Writing in 2008, Chris Fujiwara decried how American repertory screenings of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas frequently become “endurance tests” thanks to “audience participation rituals that, whether fueled by the urge to show off one’s camp sensibility or driven by a misguided sympathy with the irony evident in the films, ends up all but hooting the films off the screen.” The three films central to Sirk’s reputation as a lucidly cold-blooded ironist turning trash plots into acerbic social critique (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession) pose formidable interpretive obstacles to even the most soberly conscientious viewer. Their complexity were long ago reduced to a series of easily identifiable concerns: in 1980, William James Horrigan concisely summed up the usual interpretive tacks as “Sirk, or Distance; Sirk, or Style as Self-Critique; Sirk, or Weimar in Hollywood.”
A double-bill of The Tarnished Angels and A Time to Love and a Time to Die (both 1958, with the latter—made second—at the top of the bill) offers a chance to consider Sirk outside of the limiting confines of the director’s reputation as crazed for lurid color, addicted to irony and endlessly subversive.
In the case of The Tarnished Angels—a taut 1930s New Orleans love triangle between Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack—Sirk was pleased to be adapting William Faulkner’s Pylon, which he deemed the only decent source material Hollywood had ever given him, and later deemed the results “perhaps… my best film.” Hudson’s a staid journalist, Stack a barnstorming stunt pilot and Malone his wife/co-star; Hudson falls for the former as a romantic daredevil and the former because, well, she’s the gorgeous third wheel.
The true romance is between the two men: Stack nails the manic-depressive swagger and late-night despair of a pilot self-consciously seeking dangerous thrills, with Hudson playing simmering support until the finale. Anyone still in thrall to the myth that he couldn’t act should see his final monologue: a rarity in a Sirk film, let alone in the actor’s career, and he absolutely murders it. (Also unusual: some very dangerous-looking, still-thrilling plane stunts.) Shot in San Diego with New Orleans exteriors in stark black-and-white widescreen, Tarnished Angels cuts relentlessly between its setting’s endless external Mardi Gras and the squalid, dingy interiors where the trio’s frustrated, abortive tensions play out, making the latter even more confining and oppressive. It resembles a downbeat companion to Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men: one man drawn to danger, another drawn to him, and the woman not so much torn between them as equally, despairingly exasperated by both.
A Time to Love and a Time to Die is trickier, a World War II romance between a German soldier (John Gavin) on leave and a doctor’s daughter (Lilo Pulver). The film begins badly, with combat sequences Sirk has no feeling for, and Gavin never stops being a wooden embarrassment. But once Gavin arrives in his hometown to discover his parents dead and the buildings he grew up with destroyed (sets were built on destroyed, barely standing structures) and falls in love, the film comes into focus. Sirk hadn’t returned to Germany since he left in 1937; his sympathy for the elderly landlady who oversees the couple’s one-night honeymoon—meek, unquestioning, happy to see some young people still alive, exhausted—is counterbalanced by portraying war-era Germany as an exact precursor to Cold War America, full of sexual hysteria, suburban hypocrisy and underground bunkers. Sympathy for the old world, contempt for the new: a spikily Sirkian mixture.