Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker Collection

The Tarnished Angels (1957) is one of Douglas Sirk’s greatest accomplishments, and it was not available on DVD in the United States until last month (one had to nab Region 2 DVD editions in France and England previously).  TCM released it on September 31st (in partnership with Universal) as part of the Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker Collection box set, along with Thunder on the Hill (1951), Taza, Son of Cochise (1954) and Captain Lightfoot (1955). It’s the latest production from TCM’s Vault Collection, which makes limited runs of hard-to-find studio titles, only available for purchase on-line.

Now is the time for the full disclosure bit. Since I’m writing for TCM, there’s a clear conflict of interest here. Proceed at your own peril, although all of the following thoughts are my own and are not influenced by my beloved corporate overlords (I promise).

Sirk made his reputation on the melodramas he directed for producer Ross Hunter,  but this set shows off his versatility. It contains a murder mystery (Thunder), a western (Taza) and a swashbuckling adventure (Lightfoot) in addition to the more familiar Sirkian drama of The Tarnished Angels. Thunder on the Hill is a stagy whodunit set in a convent, based on the play “Bonaventure” by Charlotte Hastings. It finds Claudette Colbert’s meddling Sister Mary trying to clear the name of convicted murderess Valerie Carns (Ann Blythe). Valerie is being escorted to a prison to be executed, when a dramatically convenient storm maroons her in Sister Mary’s domain. The scenario is creaky but the actors are game, with Colbert’s earnest moon-shaped face beaming out of her nun’s habit. Sirk wasn’t happy with the project, complaining to Michael Stern that, “only on Thunder did I have a producer who was interfering with my work. He was the only one at Universal. After that film I believe they fired him.” A quick look at producer Michael Kraike’s IMDB page confirms it was the last film he worked on for the studio.

Despite the fraught working conditions, Sirk still displays his impeccable sense of composition,  with DP William Daniels setting up B&W shots in depth, analyzing the power relations between characters. The triangle above finds Colbert flanked by a jealous nurse and the passive doctor, who will both be serious impediments to her investigation. Later, there’s a striking sequence where Colbert commiserates with Sister Josephine (Connie Gilchrist, a delightful busybody) about the case while the loyal town idiot Willie (Michael Pate) eats in the corner. The diagonal lineup of characters rhymes with the staircase in the background, a more harmonious arrangement for her informal deputies.

Taza, Son of Cochise is less satisfying, but does contain stunning color CinemaScope photography from Russell Metty. It’s an informal sequel to Broken Arrow (1950) and The Battle at Apache Pass (1952), where Jeff Chandler portrayed Cochise against James Stewart and John Lund, respectively. Here Chandler appears in an uncredited cameo as the Apache Chief, turning over his responsibilities to his son, Taza (Rock Hudson), who battles his brother Naiche (Rex Reason, a name for the ages) for control of the Apache tribe.  The script is a tired reiteration of the Cochise story, and the film, which was originally shot in 3D, fails to display Sirk’s usual visual dynamism in 2D. The colors certianly pop, though.

Captain Lightfoot is an enormously entertaining comic adventure filled with revolutionary skirmishes in 1815 Ireland. It was the first Hollywood feature film to be entirely shot in the Emerald Isle (The Quiet Man just shot exteriors there), and Sirk and DP Irving Glassberg glory in the rolling hills and elaborate period finery for the color ‘Scope frame. Rock Hudson excels as young rebel Michael Martin, a small-time hood taken under the wing of Captain Thunderbolt (Jeff Morrow), a legendary Robin Hood resistance fighter and bon vivant (the scenario was lifted for Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Captain Lightfoot’s screenwriter W.R. Burnett was not kind to the remake: “He stole it. Son-of-a-bitch. I’m glad Heaven’s Gate flopped.”).

Burnett, an irascible sort, was also not pleased with his director (from Backstory 1): “Sirk was a very bad job of miscasting. He had no sense of humor.” I beg to differ. While Sirk does not opt for out-and-out slapstick, there is a tender, amused tone throughout, from Hudson’s dance lesson to his strategic cigar smoking in a duel. The compositions here are packed, often overstuffed with action and reactions. Thunderbolt’s elaborate ball is masterfully staged and executed, with Hudson continually framed near the center in his eye-grabbing matte-gray suit. When he’s interrogated by the inspector, all stares remain on him, as ladies gather expectantly behind a window. This cements his transition from the one who looks up to Thunderbolt to the one being looked at.

The centerpiece of the box set is The Tarnished Angels (1957) a downbeat study of a family of stunt-flyers in Depression-era New Orleans. Adapted from William Faulkner’s novel Pylon, it was a treasured project of Sirk’s. Screenwriter George Zuckerman recalled to Gary Morris of Bright Lights film journal that, “But after the success of Written on the Wind, in conversation with Sirk, I suggested Pylon. His face turned white. He said it was exactly the property he had in mind.” He re-teamed Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone from Written on the Wind, now as the doomed couple Roger and LaVerne Shumann. Roger was a decorated WWI pilot, now reduced to winning dangerous prop plane races at county fairs. LaVerne does the parachute drops, her buffeted skirt giving the guys on the ground a thrill (Sirk: “[Producer Albert Zugsmith] didn’t want her to wear anything underneath!”). Roger’s constant circling around the pylons is a metaphor for their lives: always moving, never going anywhere. With their son Jack (Chris Olsen) and mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson), they travel the world seeking nothing other than their own anihilation.

Rock Hudson plays a reporter, Burke Devlin, who trolls for a human interest story amidst their wreckage and ends up in love with LaVerne and aghast at the society that produced their infernal little group. Sirk ironically layers images of Mardi Gras and the county fair over their travails, note the ferris wheel behind Dorothy Malone’s head in the group shot above, or the empty chasm of bleachers that opens up next to Hudson in the top-lining still. Then there is the motif of skull masks, which follow LaVerne throughout the film. During her first kiss with Burke, Sirk inter-cuts their clumsy romance with a raucous party next door, where a leotard-clad woman kisses and bites a man in a skull mask. They are instantly associated with death. And when a plane crashes later in the film, another masked man leads her away. The film swoons with metaphorical decay, and in Sirk on Sirk, the director recounts how he read T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland to Robert Stack and Eliot’s Prufrock to Hudson, to drill in their respective destructiveness and isolation.

The camera is constantly moving on short tracking shots, similar to Roger’s peripatetic nowhere man. I’ll close with Luc Moullet’s provocative disquisition on these dollies, which rise above the level of narrative and celebrates the pure artifice of Sirk’s art (quoted in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia):

The whole film is made of short tracks, usually lateral, almost invisible, the camera perpetually strolling five or six meters above the ground. Why? No reason. Just Sirk’s pleasure in making the camera move…In art, there is only artifice. Let us therefore praise an artifice that is cultivated without remorse, which consequently acquires a greater sincerity rather than artifice masked by itself as by others under hypocritical pretexts. The true is as false as the false; only the archi-false becomes true. (Cahiers du Cinema no. 87, September 1958).

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For a look at the technical quality of the set, DVD Beaver has reviewed it here.

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I have no more words to spare on the New York Film Festival, but please check out David Bordwell here and Michael J. Anderson here on my co-favorite film of the festival (tied with Uncle Boonmee), Raoul Ruiz’s magisterial The Mysteries of Lisbon.

20 Responses Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker Collection
Posted By Kingrat : October 12, 2010 6:20 pm

Thanks for your review of this collection, especially of the less familiar films. TCM recently showed THE TARNISHED ANGELS in a gorgeous print. THE TARNISHED ANGELS looks more like noir in its photographic style than Sirk’s LURED, which lacks the tension of many films noir, but has its own attractions. Sirk’s films often strike me as bloodless (IMITATION OF LIFE) or camp (

Posted By Kingrat : October 12, 2010 6:20 pm

Thanks for your review of this collection, especially of the less familiar films. TCM recently showed THE TARNISHED ANGELS in a gorgeous print. THE TARNISHED ANGELS looks more like noir in its photographic style than Sirk’s LURED, which lacks the tension of many films noir, but has its own attractions. Sirk’s films often strike me as bloodless (IMITATION OF LIFE) or camp (

Posted By Kingrat : October 12, 2010 6:22 pm

Sorry the last comment got cut off: Sirk’s films often strike me as bloodless (IMITATION OF LIFE) or camp (WRITTEN ON THE WIND), if quite watchable,but THE TARNISHED ANGELS actually has some emotional appeal.

Posted By Kingrat : October 12, 2010 6:22 pm

Sorry the last comment got cut off: Sirk’s films often strike me as bloodless (IMITATION OF LIFE) or camp (WRITTEN ON THE WIND), if quite watchable,but THE TARNISHED ANGELS actually has some emotional appeal.

Posted By Thomas Krul : October 12, 2010 6:50 pm

“Taza, Son of Cochise” and “Captain Lightfoot” sound like titles Krikfalusi could really take to town. Actually, as a kid I watched the latter movie on an Elwy Yost TVO show years ago. It’s cool that I can have the opportunity to see it (and better understand it) as an adult.

Posted By Thomas Krul : October 12, 2010 6:50 pm

“Taza, Son of Cochise” and “Captain Lightfoot” sound like titles Krikfalusi could really take to town. Actually, as a kid I watched the latter movie on an Elwy Yost TVO show years ago. It’s cool that I can have the opportunity to see it (and better understand it) as an adult.

Posted By Rick K. : October 13, 2010 4:04 am

Thanks for calling attention to the TCM Vault DVD Sirk package which, frankly, took me by surprise after some rather lackluster TCM pickings from Universal holdings … referring to Ma & Pa Kettle, their rather weak roundup of horror films, and curious selection of early Cary Grants … even the Durbin package (who I have great fondness for) overlooked some choice titles, directors Borzage, Renoir and Siodmak among them! But tapping Sirk was indeed inspired, and I hope the TCM/Universal collaboration continues along this route.

I wonder what sort of arrangement TCM has with Universal in the selection process … whether they have carte blanche or perhaps they must choose from “leftovers”, but there is certainly tremendous potential in that affiliation … a film noir package could prove to be a major coup of rediscovered gems from those Universal holdings!

The DVD Beaver site is indeed invaluable for monitoring the technical standards of releases such as this … for example, this is the second time this year that Sirk has been better represented overseas … TARNISHED ANGELS looks considerably better on DVDs from Europe … and the same goes for THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW, which had numerous shortcomings as part of the “Region 1” Barbara Stanwyck Collection, while looking quite pristine over in “Region 2”. Don’t know why quality standards should be compromised for U.S. release, which is something perhaps the TCM Vault could oversee more carefully in the future.

Posted By Rick K. : October 13, 2010 4:04 am

Thanks for calling attention to the TCM Vault DVD Sirk package which, frankly, took me by surprise after some rather lackluster TCM pickings from Universal holdings … referring to Ma & Pa Kettle, their rather weak roundup of horror films, and curious selection of early Cary Grants … even the Durbin package (who I have great fondness for) overlooked some choice titles, directors Borzage, Renoir and Siodmak among them! But tapping Sirk was indeed inspired, and I hope the TCM/Universal collaboration continues along this route.

I wonder what sort of arrangement TCM has with Universal in the selection process … whether they have carte blanche or perhaps they must choose from “leftovers”, but there is certainly tremendous potential in that affiliation … a film noir package could prove to be a major coup of rediscovered gems from those Universal holdings!

The DVD Beaver site is indeed invaluable for monitoring the technical standards of releases such as this … for example, this is the second time this year that Sirk has been better represented overseas … TARNISHED ANGELS looks considerably better on DVDs from Europe … and the same goes for THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW, which had numerous shortcomings as part of the “Region 1” Barbara Stanwyck Collection, while looking quite pristine over in “Region 2”. Don’t know why quality standards should be compromised for U.S. release, which is something perhaps the TCM Vault could oversee more carefully in the future.

Posted By john august smith : October 13, 2010 10:33 am

Dorothy Malone oozed with sex appeal in Tarnished Angels, Written on the Wind and Artists and Models. She had “it” whatever it was! Some beauties like Lamarr don’t have it. Even her bit in The Big Sleep was sexy.

Posted By john august smith : October 13, 2010 10:33 am

Dorothy Malone oozed with sex appeal in Tarnished Angels, Written on the Wind and Artists and Models. She had “it” whatever it was! Some beauties like Lamarr don’t have it. Even her bit in The Big Sleep was sexy.

Posted By Al Lowe : October 13, 2010 3:58 pm

I recently acquired a Dorothy Malone VHS film, SOUTH OF ST. LOUIS, an obscure 1948 western.
It is evident that she should have been playing central characters or female leads in A pictures at that point. She receives fourth billing after Joel McCrea, Alexis Smith and Zachary Scott. The director was Ray Enright and the cinematographer was Karl Freund. She gives McCrea an amorous embrace at the film’s start that all the males watching this would relish.
Alan Hale, the beloved character actor, is only in this one for three minutes. He died a couple of years later and maybe he was having health issues.
As you can see, the Warners crowd is there, not long before the studio contract system broke up.
It is a routine western but it has one strange thing about it. The three buddies (McCrea, Scott and Douglas Kennedy) all wear bells on their spurs to show that they are team mates or partners. It sounds like something thought up by Mel Brooks.

As for Sirk, I have never been much of a fan. Maybe it is my fault and maybe I should buy this set and begin some Sirk appreciation.

Posted By Al Lowe : October 13, 2010 3:58 pm

I recently acquired a Dorothy Malone VHS film, SOUTH OF ST. LOUIS, an obscure 1948 western.
It is evident that she should have been playing central characters or female leads in A pictures at that point. She receives fourth billing after Joel McCrea, Alexis Smith and Zachary Scott. The director was Ray Enright and the cinematographer was Karl Freund. She gives McCrea an amorous embrace at the film’s start that all the males watching this would relish.
Alan Hale, the beloved character actor, is only in this one for three minutes. He died a couple of years later and maybe he was having health issues.
As you can see, the Warners crowd is there, not long before the studio contract system broke up.
It is a routine western but it has one strange thing about it. The three buddies (McCrea, Scott and Douglas Kennedy) all wear bells on their spurs to show that they are team mates or partners. It sounds like something thought up by Mel Brooks.

As for Sirk, I have never been much of a fan. Maybe it is my fault and maybe I should buy this set and begin some Sirk appreciation.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : October 14, 2010 1:41 pm

Rick, I don’t have insight into TCM’s selection process for the Vault Collection, but I’m certainly hoping for the same directors you mentioned. And while the stills did look much softer in the DVD Beaver comparison, it was not something I noticed while watching THE TARNISHED ANGELS disc. It looked pretty sharp to me in motion. And they are pressed DVDs, not burned, and include a variety of extras like lobby cards and poster art. It’s a nicely produced set, overall, I think.

And John, Dorothy Malone is indeed an incandescently erotic actress. I was shocked to see Sirk call her a “prude” in an interview.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : October 14, 2010 1:41 pm

Rick, I don’t have insight into TCM’s selection process for the Vault Collection, but I’m certainly hoping for the same directors you mentioned. And while the stills did look much softer in the DVD Beaver comparison, it was not something I noticed while watching THE TARNISHED ANGELS disc. It looked pretty sharp to me in motion. And they are pressed DVDs, not burned, and include a variety of extras like lobby cards and poster art. It’s a nicely produced set, overall, I think.

And John, Dorothy Malone is indeed an incandescently erotic actress. I was shocked to see Sirk call her a “prude” in an interview.

Posted By Al Lowe : October 14, 2010 5:28 pm

Attention Morlocks. I think it is time for one of you to do a blog on Dorothy Malone.

Did you know that she is still alive? She is…if your data base is correct. I did some research on the web and one source said she was living in Texas.

She certainly should be invited to your Festival.

Posted By Al Lowe : October 14, 2010 5:28 pm

Attention Morlocks. I think it is time for one of you to do a blog on Dorothy Malone.

Did you know that she is still alive? She is…if your data base is correct. I did some research on the web and one source said she was living in Texas.

She certainly should be invited to your Festival.

Posted By ggreen : October 16, 2010 6:51 pm

Thanks to TCM for the Universal vault collection(s). I only wish they would have chosen a more reliable retail partner than Movies Unlimited. I have had nothing but horrible experiences with them in the past.

Posted By ggreen : October 16, 2010 6:51 pm

Thanks to TCM for the Universal vault collection(s). I only wish they would have chosen a more reliable retail partner than Movies Unlimited. I have had nothing but horrible experiences with them in the past.

Posted By Flee : October 19, 2010 1:36 am

A most forgettable director-Mitchell. Leisen
Should be lavished with such space.

Posted By Flee : October 19, 2010 1:36 am

A most forgettable director-Mitchell. Leisen
Should be lavished with such space.

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