The first time I saw All That Heaven Allows in a movie theatre, it was just on the cusp of arthouse audiences being reintroduced to the films of Douglas Sirk. The director had been written off for decades by all but a few smart critics as a purveyor of silly housewife melodramas. The night I attended his masterpiece starring Jane Wyman as a widow who risks her community’s scorn with her affair with handsome young Rock Hudson, the audience laughed throughout the entire screening. (There’s nothing more annoying than people who feel compelled to tell us how sophisticated they are.) Almost a year later, following the release of Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven and a number of articles and retrospectives of Sirk’s career that turned him into an underappreciated master of the craft, I attended another screening of ATHA and enjoyed the reverent silence of an audience that now styled themselves as film scholars.
The fascination with Douglas Sirk is in how pleasing his aesthetic is. He gives us the kind of aspirational suburban living that is still what mainstream movies, particularly romantic comedies, sell themselves on, while also having plenty to say about the society that was happy to see itself reflected in such artificial terms. All That Heaven Allows tells us about a culture that confuses economic privilege with morality. Imitation of Life tells us that not confronting systemic racism eventually causes problems in your own home. Battle Hymn subtly suggests an irony in its tale of a man bringing peace to a place where he has gone to make war.
Born Hans Detlef Sierck in Hamburg in 1897, Douglas Sirk made a number of films for UFA before leaving in the early forties with his Jewish second wife after being denounced by his first. He ended up in Hollywood where he joined the group of émigrés working throughout the forties and beyond. The Criterion Channel put together a small collection of the films he made in the run-up to his fifties masterpieces. They’re an interesting glimpse of a perspective still forming and a control for material beauty that was already there.
Cornel Wilde brings his intense, hard-edged sex appeal to the role of a Griff Marat, parole officer who is presented with Jenny a gorgeous dame (Patricia Knight) who went away for murder and is now out on good behaviour. He lays down the rules and warns her that consorting with her old friends will only get her back in the slammer. He can’t help but get involved when he notices her bad ex-boyfriend hanging around and pulling her back into her old messes. Giving her work as a helper to his blind mother, Griff gets his priorities confused when he falls in love with Jenny (the two were married in real life at the time), even endangering his job and his freedom when he runs away with her and heads for the border. You wouldn’t think Douglas Sirk’s plush aesthetics would mix well with the cold, hard Samuel Fuller, who co-wrote the screenplay, but it’s an absorbing thriller that has as much of Fuller’s convincing detail as it does Sirk’s feel for hopeless romanticism.
Lucille Ball is wonderful as a taxi dancer who gets embroiled in a murder investigation when her friend and co-worker goes missing after answering a personal ad. Ball is recruited by the police to answer a series of ads and help them catch the killer. After a series of false leads, including a very funny cameo by fourth-billed Boris Karloff, she walks right into a dangerous trap. The combination of humour and suspense works well, though it’s a shame that the film loses touch with the star’s charisma by the end. Lured doesn’t end up being as much of a lady-detective movie as is initially promised.
Slightly French (1949)
Douglas Sirk’s charming if not unforgettable comedy in which film director John Gayle (Don Ameche) loses his leading lady because of his tyrannical ways and needs to recast her in order to stay employed at the studio. He spots Dorothy Lamour at a local sideshow and teaches her to pretend to be French. She takes over the film role and falls in love with him in the process. The plot is romance-by-numbers nonsense, but Sirk’s sumptuous visual style is well on display and the musical numbers are gorgeous. Plus Lamour’s brightness and candour are always worth the time of day.
A Scandal In Paris (1946)
The oft-told tale of thief-turned-detective François Vidocq, played by a barely-awake George Sanders, who along with fellow thief Emile (Akim Tamiroff) escapes from prison and goes on a robbery spree, taking ladies’ jewels, a painter’s horse, and whatever else they can grab in their carefree, lawless way. When Vidocq is mistaken for a hero and made the chief of police by a marquise whose granddaughter (Signe Hasso) is in love with him, he makes plans to rob the central bank, completely unaware that Hasso’s bourgeois appeal is its working its magic on his ethics. As stunning to look at as the most beautiful Douglas Sirk films, this one’s wooden screenplay and dull performances make it a slog to sit through.