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The career of Douglas Sirk (1900-1987) is a case study in contradictions. A European intellectual who translated Shakespeare and directed Ibsen, he gained his greatest fame making allegedly schlocky movies for one of the sleazier American movie studios. Once a peer of Weill and Brecht, he later hung out with the likes of gay producer Ross Hunter and exploitationer Albert Zugsmith. In the ‘30s his actors were Europe’s finest; in the ‘50s he worked with Rock Hudson and John Gavin. Sirk’s American melodramas were adored by audiences of the time and made reams of money for Universal, where he was a contract director. But mainstream critics of the time (and later) dismissed them as camp or kitsch or both, an opinion based less on their actual achievement than on their overwhelmingly negative associations -- Universal’s reputation as a cheesy studio, melodramatic plots based on the quasi-literate work of hacks like Lloyd C. Douglas and Fannie Hurst, and movie stars like Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman who were considered more icons than actors.

Of course, it didn’t help that Sirk worked often in one of the more disreputable corners of cinema, the women’s picture. This genre has never had the hip cachet of, say, film noir or even the western, and so his films are rarely revived outside museums and film societies. (They are easily available on video and on cable TV stations like AMC, however.) Fortunately, European critics and filmmakers, including Godard and Fassbinder, were part of the rescue team, pointing out to those who cared to listen the glories in this overripe, quite individual cinema.

Second-wave critics consider the 1950s Sirk’s greatest period, though the recent availability of an early masterpiece, A Scandal in Paris, on VHS may slightly skew this view. Two of Sirk’s best ‘50s films -- All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind -- go far beyond "guilty pleasure" status for their sheer bravado, visual opulence, cutting critiques of everything middle-class and middlebrow, and Sirk’s self-proclaimed "subversion" of his often trashy material. While this has been the conventional take on his films since its rediscovery in the early 1970s, it’s only part of the story. The rest can be seen and appreciated anew in two stunning DVDs from The Criterion Collection that include fine new transfers and some tasty extras.

 All That Heaven AllowsTOP OF PAGE   

Sirk’s immensely popular Magnificent Obsession (1954) made a surprisingly successful romantic pair of Rock Hudson (30 at the time) and Jane Wyman (41). Universal reteamed this May-December duo for one of the director’s most satisfying melodramas, the women’s picture par excellence, All That Heaven Allows. While only the most dedicated Sirkians have praised Magnificent Obsession, with its eye-straining Technicolor and religious mumbo-jumbo plot, All That Heaven Allows mutes the palette and presents a more subtle version of what Sirk called his panoramic ’50s version of Zola’s "comedie humaine."

All That Heaven Allows opens with a high-angle shot of a stiff, pristine New England church spire, and the cold, conformist values it represents dominate the town’s denizens as it does the town. We soon meet one of these denizens, the widow Carrie (Jane Wyman), the unhappy caretaker of her expensive home and her two teenage brats, Kay (Gloria Talbott) and Ned (William Reynolds). Carrie’s life is subtly but rigidly controlled by the expectations of her children and her glacial social set, the monied classes who pry into everyone else’s business because they have none of their own. It’s believed that she’ll eventually marry a boring, doddering old hypochondriac (Conrad Nagel), who believes in the union of souls, not bodies. When she takes up with hunky gardener Ron Kirby (Hudson), the town practically implodes. Her children accuse her of the ultimate '50s crime for women past a certain age: lust. Her "friends" dish her both behind her back and to her face, and one of them, Howard (Donald Curtis), assumes she’s now "available" and rudely puts the moves on her. Her best friend, Sara (Agnes Moorhead), is perhaps the most quietly insidious of the lot, pretending to take Carrie’s side while relentlessly reminding her of "what people will say." Sara is also handy when Carrie foolishly succumbs to these pressures and dumps Kirby after their brief and promising affair; Sara offers to smooth Carrie’s way back into "the fold."

All this sounds like the stuff of lachrymose romances of the period, lifted into cinema from the "women’s magazines" and novels of the day, and it’s no criticism of the film that it can indeed be read on that level. But there’s more going on, thanks to Sirk’s visual and emotional legerdemain. Much is made in the script of the "Egyptian custom of walling up the widow alive" after the death of the husband, and painful scenes of Carrie standing by her window, paralyzed by the pressures around her, show how much she is living this history. Such scenes suggest that Sirk isn’t so much undermining the material as presenting her dilemma unabashedly as the tragedy it is. Another motif worth noting is the contrast between Ron Kirby and his Thoreau-reading "free" crowd (pre-hippies) and the embalmed country club crowd Carrie’s constantly forced to see to rehabilitate her wavering bourgeois impulses. A simple reading would see Kirby’s "natural man" and his crowd as a straightforward good-evil contrast to the others, but Kirby is not an entirely sympathetic character. He’s shown as extremely dogmatic, inflexible in the face of Carrie’s plan to methodically free herself of her bourgeois constraints to move in with him in an old mill. Indeed, it’s as much his intransigence as her inability to relinquish the pleasures of a plush, predictable life that cause their breakup. And Sirk plants intriguing doubts about the Thoreau crowd, too; in one famous scene he cuts from a celebration inside to a glass rooftop looking down at them, with dead leaves blowing grimly over the glass.

All That Heaven Allows is justly celebrated as one of Sirk’s most visually arresting films, and despite the difficulty some viewers will have with what looks like an unrepentant "weepie" mentality, there are images of exceptional power. Most celebrated among these is a shot some commentators have called one of cinema’s greatest -- the "entombment" of Carrie when she’s reflected in her television set. The TV is a gift her children insisted on as a balm in her lonely widowhood and a dandy reinforcement of her chastity. Still shockingly strong is the shot where the salesman wheels in the TV with the words "Life’s parade at your fingertips," while Carrie stares in horror at her own image trapped in its glass. This is also the tidy completion of the "walled-up Egyptian wives" motif.

Sirk was noted for his monstrous children, and All That Heaven Allows has two of his worst/best: William Reynolds in fine form as the nasty enforcer of parental chastity and conformity; and Gloria Talbott (who has said Sirk was cruel on the set), who effectively limns the blubbering, self-centered daughter who also can’t stand to see her mother with a sexual impulse ("There’s nothing worse than an old goat!"). True to its audience, though, the film relents at the end, letting Kay see the foolishness of her ways and having her tell Carrie to go back to Ron. A much-debated "happy ending" has the couple back in sync, with a deer outside the window thrown in to bless their union.

 Written On the WindTOP OF PAGE   

Aficionados often rank Written on the Wind (1956) as one of the director’s best; and, while it hasn’t worn quite as well as All That Heaven Allows to these jaded eyes, it still packs a punch. The film’s use of an almost enameled Technicolor recalls Magnificent Obsession, but the story is much stronger. The artificial lighting and crazy color schemes for which Sirk was noted are here, but there’s again (as in All that Heaven Allows) an emotional intensity, carried to operatic extremes, that works against the idea that the film is merely a florid exercise in camp.

Robert Stack is Kyle, one of Sirk’s many beautiful losers. Kyle’s a millionaire playboy driven to self-destruction by alcohol and impotence. His unwanted companion on the road to hell is his sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone), who hates him in part because his best friend, Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), pays more attention to Kyle than to her. Denied Mitch’s affection (he can only see her as a sister), she tramps her way through town, screwing gas station attendants and any unsavory hunk she can find.

Enter Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), a seemingly principled secretary who falls for Kyle rather than his millions. True to the genre, everyone is, or quickly becomes, unhappy. Mitch is in love with Lucy but can’t have her; Marylee is in love with Mitch but can’t have him. Marylee plants the idea in her pickled brother’s brain that Mitch and Lucy are having an affair and that the baby she’s expecting is Mitch’s. From these predictable plot threads, aided by a snappy script by George Zuckerman and fine cinematography by Russell Metty, Sirk fashions a thrilling tapestry of love and loss.

Sirk excelled in suggesting psychological states -- particularly unbalanced ones -- through lighting and color, and Written on the Wind has many such moments. One of his key strategies always is to vary the light and color values in the frame; particularly in moments of stress, as when Lucy tries vainly to penetrate Kyle’s unhappiness, there are dark areas in the frame, quite unnaturally and out of sync with the rest of the image, that resonate with menace, as if the emotions of those trapped in this mise-en-scene may explode. One of the director’s most riveting set-pieces is the death of the pathetic Hadley patriarch. The director credited producer Albert Zugsmith with the idea of having Marylee doing a hot mambo in a red negligee while her father, huffing his way up the steps, has a massive heart attack and falls to his death. But Sirk deserves the praise for this scene’s kinetic power as he cuts back and forth from Marylee’s frantic sex-dance and the old man’s literal rise and fall, beautifully punctuated by a breathless dolly shot following Mitch as he runs to the steps.

Robert Stack is enormously affecting in the wretched wreck role, exposing reserves of bitterness and masochism one would hardly associate with this actor. He’s often in a kind of cringing stance, clutching his bottle and shrinking from those around him, seeming to fold into himself in palpable desperation. Dorothy Malone won an Oscar for this role and certainly deserved it for managing to make Marylee at once sexy, repulsive, and poignant. Few actors besides Malone could pull off her scene alone at the river, where she’s tormented by childhood memories -- brazenly rendered in overdub -- of her and Mitch declaring undying love. Bacall and Hudson give solid and credible performances but their earnestness and upright morality make them less interesting than the other two and to some extent compromise the film. Mitch and Lucy’s dilemmas have easy solutions -- they just have to find a way to get together. Kyle and Marylee’s problems are overwhelming and cannot be resolved without violence. It’s their story that Sirk -- and the audience -- finds most engaging, and that accounts for much of the film’s lasting appeal.

Both DVDs have excellent transfers, enhanced for the 16:9 format. Sirk’s complex use of Technicolor is beautifully rendered. All That Heaven Allows has a trailer and a wonderful rarity, a 1977 interview with Sirk from the BBC. Also included are essays by Fassbinder and notes by feminist critic Laura Mulvey. Written on the Wind includes a trailer and a trove of stills and posters for Sirk’s entire filmography, along with a thumbnail sketch of each film. The disc also includes an annotated filmography that is very useful but also frustrating because if you want to look at, say, images from Imitation of Life you must manually page past the descriptions and stills from many other Sirk movies.


All That Heaven Allows and Written On the Wind are now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. Both films are presented in new widescreen Technicolor digital transfers that have been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The All That Heaven Allows disc includes Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk (1979), a BBC documentary featuring rare interview footage of Sirk; "Imitation of Life: On the Films of Douglas Sirk," an essay by German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, illustrated with rare ephemera; a stills archive with production photos and lobby cards; and an original theatrical trailer. The Written On the Wind disc includes "The Melodrama Archive," a Douglas Sirk filmography that features rare production, publicity stills, behind-the-scenes photos, and lobby cards; and original theatrical trailers for All That Heaven Allows and Written On the Wind. Suggested retail price for All That Heaven Allows: $39.95. Suggested retail price for Written On the Wind: $29.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.




VHS review of Douglas Sirk's Scandal in Paris
(review by Gary Morris)

DVD review of Douglas Sirk's Lured
(review by Gary Johnson)