“The party’s next door, the way it always has been,” says Dorothy Malone’s drifting airman’s wife. The party always seems to be next door for Douglas Sirk’s characters. Reviled by critics and loved by audiences at the time, now he is almost universally admired by cinephiles for his harsh social critique buried underneath seemingly soppy melodramas. Yet, his discography is still awash with underrated and forgotten gems. The Tarnished Angels is certainly one of them. Made in 1958 it featured Dorothy Malone, Robert Stack and Rock Hudson, three of the stars of his 1956 masterpiece Written on the Wind, and yet today The Tarnished Angels has, for comparison’s sake, a mere 1,700 ratings on IMDB. Sirk’s most famous films, All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life both have approximately 7000 and 9000 ratings respectively. A shame then, because this film is truly superb.
Adapted from William Faulkner’s novel Pylon, The Tarnished Angels is, on the surface, simply a melodrama about a small group of people. In the midst of the Great Depression, Burke Devlin (Hudson) is a journalist sent to write a quick story on the local air show that’s in town in New Orleans. There, he meets Roger and LaVerne Shumann (Stack and Malone), as well Roger’s faithful mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson) and the couple’s young son. The four do not have much to live on, despite the fact that Roger is a legendary war flyer and a great racer. They bum from town to town, flying in shows and trying to hold onto as much prize money as they can. Their predicament piques Burke’s interest, and upon hearing that their manager has failed to book them a hotel, he allows them to stay the night in his apartment, where he begins learn more and more about these people, or ‘air gypsies’, as Burke’s unconvinced editor calls them.
Unsurprisingly given that he came from the world of theatre in Germany before jumping to cinema, Sirk is a master at taking source material and bringing out ideas and themes that lay hidden beneath the script. The Tarnished Angels is indeed a very focused piece of work in this respect. Its three central characters are gloriously complex, almost novelistically so, and that is one hell of a trait to label a piece of 1950s Hollywood melodrama with. Our two main stars, Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone, both represent a failed ideal of the American dream, and a failed romance along with it. Rock Hudson talks of wanting to be a great newspaperman, telling exciting, interesting stories that would regale readers. Instead, he finds himself a low-rent journalist, incapable of convincing his boss to give him any freedom whatsoever. He’s a deadbeat, and one with a particular knack for getting emotionally involved with his stories.
Dorothy Malone is a mirror image. She talks of falling in love with Robert Stack’s war ace from afar – from newspaper stories and adverts – only to find out the real thing is a damn sight different. It is unclear whether her son’s father is Robert Stack or Jiggs. What is clear is that Robert Stack cares little for her or his son, and cares only for his airplane, for the lure and the glamour of the skies. Early on, in a flashback told by Malone, she announces her pregnancy to the two men. A shotgun marriage is inevitable, and Roger cold-heartedly elects to play a game of dice with Jiggs to see who will win a wife. Dorothy Malone’s character, as so many others in America, has fallen in love with an image, an image created by advertisements and propaganda, rather than a human being. This is the cause of her unhappiness, and it has led her into a deeply broken frustrated marriage.
That man she marries is perhaps the most conflicted and interesting character of the three. Driven to the skies by dreams of money and glamour, it is the only place in America that allows him to be what he wishes to be. On the ground, he looks and feels like nothing. He’s full of contradictions and rifts, as are the other two central characters. His contradictions however, fuel the story’s central melodramatic concerns – just how far can America drive a man?
As we find out, America, and it’s desire and need for material wealth, drives men to their absolute limits and beyond, simply to keep families from starving. Granted, that probably comes off as a reading of the film that any two-bit Marxist could obtain, and the film is littered with potentially interesting uses of symbolism and iconography, the sort that do richen and flesh out a film such as this.
There are other little interesting details too. Douglas Sirk knew of Rock Hudson’s homosexuality, and was apparently fond of putting in subtle hints about it in his films. In Written on the Wind we see a strange moment where Robert Stack and Rock Hudson are sharing a room in a hotel, and it appears the two are dressing themselves, despite being fully dressed in the previous scene. No context or reason is given for this. In one particular scene in The Tarnished Angels, Dorothy Malone is meant to go to a big businessman to convince him to allow Stack to fly his antique plane in a race. The suggestion is that she is meant to sell herself to him, but Rock Hudson elects to go instead, and “talks” the businessman into changing his mind. Yet when he returns to his flat, he looks considerably worse for wear. However, these sorts of fascinating little details and symbols and do not a good film make. They furnish it for sure, but ultimately, The Tarnished Angels is built out of basic but extremely solid filmmaking.
Take for example, the performances. Rock Hudson has (unfortunately) always had something of a reputation as little more than a Hollywood hunk, but under the tutelage of Douglas Sirk he consistently put out great performances, and The Tarnished Angels has possibly his most complex role. The same too goes for Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack, though arguably Stack is perhaps the most limited actor of the three and the one that most drags things down in both this film and Written on the Wind. The cinematography too, is gorgeously crisp and smooth, but that is to be expected in a filmmaker of Sirk’s tastes. This is a film of gorgeous noir-ish lighting and smooth camera movements, yet a film always wary of its gritty material.
Despite its surface-level 50s melodramatic appearance, The Tarnished Angels is about as complex a drama as you’re likely to see in the movies, laden with a level of bitterness and cynicism that is really quite surprising for a film of its period. It is absolutely a brilliant film, and one of Douglas Sirk’s many brilliant pieces of filmmaking.