All That Heaven Allows (Blu-ray Review)30 Jun, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Stars Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead.
The best Douglas Sirk movies are domestic social commentaries couched as visually sumptuous (a term less pejorative than “glossy”) soap operas — and this one is among his best, to be sure. In fact, it’s my favorite Sirk, as it is for many — though I respect the school that votes for The Tarnished Angels, another Sirk-directed Rock Hudson drama released almost exactly two years later, after Giant had made the actor a much bigger star. Along with Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry, which came out about three months earlier, Heaven is my favorite movie ever about autumn — even though ensuing snow figures in a major plot point. It inspired Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (just announced as a September Criterion release) and Todd Haynes to concoct 2002’s Far from Heaven, which has the same painstaking autumnal cosmetics.
Sirk’s film is one of those rare times in which a follow-up engendered to cash in on the success of an earlier hit turned out to be the superior effort. In this case, the table-setting cash cow was his own 1954 remake of Magnificent Obsession — Hudson’s breakthrough project after having worked seemingly all the time following his 1948 screen debut. Like Heaven, it was a May-December romance casting Hudson opposite Jane Wyman, who was still something of a major star following an impressive run of performances from the mid-1940s through the early 1950s, including an Oscared one for Johnny Belinda. Though I have a certain fondness for Obsession simply because it is what it is (treacle-happy to delirious extremes, though with substantial production values), I don’t think anyone would make too many claims about it offering any social commentary as well.
But in this case, Sirk really puts it to the gossipy small-town prunes (male prunes, also) who fail to get into the spirit of romance between widowed Wyman and yard man extraordinaire Rock (who reads Thoreau on the side). High on the wrinkled side as well (spiritually speaking) are her own children, played by ’50s-ubiquitous Gloria Talbott (pre-Daughter of Dr. Jekyll) and William Reynolds, an actor who worked multiple times for Sirk and seemed to build his career around playing somebody’s son. One of the nifty extras on the Criterion set is an interview with a now-aged Reynolds, who talks about the hours the director spent making certain the setups and lighting were just so.
As a result, and without gushing too much, there are several shots on this Blu-ray that almost took my breath away, including an early one of a powder-blue station wagon I would love so much to own in its 1955 Universal-International form that I might be willing to soul-kiss the facial wart of that witch in Disney’s Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs in some kind of trade-off. You can challenge yourself mentally here trying to decide if Sirk’s exteriors or interiors are the more impressive (the former have the foliage, and the latter showed what the director could do with mirrors and other reflectors). One of the most emblematic shots of the decade is here, though divulging it borders on spoiler territory. It has something to do with the gift Wyman’s children give her as a Rock substitute when what mom really wants to do is get laid and then read Walden in the afterglow.
Back when I was film programming, Universal had the worst film archive of the major studios (aside from the UCLA-housed 1929-49 Paramounts it controlled), and you couldn’t get a widescreen print of a Sirk to save your life — though, this said, in the case of Allows, the aspect ratio is 1.75:1. It is still kind of a slog trying to get good home-viewing copies, and in America, you have to do things like buy Turner Classic boxed sets to fill certain gaps, and even at that, some clown didn’t letterbox the 1.85:1 There’s Always Tomorrow (another personal favorite), which is why some of us are forced to buy all-region players. Not that foreign releases are infallible: the brand new but dreadful German Blu-ray of Sirk’s swan song Imitation of Life looks a step or two above VHS at best — though on the other hand, black-and-white The Tarnished Angels and color A Time to Love and a Time To Die have definitely fared well in editions from abroad. None, though, have matched the electric imaging on this Criterion release.
Beyond the sit-down with Reynolds, the package includes a commentary (film scholars John Mercer and Tamar Jeffords-McDonald); essays (Laura Mulvey and Fassbinder himself); a 1982 Sirk interview for French TV; and a BBC Sirk documentary with more interview material. A major bonus is the feature-length Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, a clip-heavy “essay” by Mark Rappaport that finds the hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) gay or closeted subtext in the actor’s films — sometimes stretching the point but sometimes hitting the bullseye in provocative and thoughtful ways. Hudson was, after all, a gay man who eventually found himself opposite Doris Day playing a straight male pretending to be gay — all in the name of advancing the plot.
This is a very satisfying release. Now, if I can only find a Blu-ray of the Sirk-Hudson Captain Lightfoot somewhere.