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The Essentials: Douglas Sirk

Features
by The Playlist Staff
April 26, 2013 2:33 PM
5 Comments
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German filmmaker Douglas Sirk (né Hans Detlef Sierck) directed almost 40 films in a career that spanned three decades. A late bloomer known for grand, gorgeously expressive and emotional melodramas in the 1950s, he took a third of his career to hit full stride. The early movies were comedies, glossy adventure stories and war dramas. During his days working in Germany the director was heavily censored and when he escaped to the United States in 1937 he found himself stifled once again, “A director in Hollywood in my time couldn't do what he wanted to do,” he once said. 1942’s vengeful, vehemently anti-Nazi “Hitler's Madman” only really existed because it was seen as patriotic, and films Sirk made as late as 1952, like “Has Anyone Seen My Gal?” featuring his broad-shouldered go-to male muse Rock Hudson, were insubstantial trifles compared to his mature work. That film, lightweight comedy though it is, does still possess hints of commentary on class, status, money and the sickening desire for it all -- themes Sirk would explore, and quietly explode, in his best work.

That work came between 1954 and 1959 at Universal-International Pictures, where Sirk broke through and finally found his way to his now-trademark CinemaScope --lush, dark melodramas and subversive social critiques. Emotionally swollen with desire, passion and infatuation, the pictures are lavish and sumptuous, but concealed beneath the impeccable aesthetics lies a caustic indictment of American bourgeois values. Again and again he revelled in the irony of often wealthy, privileged people longing for more, but trapped within the excess and decay of their decadent lifestyles.

The films were largely a bust at the time, and critically reviled; the were often dismissed by the cognoscenti with the pejorative "they're just soap operas for women." It wasn’t until he was retroactively championed by the Cahiers du Cinema crowd for his immaculate craft and style that his artistic reputation finally gained its rightful position. "Time, if nothing else, will vindicate Douglas Sirk," critic Andrew Sarris correctly predicted.

But the emphasis on the much-extolled radiant style and blazing Technicolor belies the inflamed full-bodied, sanguine emotions and psychological underpinnings of Sirk’s work, not to mention their captivatingly watchable qualities. While the movies were incandescently shot, the emotional substance within was just as luminous and psychologically cutting; much more than merely ostentatious and histrionic, as so many of those early critics suggested.

Douglas Sirk is in the air again of late. Our friends at BAMcinematek recently put on a Sirk & Hudson retrospective and the filmmaker was born today on April, 26 in 1897 (he was 89 a the time of his death in 1987). And so naturally, we’ll use the day to celebrate some of Sirk’s essential, must-see pictures.

All That Heaven Allows” (1955)
One of Sirk's true masterpieces, "All That Heaven Allows" compellingly blurs the line between soap opera and high art, and in the process has become one of the few films that has matured into both a critical favorite and cult classic. "All That Heaven Allows" tells the story of Cary (Jane Wyman), an affluent New England widow who falls in love with her sensitive gardener Ron (Rock Hudson). Their romance, of course, upsets the local community and even Cary's children reject her newfound happiness as unnatural. Their romance, too, is tinged with tragedy. Everything is so emotional that each sequence surpasses mere melodrama and almost encroaches on the land of hysteria -- it's exhibit A in why Sirk's films were often labeled "women's pictures," and not in a complimentary way. While the film was initially panned (the notoriously crotchety Bosley Crowther gave it a withering write-up in the New York Times), time has been kind to "All That Heaven Allows": it was partially remade by both Rainer Werner Fassbinder (as "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul") and Todd Haynes (whose "Far From Heaven" is an explicit homage, down to the title); it's been referenced by everyone from Francois Ozon to John Waters (among others); it made it into the National Film Registry in 1995; and has its very own deluxe Criterion Collection home video release. Surprisingly subversive (especially in retrospect, given Hudson's hidden homosexuality), "All That Heaven Allows" is both a loving homage to fifties normalcy and a startling deconstruction of it (down to the obvious phoniness of many of its sets and props). The Sirk ethos has never been distilled so beautifully, cleanly, or heartbreakingly. Because, even as hammy and overwrought as it can sometimes seem, chances are "All That Heaven Allows" will still make you cry your eyes out.

There's Always Tomorrow” (1956)
The barrier for some to diving headfirst into Sirk’s filmography has been the dreaded ‘M’ word, and we're not talking about mumblecore here. Melodrama, like musicals (yet another ‘M’) has always been something of a bad word. But in case you had any doubt, “There’s Always Tomorrow”  once again showed that his use of melodrama is, like any gifted genre deconstructionist, merely a comfortable avenue for the audiences to experience the real emotions and characters that are Sirk’s prime directives. In ‘Tomorrow’, he locks his aim, like a sniper shooting for the truth, on Fred MacMurray’s put-upon, attention-starved husband and father. He’s desperate to get away from the family routine for some quality time -- away from their three kids -- with the missus. Life being life, things just keep getting in the way, until MacMurray’s Clifford, a successful toy manufacturer, happens upon an old friend played by the radiant, sophisticated Barbara Stanwyck, who’s a bit lonely and recently divorced. Nine times out of a ten, be it typical Hollywood tripe, a soap opera or even a good, conventional movie, would have these two engage in a torrid, destructive love affair. But Sirk has more interesting, left-of-center concerns with this film, making for a complex, layered drama where just about every character is vital to the outcome and the tropes of most family dramas are upended and twisted. MacMurray, in what must have been a mind-bending feat at the time, subtly and brilliantly plays his role like that of a nagging, desperate wife, just wanting to be alone with his partner. Because of these atypical tactics, the film is alive, able to transcend the many shortcomings of melodrama, reaching the more satisfying descriptor of simply being a very good drama. Most Sirk-olytes will tell you his lush color films feature his best work, but the lovely black and white photography in ‘Tomorrow’ only adds to the murky grays of the narrative. Don’t sleep on this one.

Magnificent Obsession” (1954)
Based on the Lloyd C. Douglas novel of the same name, Sirk's “Magnificent Obsession,” is one of the great tearjerkers of the 1950s. In his third film with Sirk, Rock Hudson, plays Bob Merrick, a rich caddish, playboy type, who in a reckless accident crashes his speedboat, and is resuscitated with equipment borrowed from the town saint Dr. Phillips. Phillips then suffers an attack of his own and dies while his equipment is being rushed back too late to save him. Changed by the unfortunate ramifications of his accident and resuscitation, Merrick is guided by an older intellectual and artist, Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), who helps him in his mission to make things up to Dr. Phillips widow, Helen (played by Jane Wyman). On his quest for contrition there are many twists and turns, which are a touch soap opera-y (he accidentally blinds her, he then pretends to be someone else, then they fall in love and so on.) However Sirk's aptitude for melodrama makes it all work and gives the high-stakes emotions a deeply accessible poignancy that will have the harshest cynic reaching for the tissues. The crisply-hued Technicolor only serves to make the mix of spirituality and sentimentality feel more heightened, while fantastic performances from both Hudson and Wyman also go a long way, and Wyman was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role. “Magnificent Obsession” was a box office hit for Sirk and Universal, and though it has been criticized for its hokeyness, there is no denying its importance and worth in Sirk’s canon.

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5 Comments

  • James | April 26, 2013 3:51 PMReply

    Great article, I love these pieces here. However there are some errors to do with dates. Sirk died in 1987, not 1989 and he was 62 when he retired in 1959, not 77. Still, love the article.

  • Rodrigo | April 26, 2013 4:32 PM

    Bad copy and paste on '87, thanks.. Re: 77= there's actually "Bourbon Street Blues" made in 1979 (some credit him as director, some as co-director) so we were going off the year, but yes, I think it's probably best to just agree that he pretty much retired in '59 -- or shortly thereafter. Cheers.

  • Rodrigo | April 26, 2013 4:31 PM

    Bad copy and paste on '87, thanks.. Re: 77= there's actually "Bourbon Street Blues" made in 1979 (some credit him as director, some as co-director) so we were going off the year, but yes, I think it's probably best to just agree that he pretty much retired in '59 -- or shortly thereafter. Cheers.

  • Rodrigo | April 26, 2013 4:30 PM

    Bad copy and paste on '87, thanks.. Re: 77= there's actually "Bourbon Street Blues" made in 1979 (some credit him as director, some as co-director) so we were going off the year, but yes, I think it's probably best to just agree that he pretty much retired in '59 -- or shortly thereafter. Cheers.

  • levicruz | April 26, 2013 3:05 PMReply

    Great feature!

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