Tuesday 2 May 2017

Bruce Hodsdon writes on the Cinema of Douglas Sirk - All that Sirk was Allowed - (Part 3) - The Independent Years 1943-1951

Editor’s Note: This is the third part of an expected twelve part series about the German and American master director Douglas Sirk (Detlef Sierck). The two previous parts were published on 22 April 2017 and on 27 April 2017. Click on those 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.

The Independent years 1943-51
Of the eight features Sirk directed in his first years in America six were independently produced mainly on B budgets and are largely overlooked.  However, Hitler's Madman, Sleep My Love and perhaps Lured are to be counted with his late (melo)dramas The Tarnished Angels and A Time to Love and a Time to Die among his most personal works.  At this time Sirk formed a close long-term friendship with the actor George Sanders who played the integral central roles in three important early films.

Tag Gallagher in his retrospective essay in Film Comment endorsed the filmmaker's belief that Summer Storm and especially Scandal in Paris as among his best films (a view I endorse and I would add The First Legion), Sirk being able to work “in a freedom...able to indulge his fantasies” working with a group of intimate associates, himself writing the scripts in collaboration. The failure of the Scandal to gel with American audiences was in all probability something of a turning point for Sirk in his engagement with Hollywood, a reawakening of the implications of working successfully in popular genres that he had experienced at Ufa.

His first film in the U.S., Hitler's Madman (1943), directed under the name Douglas Sirk, deals with the Nazi massacre in 1942 of the people of Lidice, a small Czech village. John Carradine plays Rudolf Heydrich, whom Sirk had once met at a party and said “behaved and looked just like Carradine [with] the same edginess of speech.” It was an independent production, filmed in a week, set up by a group of German emigres shortly after Heydrich's assassination in Czechoslovakia and was bought by MGM for distribution. It was almost wholly photographed by the great Eugene Schufftan who could not be credited in this role as he was not a member of the American Soiciety of Cinematographers (ASC). The studio required Sirk to direct re-takes of a number of scenes which he felt reduced the “documentary quality” of the original “in an unsuccessful attempt to make it into another kind of picture.”
John Carradine as Heydrich on his death bed
Richard Combs questions Sirk's claim stating that the film “never for a moment resembling any form of documentary...the grouping of figures, composition and lighting [and] expressionist use of sets...bringing his German films to mind.” The most fascinating aspect of the film is Carradine's portrayal of Heydrich “characterising the 'Protector' in semi-abstract fashion.” Much attention is lavished on subsidiary characters with “a more powerful tribute to the ordinary people” than Fritz Lang's quasi-Brechtian treatment of the assassination, Hangmen Also Die, filmed at about the same time.

John Carradine, Hitler's Madman

John Carradine as Heydrich

Sirk's second American film was another independent production, an unrealised Ufa project, Summer Storm (1944), based on Anton Chekov's only novel, The Shooting Party, with a strong cast including George Sanders, Linda Darnell, Edward Everett Horton and Hugo Haas. It was produced by Seymour Nebenzal, an emigre, one of Hollywood's first independent producers, whose productions in Germany had included G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929) and Fritz Lang's M (1931). Sirk co-scripted the film under the name of Michael O'Hara, re-structuring the novel to contrast the social forces at work. Michael Stern author of the first book length monograph in English on Sirk's American films, points out that the first shots of this film - the close-up of a pair of feet walking on a cobblestone street with the camera then pulling out to reveal the context is “a figure of style that characterizes Sirk's mise-en-scène [that] immediately establishes the primacy of the camera's point-of-view.” Stern sees this opening image as revealing of Sirk's vision: “so much of Sirkian cinema works to express the impotence of human will...in the face of fate, accident and...time. The tension between the characters' needs and desires to break free and the irrevocability of the human condition is what energizes Sirkian melodrama...We know from the first shot that Summer Storm will be a film about uncertainty, doubt and choice.”

The story of a peasant woman Olga's (Darnell) affair with a provincial judge Fedor Petrov (Sanders) which ends in tragedy, is told in a flashback to 1912 from post-revolutionary Russia; the novel was written in pre-revolutionary times. Sirk was interested in bringing out contradictions in behaviour in the portrait of a doomed class, its decay ironically evident in the cynical self-awareness of the judge that leaves him vulnerable to the wiles of 'a bad woman'. Flashbacks and voice-over narration emphasise the 'pastness' of events and the inevitability of Fedor's hopes being forever unfulfilled, “a characteristically dramatic device” suggestive of a “European” fatalism. This is seemingly amplified by Sirk's “ironically detached point-of-view toward characters' folly” although viewed not without humour and a certain compassion. Sirk is pessimistic about the judge's ability to act responsibly, but in leaving options open for him he is more of a realist than a fatalist like Fritz Lang, for example. The drama lies in Fedor's conflicted state of self-awareness evident in his narration. He tells himself that the will to live is “greater than conscience, stronger than pity.” Fedor is responsible for his fate. The film is structured around a density of occurrences and a rich level of darkly ironic humour such as the way several fortuitous interventions let Fedor off the hook when he is on the brink of confessing to murder only to have his hesitation finally force him into destructively precipitous action. Gallagher calls Summer Storm a 'black melodrama': Fedor betrays the love of a good woman (Nadina who becomes a Commissar) for that of a 'bad woman'. Olga is not a classic femme fatale in the film although less of innocence corrupted as apparently portrayed in the novel. Sirk spoke of his interest in the suspense of ambiguity through a certain distancing of the viewer, what he referred to as 'the ambiguity in technique'. This meeting of European culture and Hollywood production style found its critics among those with little expectation that the former can survive such an encounter. Others have praised Sirk for capturing the spirit of Chekov and finding something of an equivalent for his condensed narrative.

A Scandal in Paris (1946) produced by another emigre independent Arnold Pressburger, is a picaresque, ironic film based on the memoirs of Vidocq who rose from a life of crime in nineteenth century Paris to become chief of police, with a “brilliant script” by Ellis St. Joseph to which Sirk contributed uncredited, as he did on many of his films, with contributions by two other European exiles: a music score by Hanns Eisler, photography by Eugene Schufftan (again, as in Hitler's Madman and Summer Storm, uncredited) and the sets designed by Oscar winning set decorator Emile Kuri. It was not a success perhaps being too deeply ironic for American audiences but Sirk considered it his best picture: “if you talk of Art...a European film really – in a total European style.” Sirk speaks of how he “tried to go beyond realism...almost surrealist” in the way he presented the story in which he “brought out the irony.” He felt he could have made a whole series of films out of Vidocq's life but for Scandal he chose the best part for irony – “the cop-thief oscillation.” It contains some of Sirk's recurrent themes, most notably that of identity - his attraction to 'in-between' characters of which he felt George Sanders had a deep understanding; Sirk described his playing of Vidocq as “masterful”.  In talking about Sanders and acting with Jon Halliday, for a man with such a background in theatre direction, Sirk revealed deep insight into the nature of performance on film. Although he never directed John Wayne, against the critical grain Sirk recognised him as “a great actor...an outstanding personage of undiminished power and simplicity – simplicity not marred by any 'acting tricks'.”

Mimi (Jo Anne Marlowe), A Scandal in Paris
Tag Gallagher sees Scandal in Paris as the obverse of Summer Storm's 'black melodrama'. Vidocq, like Fedor “indulges his lusts but his opportunism leads him to virtue. Whereas in Summer Storm each chance brings disaster, in Scandal each chance sees evil transmuted into good. What's interesting,” concludes Gallagher,” is that the transmutation is always arbitrary. Fedor chooses failure, Vidocq chooses success.” Vermilion (Ann Sheridan) in Take Me to Town, Naomi (Stanwyck) in All I Desire and Merrick (Rock Hudson) in Magnificent Obsession, like Vidocq, all choose success. Kyle Hadley in Written on the Wind and Roger Schumann in The Tarnished Angels (both played by Robert Stack), like Fedor, choose failure. The futures of the leading characters in All That Heaven Allows, There's Always Tomorrow and Imitation of Life are precariously poised between Ross Hunter's insistence on “a happy end'” and Sirk's belief, as Gallagher points out, that “a happy ending is no more arbitrary than a tragic one.”  Sirk said that all his films had “an unhappy happy end.” To Robert E Smith Roger Schumann is one of the few characters in Sirk to face himself and life without romantic illusions and consequently Sirk sees Roger as “one of the few truly tragic figures.” It is Sirk's compassion and pity for his characters that lifts him above “mere satirist or polemicist.” That the possibility exists for real and not illusory happiness and love appears in a few of his Universal films:  Take Me to Town and Captain Lightfoot which stand out as lyrical works, and All I Desire.

The first of two independent productions directed by Sirk on loan from Columbia was produced by Hunt Stromberg who had previously been a talented and successful producer at MGM under Irving Thalberg. A bizarrely ironic comedy in Sirk's hands, Lured/Personal Column (1947) had its origins in a film, Pièges (Personal Column), directed in France by Robert Siodmak in 1939 with apparently stronger noir elements.  Sirk's film is set in London in the early1900s. A young woman (Lucille Ball), a taxi dancer, is recruited to work for the vice squad by a police inspector (Charles Coburn cast against type) to trap a serial killer in the course of which she encounters an insane dress designer (Boris Karloff). A womanising nightclub owner (George Sanders) becomes a prime suspect. Lured soon drifts away from any film noir ambience. Sirk said he got on well with Hunt Stromberg “who liked my direction” and was given a very free hand on Lured which he co-wrote with Leo Rosten. He saw it as a continuation in style and the ironic theme of A Scandal in Paris, also remembering it with affection for the productive collaboration with the cast, talented Russian art designer Remisoff and cinematographer William Daniels.

Boris Karloff, Lured

The other indie was for Mary Pickford's Triangle company with her husband Charles 'Buddy' Rogers as co-producer.  Sleep My Love (1948) was also co-scripted by Leo Rosten from his own story (“a witty guy, but he was pushing the thing back to melodrama all the time”). The plot resembles that of Gaslight in which a husband (Don Ameche) is planning the death of his wife (Claudette Colbert) by persuading her that she is losing her mind. Sirk would have liked the Colbert character to have been more ambiguous. Joseph Valentine's expressionistic photography (“a good cameraman although I felt I couldn't bend his style”) and deployment of the main sets are suitably atmospheric. The blandness of the characterisations by Colbert and especially Robert Cummins (as the hero) tends to undercut the melodramatic noir elements.

Sirk finally directed two films for Columbia with which he had a seven year writer's contract. He wrote several scripts none of which were filmed. Harry Cohn refused to let Sirk direct until Slightly French (1948) a musical on which he said he had “no freedom at all,” a Hollywood-on-Hollywood satire with Dorothy Lamour and Don Ameche “in which what is real and what is artifice become indistinguishable” (Tom Ryan). 
More interesting is Shockproof (1949), with a script by Sam Fuller (originally titled The Lovers) which Sirk “liked tremendously” because it contained “something gutsy” in the story of a law officer (Cornel Wilde) who falls in love with the parolee (Patricia Knight) for whom he's responsible. Sirk found connections in Fuller's script with two plays he had directed in Germany, one having a similar situation, the other a similar theme which Sirk felt he could have made something out of - “a critique.”. Fuller's emotional directness contrasts with the more oblique distancing of Sirk's style and had potential, as Sirk recognised, for a uniquely interesting dialectic which only partially comes into play. The studio brought in another writer to also co-produce and make major changes to the script at the studio's behest including an absurdly unconvincing happy ending although, if this is disregarded, something of Fuller's original intention remains. Sirk saw it as “a very minor picture of mine, and not one that is in any sense my own.” Fed up with Harry Cohn and Columbia's interference, Sirk left the studio, spent a year in Germany and returned to Hollywood “completely demoralized” by the state of the German film industry.

Charles Boyer, The First Legion
The First Legion (1951) was an independent production made on “a rather small budget” co-produced by Sirk, the first film he made on return to the USA in 1950 but not released until May 1951. Charles Boyer wanted to move on from his previous film Arch of Triumph and enthusiastically embraced Sirk's idea of a film based on a play by Emmet Lavery (who also wrote the screenplay). It is set in a troubled Jesuit seminary. Sirk set out “to merge melodrama with the religious film” in a “very ironical way...relating religion and the absurd.” It concerns the effect of a religious miracle on a group of Jesuit priests and the surrounding community. The importance of the film is the way Sirk uses the camera to analyse the content of the play. “Sirk's analysis consists in looking at characters, events and objects from a variety of different angles. His camera does not accept the world at its face value” but rather questions its reality “in relativistic rather than absolute terms... looking at characters, events and objects from a variety of different angles, almost as if he were a cubist painter” (John Belton). Running through all his work is Sirk's commitment to encompassing the ambiguity of experience.  Included in the strong supporting cast are actors better known as heavies, like Leo G Carroll and George Zucco, as Jesuit priests, further evidence of Sirk's ironic intent given full rein in the ambiguous ending: the fine line that exists between the rational and the irrational. Legion was filmed mainly on location in an historic hotel The Mission Inn in Riverside CA, presenting the challenge for Sirk and former leading cinematographer at RKO Robert De Grasse, of filming in small cell-like rooms limiting the scope for Sirk's normally fluid camera style, requiring the use of a deep-focus lens as there was often otherwise little room left for both the actors and the camera. To Sirk this was more than just a technical matter, such location filming being “integral to the whole conception of the film” (1). Stylistically it anticipates The Tarnished Angels in the use of cluttered images, low angle compositions, pools of light in darkness and backlit figures. This dramatic use of lighting “reflects the larger lack of clarity in the characters' world” (Belton).  It was Sirk's first film on a religious theme, the others being Thunder on the Hill, Sign of the Pagan and Battle Hymn, with 'traces' in Imitation of Life. While not a believer, Sirk acknowledged that religion was one of his “constant preoccupations” and that “even not believing in God is a religious act in a way.” The First Legion received positive reviews but Stern comments that it was “a minor success in his career” characterised as it is by “a displaced European sensibility” that it shares with his other major works of this period.  Sirk was adapting to the challenges of commercial filmmaking in America. What was not recognised by critics at the time was that absorbing the lessons did not amount to merely conforming to the demands of working in a major Hollywood studio.

The First Legion
The First Legion remains on the margins of what most critics and theorists have constructed as the classical canon of Sirk's American films. Lutz Koepnick places it at a crucial “cinematic crossroad at which we find Sirk hesitating...as he recalls past endeavours and envisions coming attractions” and, as such, warrants further consideration in relation to modernity. The narrative speculates on the place of religious belief in America. It does so with a sense of the absurd in tandem with the sacred.  Koepnick finds it “reminiscent of Zu neuen Ufern...at pains to distinguish between different ways of looking.” Like Ufern, Legion “offers an image of modern culture torn into hostile halves” and implied in the film as a conundrum: a utopian integration of the high and the low in the world at large. The seminary replicates the separations and false wholeness of the world. Sirk in his mise en scène distinguishes between authentic and inauthentic ways of looking. The first 'fake' miracle, Koepnick suggests, corresponds to “a form of visuality skewed to the logic of the market.” The spatial representation of the miracle itself is fragmented by the film image being projected to the priests – a loss of authentic vision. The masses are “a lonely crowd” at the gates transformed into a media spectacle “intoxicated by the desire for cultural consumption.”

The First Legion
Each of the priests react differently to the miracle ranging from inspirational to self-serving to sceptical. The true miracle at the end is represented by “a contemplative introspective gaze.” The restoration of true vision is enabled by the setting in the chapel, normally barred to outsiders, “valorized as aesthetic expression” in contrast to public space - the mass cultural kitsch of the street 'carnival' outside (commodified vision) or the private space of the seminary's meeting room where the film is being projected as the first miracle occurs (fragmented institutional vision). The second miracle is a drama of the visual (there is only a restrained chorale with the end credits), shots showing Barbara Rush/Terry's intensity of gaze at the altar, she seeming to revel in the restoration of true vision. The final montage of close-ups – she is beatific, the priest and the doctor are in humbling disbelief - undoes the regime of inauthentic images and reified (materialised) looks” that have previously prevailed but also “reminds the viewer of the very condition of separation and exclusion that made (the miracle) possible in the first place.” Sirk is here “staging a dialectics of modern culture” within the fictional world which is “at once affirmed and rendered problematic.” Scandal in Paris and The First Legion stand in Sirk's work as the fullest expression of “European” irony in American cinema. Of the Universal films, only The Tarnished Angels and A Time to Love and a Time to Die share with Scandal and Legion the full realisation of Sirk's aspirations as a filmmaker.

End Note

1. In its displacement of cause-effect logic in a realistic setting The First Legion represents an early example of art house cinema in Hollywood (see David Bordwell essay on The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice). It was, for example, very unusual at that time in Hollywood for a feature film to be shot entirely on location. The First Legion foreshadows the rise of independent 'art house' feature film production in America parallel with the New Hollywood. In the studio era independent features were primarily low budget genre pictures for release on the lower half of double bills. Sirk's film does have a major star, Charles Boyer, in for him an untypical role.
Don Ameche, Claudette Colbert, Sleep My Love

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