A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk, 1958)

Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone in The Tarnished Angels
Burke Devlin: Rock Hudson
Laverne Shumann: Dorothy Malone
Roger Shumann: Robert Stack
Jiggs: Jack Carson
Jack Shumann: Christopher Olsen
Matt Ord: Robert Middleton
Col. Fineman: Alan Reed
Sam Hagan: Alexander Lockwood

Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: George Zuckerman
Based on a novel by William Faulkner
Cinematography: Irving Glassberg
Art direction: Alexander Golitzen, Alfred Sweeney
Music: Frank Skinner
Costume design: Bill Thomas

CinemaScope and black-and-white are an odd combination. The former was developed and premiered in 1953 as a way for exhibitors to give audiences something they couldn't find at home on their television sets, which were of course black-and-white. It was meant for color and spectacle, and hastened the making of films in color toward its now default status. But although Douglas Sirk was noted for his use of color, and although The Tarnished Angels has scenes that would have benefited from both color and the CinemaScope extra-wide screen, such as the Mardi Gras sequences and the airplane races, he chose to make the film in black-and-white. And it works: It imposes a kind of film noir chiaroscuro on the story, which could easily have devolved into yet another routine action melodrama. The Tarnished Angels was not well received by contemporary critics: Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called it "badly, cheaply written" and "abominably played." (It might be noted that Crowther wasn't paying too close attention to those abominable players: In his review he misidentifies Jack Carson as Jack Oakie.) Today, however, the film has benefited from the wholesale reevaluation of Sirk's oeuvre, and it feels like the work of a master, if one not always fully in control of his art. Sirk creates a shadowy milieu for the story of barnstorming pilots in the Depression, including the shabby interior of the apartment to which Devlin invites them. And there's a wonderfully creepy use of Mardi Gras masks as motifs. But is there any way to excuse the ridiculously fake and exploitative scene in which Dorothy Malone is forced to dangle from a parachute against a process screen while an unseen wind machine blows up her skirts? None, except to blame it on the insistence of producer Albert Zugsmith, who followed up this film with a series of exploitation flicks starring Mamie Van Doren, like High School Confidential (Jack Arnold, 1958) and Sex Kittens Go to College (Zugsmith, 1960). Otherwise, however, Sirk managed to steer clear of Zugsmith's bad taste. It's true that Rock Hudson is miscast as the alcoholic, chain-smoking Times-Picayne reporter Burke Devlin, a part that demands someone who can look less healthy and strapping than Hudson does. But in fact he gives one of his best performances, emphasizing Devlin's vulnerability. Sirk chose to use long takes in the scene in which Devlin delivers an impromptu eulogy to Roger Shumann in the newsroom, beginning drunkenly but gradually sobering as he warms to the topic. Hudson rises to the acting challenge beautifully. Malone doesn't allow the studio's determination to show off her legs to prevent her from also showing the weary, hard-bitten side of Laverne Shumann. Of the leads, I find Stack's performance the least satisfying: There's not enough ambiguity and conflict in Roger's decision to prostitute Laverne to Matt Ord so he can fly Ord's plane; as Stack plays him, Shumann just comes off as an irredeemably obsessive shit. The Tarnished Angels is based on Pylon, one of those William Faulkner novels I've never got around to reading, but Faulkner reportedly said it was his favorite among all the films that have been made from his works. That's not saying a lot, I fear: Faulkner has been sadly mishandled by filmmakers. But judging it purely as a study of characters enduring what life throws at them, a favorite Faulknerian theme, the film stands on its own.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

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