The bulk of Sirk criticism posits that the German-born director, in his best work, explores the dark underbelly of the American middle class. But the milieu in this film, my favorite Sirk movie, is far from middle class. In fact, the focus of the story is a flying carnival and the down-at-the-heels pilots and other performers—Dorothy Malone plays a trick parachutist—who risk life and limb to thrill the crowds. This is a tattered, blue collar landscape, emotionally desperate and disconnected.
The story takes place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and Sirk consistently features death-mask revelers intruding into moments of quiet yearning and intimacy. These Bruegel-like images serve as a central metaphor for the narrative.
All the major characters, Robert Stack, Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone, are drunks, disillusioned with life and love. Each character regrets the past and sees in the future only diminishing returns. Performances are all effective. Even Robert Stack, never the most nuanced actor, is perfectly cast as the bitter but stoic flyer whose best days were noble but deadly combat against German flyers, followed by free drinks and food served up to the heroic American by the grateful French.
There’s an almost gothic flashback, where the former World War I ace, Stack, and his oafish but decent mechanic, Jack Carson, throw dice—an inscribed sugar cube—to decide who will marry the pregnant Malone. Either man could be the father. The casual cruelty of the sequence recalls Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Most movie goers are not familiar with Rock Hudson before he teamed up with Doris Day and became America’s top box office draw. But before he was a star, Hudson did three other movies with Sirk, Magnificent Obsession, 1953, All That Heaven Allows, 1955 and Written on the Wind, 1956, a box office hit also with Malone. His performances in each are understated and forceful. His eyes do the acting, sliding nervously in reaction shots that tell us all we need to know about his characters. Never has Hudson’s deeply timbered voice been put to better use than in the Sirk quartet.
In a memorable scene, Malone and Hudson lay in the darkness and whisper to each other. Her husky, tobacco voice and his oboe tones mingle with urgent, repressed desire. Like all the best movie scenes, we feel like we’re eavesdropping on a very private conversation.
Those who follow Seraphic Secret are aware of our General Theory of Movie Narrative:
All great movies are, at the core, love stories.
The Tarnished Angels features three men—and one child—in love with one woman.
During the opening credits, Sirk introduces the object of that love, the lovely Dorothy Malone, dressed all in white, buffeted mercilessly by the wind, an angel of the fairways. It’s a striking image that sets the tone for the rest of the movie, where cinematographer Irving Glassberg’s architectural compositions create a universe that is defined by deeply angled shadows; it’s a nightmarish, oppressive world.
The film does have one glaring problem. It’s set in the 1930’s, but wardrobe, set design, and hair styles are all quintessentially 50’s. Malone’s silhouette features the distinctive Eisenhower-era missile-tip bras, and her high heels were unknown in Depression era America.
The disinterest in authentic period detail is puzzling and distracting, but Sirk was working on a tight budget, a short shooting schedule, and I suspect that he just decided to skate by the period detail which is expensive and time-consuming.
In any case, The Tarnished Angels is a haunting movie in which Dorothy Malone’s yearning for the innocence of her midwest childhood—before teenage lust intruded—is a touching reminder that we can’t go home again.
Though we try, oh how we keep trying.
Karen and I wish all our friends and relatives a lovely and untarnished Shabbat.