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The Essentials: Douglas Sirk

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 26, 2013 at 2:33PM

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.
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Written on The Wind, Douglas Sirk

Written On The Wind” (1956)
At one time more closely resembling the true-life story of tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds (whose life was also dramatized for the David O. Selznick romp "Restless"), "Written On The Wind" concerns two dirt-bag siblings in Texas – Marylee (Dorothy Malone), a woman of ill repute, and her alcoholic brother Kyle (Robert Stack), both the children of a local oil baron (Robert Keith). Kyle gets involved in a relationship with Lucy (Lauren Bacall), a New York City secretary, while Marylee has a weirdly-defined relationship with Mitch (Rock Hudson), who works as a geologist at the oil site. What follows is a calamitous intersection of personal and sexual misunderstandings, entanglements, and ultimately (this is a Douglas Sirk movie, after all) tragedies. There are about an entire soap opera season's worth of twists and turns in the second and third acts, and the movie, which is under 100 minutes, really moves. This is one of Sirk's most brutal movies (even if it is photographed like some lush colorized noir by Russell Metty,) because like in all of his films, Sirk was doing so much beneath the surface that only seemed appropriate at the time because they had the silky imprimatur of studio-approval (including the frank inclusion of miscarriage and, by association, abortion.) And it's all set to a quite brilliant theme song.

The Tarnished Angels

The Tarnished Angels” (1957)
A type of companion piece to "Written On The Wind," Sirk's antepenultimate film again featured the same producer/screenwriter and the trio of Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone. Shot in black and white by Irving Glassberg and based on William Faulkner's "Pylon," this melodrama exploited the unlikely intersection of aviation and obsessive love in another quadrangle, like ‘Wind.’ "I need this plane like an alcoholic needs his drink," Roger Shumann (played by Stack) says in his raison d’être soliloquy. Hudson stars as Burke Devlin, a New Orleans reporter intrigued by a peculiar gypsy aviation trio making ends meet in the Depression-era carnival circuit by racing and pulling off stunts at rural air shows. Shumann, a disillusioned WWI vet, cares for nothing but flying. Not even his wife LaVerne (Malone) a daredevil parachutist, his loyal mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson) or his doting son Jack (Christopher Olsen) can penetrate his compulsion to fly -- it's the only thing in life he seems to do right. Devlin, selfishly only sees a story at first, but soon becomes enamoured of the loveless LaVerene and discovers the true nature of this trio’s already blemished history together. While captivating, it’s perhaps not quite as absorbing as Sirk’s expressive color pictures of the 1950s. Still, it's artistically ambitious and due for re-evaluation, not to mention a new transfer that highlights its somber and hard-fought mood.

Imitation of Life

Imitation of Life” (1959)
As Douglas Sirk’s last Hollywood picture, “Imitation of Life” sure packs a whammy. A remake of the 1934 Claudette Colbert-starring version based on the Fannie Hurst novel, the film certainly has a history with regards to production and reception, particularly with regard to how it dealt with race and gender issues. As a typical “woman’s film,” the plot is full of melodrama as Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her daughter Susie (child – Terry Bunham, teenage – Sandra Dee) take Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane (child - Karin Dicker, teenage – Susan Kohner) under their wing by hiring Annie as a housekeeper and providing them all with a place to live. Lora goes from being a struggling actress to a Broadway star, bringing prosperity to their makeshift family, though not much peace. While Lora is away shooting a film, Susie develops a crush on her mother’s would-be boyfriend (John Archer) and Sarah Jane struggles with her pale skin in a segregated world, in which she tries to pass as white until her race is ultimately uncovered – including some nasty business with Troy Donahue. Suffice it to say, there isn’t a happy ending, but there is hope and potential for growth in the characters who survive to the film’s climax. Sirk specifically had the film focus more on Annie and Sarah Jane than previous versions (its borderline experimental narrative takes an early subplot and eventually makes that the main focus -- a trick that still feels fresh and innovative today) thereby creating one of the most compelling racial commentaries up until that point. By operating with this soap operatic quality, “Imitation of Life” was able to bring the issue of race further into a more traditionally feminine, domestic sphere -- and Sirk's lush visuals and setting therefore become the spoonful of sugar that helps the "medicine" of racial commentary go down.

Let’s not forget that many of Sirk’s best movies were remakes -- and all remakes of 1930s John M. Stahl films, including “Magnificent Obsession,” “Imitation of Life” and “When Tomorrow Comes” which Sirk made into the now the hard-to-find “Interlude ” (which has been called an unsung masterpiece by Richard Brody.) Three other key films in Sirk’s oeuvre, aside from “Interlude” are "All I Desire" starring Barbara Stanwyck, which feels like more of a test run for the sumptuous female-led melodramas he became famous for and “A Time to Love and A Time to Die” which blended his extravagant style with his penchant for war dramas. Also of note is 1949's "Shockproof" written by Samuel Fuller and starring actor and sometime director Cornel Wilde.

Sirk’s body of work was reevaluated by the Cahiers Du Cinema crowd, but there’ve been many others who have helped. Rainer Werner Fassbender was a huge proponent of Sirk’s work and remade “All That Heaven Allows” as “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.” In fact, many of his pictures were heavily indebted to Sirk’s style including the sumptuously colorful “Lola.” The echoed influence was then carried down to Todd Haynes, indebted to both filmmakers, who made a homagistic pastiche of their work with “Far From Heaven.” Quentin Tarantino was also a fan and there’s an iconic line in “Pulp Fiction” when Vincent Vega (John Travolta) orders the Douglas Sirk steak, which he makes sure is prepared “Bloody as hell.”

Sirk retired early at the height of his commercial success, leaving some to believe he wanted to go out on top. But the filmmaker was already 62, in poor health, and looking to slow down and engage his mind in quieter, less stressful ways. -- Drew Taylor, Erik McClanahan, Diana Drumm, Rodrigo Perez and Sam Chater.

This article is related to: Douglas Sirk, The Essentials, Features, Feature


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