The Savage Stack - THE TARNISHED ANGELS (1957)

Douglas Sirk's B&W Faulkner adaptation may be his crowning achievement.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The forty-sixth entry into this unbroken backlog is Douglas Sirk's B&W William Faulkner adaptation, ​The Tarnished Angels...

“…because deep down he knew that a man without blood in his veins has got a fall…”

Douglas Sirk wanted to adapt William Faulkner’s ‘35 novel Pylon since his days working in the German studio system. Time and again, he was told that the picture was an impossible pipe dream, as Faulkner’s text defied cinematic iteration. But Sirk persisted, finally finding his avenue after making a string of commercial smash “women’s weepies” at Universal (including his Technicolor all-timers Magnificent Obsession [‘54], All That Heaven Allows [‘55] and Written on the Wind [‘56]). Like all passion projects, success opened several doors, but Sirk still had to make many artistic concessions in order for the studio to allow The Tarnished Angels (’57) to happen, including a massive budget cut that caused the movie to be shot on stark black and white, as opposed to his usual lush color palette. Collaborating with screenwriter George Zuckerman (who was just one of several holdovers from Wind), Sirk crafted a film that had to be, in his words, “completely un-Faulknerized,” yet still so true to the source that the author allegedly favored it above all other adaptations of his work.

However, Sirk’s biggest coup was continuing his long, fruitful partnership with matinee icon Rock Hudson, who plays alcoholic reporter Burke Devlin like the deconstructed spirit of an actual human being. When Sirk and Hudson began working together, the German auteur knew full well that this gorgeous hunk of broad-chinned man wasn’t much of an actor. Yet this characteristic was one of the reasons he took Hudson under his wing, as he saw the performer as nothing more than a lump of clay, that he could re-shape however he saw fit. The were trials and many errors – as Hudson reportedly struggled to remember his lines during the filming of Magnificent Obsession – but by the time Written on the Wind came around, there was a vast improvement in the level of his performances. He was no longer just a brash playboy or gardening heartthrob, but a dynamic human being, able to convey the complex emotions required by that hot house melodrama.

Devlin is an even further cry from his work in that bona fide masterpiece, and arguably stands as the actor’s greatest achievement. Described by Faulkner as “ghost-like” in print, Burke's boozy, wayward manner is transformed when transposed onto Hudson’s beefy, manly frame. All the sudden, we’re gazing at a masculine archetype, whose confidence has been stripped by a life chasing stories he now deems mostly meaningless. Devlin’s talent has wasted away and been washed down with a bottle, as he saunters onto the airfields, hoping to uncover anything resembling a yarn that's truly worthy of the label “human interest.” There he finds a young child (Christopher Olsen), bullied because the others tell him he doesn’t know who his true father is. But the kid believes the man infatuated with the flying machine is his daddy, and points the broken reporter toward the skies for inspiration.

Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) was an ace pilot during the war, having shot down multiple enemy fighters and escaping death’s clutches on more than one occasion. Now he races planes for money, touching the pylon markers with his wings’ tips and managing to smoke every oncoming challenger. He’s the raging spirit of machismo Devlin lost long ago, refusing earthly trinkets – such as the boots his trusty mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson) just spent their last pennies on – in favor of a higher form of legendary reward. By his side is LaVerne (Dorothy Malone), the mother to his boy and diamond in every man on the airstrip’s eye. Together, the trio make for a traveling band of daredevil gypsies, moving from town to town and living out of a single suitcase, the thrill of the show their constant achievement. In this odd family, Devlin finds the story he’s been dreaming of, and will defy his editor (up to and including getting fired) in order to tell it.

Yet for Sirk, Roger and Jiggs represent different sides of masculinity than Devlin. For all the blustery swagger Stack injects into the devil-may-care flyboy, he’s mechanically heartless toward LaVerne and his son (winning the woman's hand in a cruel, rigged dice game). Jiggs not so secretly may have fathered the boy, as he fixes much more than the engine on Roger’s planes. He’s the confidant LaVerne’s husband could never be, lending her a shoulder to cry on and cursing at his best friend’s inability to appreciate the simple joy of having a woman who’s loved and supported him through even the craziest of actions. Though Sirk may have given up his vivacious color wheel and shot on CinemaScope (a format the director has gone on record as hating, as he could never discover the perfect use of space within the frame*), his affection for the melodramatic bonds that form between men and women remains. To rid himself of Faulkner's hyper-literary nature, the director leans into rear projected aerial acrobatics, but Sirk's most dizzying displays of cinema still occur behind closed doors. 

No matter how brilliant her star-reviving, sexpot turn as a conniving oil heir temptress was in Written on the Wind, Dorothy Malone is doubly tremendous in The Tarnished Angels. Like Devlin, LaVerne Shumann is a human being who may have seen her best days come and go, and is now merely an object that’s traded between rough riders, who care very little about the emotional repercussions of their actions. But LaVerne also allows herself to be used and exploited, as she sees no way out of this dusty, poor life of fleeting fame that she and Roger constructed together. While still undeniably attractive as gusts from passing planes blow her golden hair into a flowing mane, there’s a weathered melancholy ever-present in the woman’s eyes, as if she hopes that the next time she jumps from a plane as part of the show, her parachute doesn't open, allowing this dreary existence to come to a close.

In the end, The Tarnished Angels is still Hudson’s finest hour, as he’s called upon to deliver a ferocious monologue at the picture’s climax that's unlike anything he’d ever done up until this point. It’s in this instance that we watch the passion reignite in Burke Devlin’s eyes, as he’s seen heroes rise and fall, known that love could never exist for him (but could’ve very well thrived for Roger and LaVerne), and knew what it was like – if even for the briefest of moments – to live on the edge of his seat again, hoping the skies wouldn't drop human beings like lame ducks. If Sirk was truly the “father figure” Hudson always claimed him as, then The Tarnished Angels is the culmination of the lessons the filmmaker bestowed to his “son”. It’s a work that’s as triumphant as it is heartbreaking, and sits in the upper echelon of Douglas Sirk’s output, proving that his persistence to get the picture made paid off in a very big way.

*Though, to be fair, the way Sirk captures New Orleans during Mardi Gras is often electrifying and surreal. 

The Tarnished Angels is available now on Region B Blu-ray from Masterpieces of Cinema.

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