The Criterion Collection serves up two Sirk beauties
With the 2001 release of All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, two gorgeous DVDs from the elite Criterion Collection, the rehabilitation of Douglas Sirk (1900-1987) continued. In the 1950s, when Sirk was making his most famous movies, he was regarded as a competent handler of that species of beast known condescendingly as “the woman’s picture.” His output leaned toward florid melodramas oriented firmly in the female domain: Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959). Since the plots were often taken from lowbrow literary sources, and his intent was merely to entertain, his movies were routinely dismissed by the intelligentsia. It was fellow German Rainer Werner Fassbinder who confessed that Sirk had a monumental influence on his work (portions of Fassbinder’s writing on Sirk are among the plentiful extras of the All That Heaven Allows DVD). After Fassbinder, others stood up and took notice. Sure enough and by golly, Sirk’s movies age beautifully. At present he is a darling among cineastes, and his reputation is higher than it ever was in his lifetime.
The inflation of his name is wholly deserved. Sirk was a wizard of light, music, and decor. The environments he created in his best American movies are so saturated with symbolism that they invite, or demand, subsequent watchings. With his loving detail he was able to raise the emotions of ordinary people into the realm of high drama. We care what happens to Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in the exquisite All That Heaven Allows because Sirk so clearly did, too.
All That Heaven Allows is the quintessential Sirk movie of his later career, and the only one so far to be selected for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Its plot is pure soap, but its execution is pure gold. Heaven is set in Stoningham, a small eastern town where dramatic changes of season contrast an unchanging human landscape of pettiness and gossip. It is a blandly picturesque spot, made bearable by the pretensions of the country club set as personified by the shallow and insincere Sara, played by the always estimable Agnes Moorehead. Middle-aged widow Cary (Jane Wyman) is leading a life of quiet loneliness, convinced that a well-decorated home, friends, and a civil relationship with her two children are all that this world allows. Enter young gardener Ron (Rock Hudson), a big beautiful slab of man who watches Cary with the unwavering carnal gaze of a man who knows what he wants. Ron is a Thoreau-reading nature boy, living outside town on an idyllic spread, far from nosy neighbors and loose tongues. It doesn’t take long for their forbidden love to catch fire, threatening Cary’s once-secure place among friends and family. The resolution of this central dilemma is neither definitive nor pat. Ron is not altogether noble; he is unable to compromise or even recognize Cary’s conflict between romance, her place in the community, and the well-being of her snotty children. In its chipper 89-minute running time, All That Heaven Allows delivers one of the most tentative “happy endings” on record.
Sirk was a director of awesome visual acumen. Every shot, every color, every prop, and every costume tells its own story. When Cary shows up to a high-spirited clambake with Ron and his pals, she’s uncomfortable and overdressed in a tight gray ensemble. The effect is obvious, but it doesn’t appear trite because Sirk creates an artificial world perfectly convinced of its own reality. Other effects are more subtle. Every time Hudson and Wyman meet at his huge picture window that looks onto the wilderness, he reveals ugly truths about her narrow world. During such moments, he is lit like a god while she looks every day of her 42 years. Even the actors’ physicality conveys meaning. Hudson’s grandeur quite speaks for itself, while Wyman’s softly rounded cheeks, forehead, and chin are redolent of a fine Victorian doll. In contrast to Wyman, Agnes Moorehead looks like a cubist nightmare. Sirk’s movies are academic in that they are saturated with symbolism and beg analysis, but they are also fun to watch for the director’s obvious love of sending us messages. His movies create their own dialogue with the viewer.
Written on the Wind is an apt companion to All That Heaven Allows. It was released one year later and is blessed with the same visual detail, yeasty script, and flavorful acting. Sirk, who worked in the German theater before moving to film, brings the classic structure of live drama to the story by concentrating on the tangled relations of four main characters. There’s Rock Hudson as Mitch Wayne, a geologist and loyal friend to Robert Stack’s Kyle Hadley, a dyspeptic jet-set alcoholic heir to the Hadley oil fortunes. Lauren Bacall plays Lucy Moore, a secretary who marries Kyle but loves Mitch. Dorothy Malone, as Stack’s unstable nymphomaniacal sister Marylee, has lusted for Mitch since childhood, and she is ready to deploy heavy missiles to get him. Only disaster can come from a Sirk drama of such incendiary circumstances.
I assume a slightly less enthusiastic posture for Written on the Wind, due largely to the presence of Lauren Bacall. She’s chic, she’s sleek, and she knows how to smoke, but I have always found her to be an actress of exceptional limitations. Her performance in Written on the Wind does nothing to change that opinion. Written on the Wind’s good girl should have been played by Doris Day, Jean Simmons, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, or … anyone but Lauren Bacall. She’s not abysmal, but everyone around her works at a higher level. The real attention-getters here are Stack and Malone as a pair of seriously pathological siblings. Malone, especially, attacks her role with the kind of holy commitment that makes high camp such a treat. Everything she does or says telepaths an aching sexual hunger. She dances with wild abandon! She picks up strange men! She wears red chiffon! Sirk, to his everlasting credit, steers her clear of self-parody by making her the pivot of the story. Her actions in the last-chapter courtroom do wonders to her character, elevating her from cartoon to person. It’s a bravura turn, fully deserving of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress she won in the spring of 1957.
The Sirk touches are here in full force. One bracing shot has Bacall at a mirror, while Malone’s reflection comes back to the camera. It invites speculation – is this a reflection of opposites or twins under the skin? The scene of the elder Hadley’s death, intercut with Marylee doing a feral love dance, is so fiendishly well edited and executed that it demands close study.
Written on the Wind is bigger than All That Heaven Allows. The plot is fuller, the characters traverse greater expanses, and the themes of love and money are more at home in a mighty saga. Private jets, rivers of booze, barroom fisticuffs, shiny clothes, and a forest of phallic oil derricks give Written on the Wind the look of a rich fat uncle to Dynasty and Dallas. Still, my deeper affections remain with All That Heaven Allows. It pulls us into Stoningham, a place that both stifles and comforts, until we feel at home on its tidy streets. In that little town Jane Wyman’s Cary comes to realize that she has a right, as well as a need, to be happy. It’s a lesson that never grows old.
Scant attention has been paid here to Sirk’s masterful use of depth, his sure handling of actors, and his forceful yet unobtrusive use of music. It all makes for a divine wallow. Sirk’s movies invite you in and while you’re absorbed in the story you can ponder the meaning of a mirror, a gesture, a bowl of fruit, or the color of light. Be assured nothing is there by accident. It might be possible for the astute viewer to pull out all intended meaning with one screening, but it’s unlikely. Sirk’s movies are so rich that they leave the viewer with the disquieting exhilaration that there will always be something more to see.
Note: Both All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind appear in new widescreen Technicolor digital transfers enhanced for 16×9 televisions. Heaven’s rich selection of extras include the 1997 BBC documentary Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk (1979), with rare footage of the master; Fassbinder’s essay “Imitation of Life: On the Films of Douglas Sirk,” illustrated with rare ephemera; a stills archive with production photos and lobby cards; and the original theatrical trailer. Written on the Wind is a bit slimmer, with a Sirk filmography that features rare production, publicity stills, behind-the-scenes photos, and lobby cards; and original theatrical trailers for both Heaven and Written. See the Criterion Collection web site for more info.