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Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker Collection (DVD Review)

15 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available at TCM.com
$49.99 four-DVD set, Individual films $24.99 each
Not rated.
Stars Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Rush.

You didn’t get a whole lot of respect from 1950s tastemakers for directing so-called “women’s pictures,” melodramas or Westerns, which means that Hamburg-born (of Danish parentage) Douglas Sirk had to laugh all the way to the bank during his now revered heyday during that decade at Universal-International. Or at least most of the time. Actually, the film he regarded as his best — and which is the standout of a long-savored set Turner Classic Movies is offering as an exclusive — was a box office failure.

This would be The Tarnished Angels, which was the first movie (or at least Hollywood ‘A’ movie) to hit theaters in 1958. More on it in a minute, but it is also said to be the movie that William Faulkner regarded as the best ever adapted from one of his novels — in this case, the relatively minor Pylon, which deals with the early days of daredevil flying. So does the movie, though in seedier fashion than we ever in flyboy cinema from William A. Wellman or Howard Hawks.

In Andrew Sarris’s landmark The American Cinema from 1968, the author predicted that Sirk’s rep would be salvaged just as Josef von Sternberg’s had been. By the time I got to NYU’s Graduate School of Cinema a couple years later, students got grounded heavily in Sternberg (Underworld to Anatahan), but it took Sirk forever to get his day. This is at least somewhat due to the fact that Universal either didn’t have — or didn’t make available to classrooms or repertory theaters — applicable 1.85 or CinemaScope prints from Sirk’s late-career heyday. And without widescreen and (usually) color, Sirk doesn’t exist artistically any more than Nicholas Ray or Sergio Leone would.

This said, the earliest movie in this package is small-screen black-and-white — one of the set’s two warm-ups for the main events that conclude it. In Thunder on the Hill (1951), Claudette Colbert plays a nun with pluck (a trait not always encouraged) who tries to clear a gallows-bound convicted murderess (Ann Blyth) she becomes convinced is innocent during their rain/flood convent entrapment. Though its sometimes transparent stage-bred source is on the hoary-whodunit side, Sirk’s first film for what was then a brand new U-I contract impresses on a purely professional level. A lot of credit for this goes to the expressive cinematography by William Daniels — the Garbo and later Frank Sinatra favorite who went from shooting Erich von Stroheim’s Greed in 1923 to Rowan & Martin’s The Maltese Bippy during the bippy era. It looks so good that even doomed prisoner Blyth’s white blouse looks like something a woman with a good salary would wear on a first date. Robert Douglas plays the convent doctor, and given his slimy roles in such childhood personal favorites as Adventures of Don Juan and Fair Wind to Java, I was surprised to see his character being on the up-and-up. Well, keep watching.

The other warm-up is 1954’s Taza, Son of Cochise — one of eight films Sirk directed with Rock Hudson but released a little less than six months before the same year’s Magnificent Obsession (which has rated a Criterion DVD) made Hudson a major star. He plays Taza, Barbara Rush (as “Oona”) is in Native American makeup as well, and an unbilled Jeff Chandler briefly reprises the Cochise role that had gotten him a supporting Oscar nomination in 1950’s Broken Arrow. Shot in Technicolor and presented in something like a 2-to-1 aspect ratio, it’s handsome kids’ matinee material that’s can be fun to see in the right mood on a rainy day, though it obviously has limitations in terms of verisimilitude (a word I’ll bet didn’t appear in too many ’54 reviews).

The two movies here that I love are in CinemaScope. They’re also italicized in the year-by-year listings in the back of Sarris’s book — which is to say that he (practically alone in ’68, at least in terms of American critics) put them in the cream of their respective years. Both movies had underwhelmed me when seen on worthless pan-and-scan TV prints from the days (not that long ago) when a kind of backwoods outhouse culture was dictating how widescreen movies were made available for home consumption. Now both — on Turner Classic Movies but here as well — are spectacularly restored to their original glory.

Though John Ford had pried enough money out of Republic chief Herbert J. Yates’ wallet of starch to shoot at least the exteriors of The Quiet Man in Ireland, Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot (1955) was the first Hollywood feature to be shot entirely on location. A captivatingly light treatment of highwaymen and other rogues, it is one of the first movies to tap into the surprisingly bountiful charm that lead Hudson turned out to possess, and you can see the actor beginning to relax on screen. He’s paired again with Rush, who has a role more suited to her talents than Oona, and there’s a fairly colorful role (as her father) for Jeff Morrow — then a reliable presence in what were several of my formative movies of choice: This Island Earth, The Creature Walks Among Us and as a Jerry-humiliated Western bad guy opposite Martin and Lewis in Pardners. There is a ball sequence here that just about takes my breath away (note what Sirk does with it compared to what director Rudolph Mate did with the ball sequence in the same year’s Lewis and Clark fiasco The Far Horizons, which had the on-paper advantage of VistaVision). I love the final beach sequence as well (with a harp: a beatific touch).

There’s nothing too beatific about Angels, which was too downbeat for audiences and too overheated for most reviewers (including the New York Times’ famously clueless Bosley Crowther, who again forgot to take out his cataracts). Sirk got U-I to bankroll it — when no one else wanted to — by casting three of the stars who’d made his Written on the Wind (1956) such a studio smash: Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack. Wind had gotten Malone the supporting Oscar for playing an alcoholic nymphomaniac (the latter term ‘50s code word for a woman who had sexual urges like a man’s). But this is her definitive performance, playing a wife and mother whose 'D'-list job it is to hang from a plane, whereupon her dress flies up — which is just one reason that almost every male in the cast (husband Stack, Hudson, Jack Carson, Robert Middleton) has a yen for her, though Stack turns out to be a slow learner.

According to the set’s bonus material, the studio balked at the early decision to have its by now biggest star (Hudson) play a boozer — though there must be eight or 10 visual or verbal references to him throughout the picture hitting the sauce. Hudson plays a New Orleans newshound — I like it that they use a real paper, the Times-Picayune and not some fictional rag — who gets intrigued by the rarefied world of primitive stunt flying and air races against his editor’s lack of enthusiasm. Hudson even lets the Stack-Malone team use his flophouse of an apartment, set design that by itself constitutes a fairly pointed portrayal of the journalistic profession. Sirk’s interiors here impress as much as his stupendously framed Scope exteriors, and I can’t see how anyone could possibly pan-and-scan the scene where he and Malone exhibit compatible body language as she reclines on his couch (it isn’t sex; they’re discussing Willa Cather, of all subjects).

In one of my favorite Danny Peary books (Alternate Oscars), the critic/historian juxtaposes his own choices against the pictures and performers who won and were nominated — placing Hudson’s performance as one of the three best-actor possibilities he’d have honored as 1958 standouts. Though I’ve never heard anyone else take such a stand, it is no absurd proclamation. Hudson has to spout a lot of ornate dialogue that isn’t easy for an actor to deliver. He is outstanding and almost a match for Malone.

Although my two favorite Sirk pictures are All That Heaven Allows and There’s Always Tomorrow, I think Lightfoot and Angels are two of the three that were most beautifully composed. The third is 1958’s A Time To Live and a Time Die with its luminous performance by Lilo Pulver — and (unless Sign of the Pagan is a jewel awaiting unearthing) the only major Sirk not on DVD, thanks to this set.

By the way, you expect TCM Robert Osborne’s introductions to be first-rate here — and they are. But I was also taken by the extra care given to the written histories of each film, which are also in the on-screen bonus section. Every movie of merit or even interest should be blessed with this kind of bang-up treatment.

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