Tuesday 16 May 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on the Cinema of Douglas Sirk - All that Sirk was Allowed - (6) - Sirk at Universal - The Last Films 1958-59

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth part of an expected fourteen part series about the German and American master director Douglas Sirk (Detlef Sierck). The previous parts were published on 

22 April 2017  (Introduction)
27 April 2017  (Notes on the Weimar and Nazi years)  
2nd May 2017 (The American independent years, 1943-51)
7th May 2017 (Sirk at Universal 1951-53)
14 May 2017 (Sirk at Universal 1953-57)
Click on the dates to access the earlier posts. 

Bruce is a long time cinephile, scholar and writer on cinema across a broad range of subjects. The study being posted in parts is among the longest and most detailed ever devoted to the work of Douglas Sirk. In the following text films in Italics are regarded as key films in the director’s career. References to authors of other critical studies will be listed in a bibliography which will conclude the essay. 

Title, The Tarnished Angels

Two films released in 1958 - The Tarnished Angels and A Time to Love and a Time to Die - are Sirk's most personal pictures and stand apart from the 'weepies' in their fatalism, the seeming impossibility of happiness in Angels, realised only fleetingly in Time to Love. Sirk had read William Faulkner's novel Pylon in Germany and wanted to make the film there but his proposal was turned down by Ufa in 1936, its pessimism not being in tune with the demands of the Nazi regime for positive thinking. Speaking to Halliday about the attraction to him of making Pylon into a film, Sirk said he was interested in the characters and flying. Although it was a long standing project, Sirk spoke of Angels as also growing out of Written on the Wind – in their insecurities the Shumanns in Angels are extensions of the brother and sister in Wind. Sirk invoked the French word échec which means much more than failure, it also means 'no exit'; 'success' was not interesting to him. Sirk said that he was not interested in the neo-romantic idea of “the beauty of failure” and that Wind and Angels are about “an ugly, hopeless kind of failure... [as in] all the Euripidean plays.” The scriptwriter George Zuckerman, who had also written the script for Wind, was instrumental in selling it to Zugsmith “whose main interest was in the Malone part, particularly the parachute jump... Zuckerman understood that the story had to be completely 'un-Faulknerised', and it was.”  Sirk was nevertheless committed to remaining faithful as possible to the spirit of the novel.
The adaptation is a desperate attempt to translate into intelligible Hollywoodese the groping, inchoate idiom of Faulkner's characters, their murky motivations and tortured relationships. The film can only dramatize and over-verbalize what had been meant as a twilight glimpse of reality sifted through the consciousness of a ruminative and habitually drunk narrator...These limitations, however, are the medium's limitations. They do not prevent the film from succeeding on its own terms, or for that matter, from being by far the best screen version of a Faulkner novel.

Robert Stack

Jean-Pierre Coursodon in his essay on Sirk (288, vol1) goes on to say that Pylon “is not the kind of novel that gives people much to work on (because) if it has any sort of coherence as a piece of fiction, it is strictly through form and structure. Faulkner' s style removed, the “story” simply evaporates...a serious handicap [for the film maker], but at the same time allows him considerable freedom.”

Dorothy Malone, Rock Hudson
Zuckerman gave the elusive novel a solid dramatic structure. With the story, thus recovered, of a dying profession, Sirk and his team then created a three day 'dance of death' by the family of 'gypsies of the air' in an aerial circus during the New Orleans Mardi Gras in the early thirties. To do this he and his cinematographer Irving Glassberg memorably deploy the Scope screen working the whole frame, the potential of black and white film stock and chiaroscuro lighting in images of great density with the characters entrapped by patterns of light and darkness and by objects in cluttered interiors. The mobile camera and editing of the layered narrative underscored by the music in a coherent density of expression surpassing Sirk's previous films. For David Thomson Angels is “Sirk's finest film, partly because he has resolved the novel's tension between poetry and hokum.” Furthermore, for Thomson, “the project seems so unlikely that the film's grace and gloomy momentum have to be experienced to be believed.”

Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, Juanita Moore
Imitation of Life (1959) Sirk's last film in Hollywood is Sirk's third remake of a film directed by John Stahl although he did not see the earlier (1934) version until after he had completed the remake. In a general assessment of this connection Sarris commented that “Stahl's treatments are warmer, Sirk's wittier. Stahl possessed the audacity of Sirk but not the dark humour.” Each film version was adapted to the requirements of their times from Fannie Hurst's best-selling novel published in 1933. Sirk was fascinated more by the title than the original story. The film spans more than a decade centred on the closely interwoven lives in New York of two widows, one white (Lana Turner), the other assuming the role of the black servant (Juanita Moore), and their daughters with John Gavin the on-going male presence, a more chauvinistic 'immovable object' than Rock Hudson, one commentator suggesting that in the final close-up of the film Gavin can be seen to assume a “slightly sinister” patriarchal air. 

The conventions of the 'woman's weepie' are manipulated in a melodramatic schema of American class and race relations. Surface reality of plot and characterisation in Sirk's melodramas, Willemen suggests, is criticised by techniques of stylisation, a layering of the narrative through intensification of the rules of genre developed in the theatre. Sirk said that what most engaged him about the script of Imitation of Life was the title, adding that “there is a marvellous saying in English, which I think expresses the essence of art, or at least of its language, 'seeing through a glass darkly'.” Tom Ryan points out that “imitations are everywhere in the film” with characters “adopting roles in virtually every scene. Sirk's compositions persistently suggest the everyday as a form of theatre... surroundings deployed as frames for performance...observing them through doorways, against windows, in front of mirrors, on landings and stairways, as if to underline the artifice of their exchanges.”

In the first half, an ironic success story takes shape as Lana Turner realises her aspirations as an actress at the price of neglecting the emotional needs of her daughter (Sandra Dee). This merges into intensified melodrama on the theme of race and identity given more weight as the light skinned black daughter (Susan Kohner) rejects her mother and tries to escape inevitable racism in its multiple forms by passing as white.  Fassbinder could recall no other film that formulates with such precision the failure of the protagonists to see “that everything, thoughts, desires, dreams arise directly from the social reality or are manipulated by it.” There is however a form of apparent closure for the audience in a growing realisation that money does not buy happiness given full expression in the moving finale, a funeral service for the black mother in realisation of her final wishes, but Sirk intended it to be more than a vale of tears. In the 1979 BBC interview he spoke of Annie's emotional investment in the funeral in terms of “a demonstration of equality” given expression in death, “Mahalia Jackson's singing a triumph...an outburst of black power” before its political expression in the sixties. The film was a major box office success proving to be very popular with black audiences whom surveys showed made up a third of the audience, out of proportion to population share. Stephen Handzo concludes that in 1959 “Imitation of Life provided white audiences with a novel twist on a familiar soap opera plot and black audiences (for which Susan Kohner's feelings provided a highly accurate imitation-of-life) with a rare emotional release.” See Tom Ryan's discussion of the Stahl and Sirk versions in Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life online in Senses of Cinema 73.

Lil Pulver, John Gavin
A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) is an adaptation of a novel by Erich Maria Remarque set in Germany and on the Russian front during the last months of the War (where Sirk's estranged son died) that was initiated with Remarque by Sirk. Fassbinder comments that the novel is pacifist in saying that if it wasn't for the war there would be “eternal love”. He suggests that the film isn't pacifist, “there is not a second that lets us think...Sirk is saying if it weren't for the war this would not be love at all.”  Brief happiness snatched by a young couple (John Gavin and Lilo Pulver) amidst the ruins of war filmed entirely on location in Germany, is portrayed with a muted compassion and great tenderness, far removed from the “baroque flamboyance” of Written on the Wind. In its difference from Sirk's other work it has been both praised (“with Tarnished Angels the two finest among Sirk's late films” - Coursodon) or found wanting  (“turgid seriousness...the literary approach is dogged and uniform”-Thomson). Both Sirk and Remarque had problems with the producer Robert Arthur whom Sirk described as “a fantastic philistine.” Sirk did not have a free hand with the final cut which was sent to Hollywood after he had done the rough cut in Germany but said that “the whole architecture of the cut” is his. He said that “this picture illustrates quite well what I had learned from Carl Theodore Dreyer - slow cutting, holding a shot that much longer than the average director does...the importance of certain hesitating cuts that throw tremendous emphasis on the story.”

What connects Angels and Time to Love, and separates them from Sirk's other films, is the fatalism hanging over them. The characters cannot find happiness in Angels because of the intrusion of the world in directly expressive terms. “In Time to Love frames are not filled with simultaneous objects and events, competing for our attention, images are more stark, drab and clear and hence symptomatic of a general despair which, because of this, is less distanced than in other Sirk films. Mirrors which recur through Sirk's work are, in Time to Love, more integrated into the form of the whole film “as if everything is a reflection” (Coursodon). A Time to Love is his most personal statement about happiness expressed with great simplicity.

I was striving for this relationship between love and ruins...Not just a boy and girl story, but two lovers in extreme circumstances. I put a lot of myself into the love part of the picture. It is a story close to my concerns, especially the brevity of happiness. I am not as pessimistic as I may sometimes appear. I do believe in happiness...happiness must be there because it can be destroyed. (Sirk on Sirk 144)

Lilo Pulver

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