys have a decision to make. They frantically begin snatching up dollar bills and they decide to go dirty and make a run with the money.

Such a plot takes the usual turns that we would expect as girlfriends, greed, familial responsibility, and guilty consciences cloud the path to the straight and narrow. The film, which was jointly written by Ida Lupino and her former husband Collier Young, is no great work of art. But there is enough character conflict and crisis to make Private Hell 36 a gratifying piece of lower tier noir.

3/5 Stars

“You know I’ve seen this all on Dragnet” ~ Lilli Marlowe

 “Save the jokes for the customers” ~ Detective Bruner

 

Written on the Wind (1956)

WrittenOnTheWind2Here is a film that wholly personifies an over the top melodrama or soap opera. Douglas Sirk’s film is full of complicated romances, tense relationships, drunkenness, and murder. Yet when the two stars drive away through the gates of the Hadley Estate everything is resolved (at least to a degree).

It seems that Sirk undoubtedly knew how over the top his story is and he reinforces it with his blatantly loud colors, dramatic music, flashy cars, gaudy interiors, and so on. He embraces a style that seems stereo-typically 1950s Hollywood and he makes it work.

Ironically Rock Hudson gives a good performance and Lauren Bacall is okay but the real drama flows from Robert Stack and especially Dorothy Malone. They are the black sheep of the Hadley family and by the end of the film they definitely deserve the moniker. Except there is more to them then that. Kyle is a tragic figure to be sure and despite her sex-crazed ways there still is a bit of sympathy for Marylee.

I cannot wait to see more Sirk because he seems quintessentially 1950s.

4.5/5 Stars