THE TARNISHED ANGELS: Blu-ray (Universal-International, 1958) Kino Lorber
Director Douglas Sirk, primarily known for the syrupy gloss of his mid-fifties soap operas, reunites with three of his most bankable stars, Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, for this supremely satisfying adaptation of William Faulkner’s Pylon – rechristened, The Tarnished Angels (1958). Exorcising the demons of a forlorn WWI pilot, his war-time heroism reduced to performing mere road show aerial acrobatics in a traveling peace time cavalcade, like so many of Sirk’s memorable masterpieces, it is not what happens during the high-flying histrionics that makes The Tarnished Angels so memorable, but what emerges from those darkly contemplative respites in between, herein, spectacularly photographed in B&W Cinemascope by cinematographer extraordinaire, Irving Glassberg, who died the same year as this picture’s release. Although most of The Tarnished Angels takes place at a seaside carnival, with diverting vignettes devoted to the mid-20’s pleasure-seeking hedonism run amok, Sirk manages to mine Faulkner’s funereal lyricism for all its worth; contrasting the slow, sad implosion of an ill-fated marriage, and the two ‘other men’ who fall for the same gal, with scenes of leering/cheering crowds, carrying on in their devil-may-care fashion as though life were a shooting gallery where the prize, ironically, is merely to survive.
It is one of those Hollywood ironies that The Tarnished Angels was not only ill-received in its own time, but heavily criticized as a terrible movie, despite Faulkner’s ringing endorsement of it. Indeed, it seems only the author believed Sirk had served his source material justly – the cultural mandarins of their day carpet-hauling George Zuckerman for his ‘badly, cheaply written’ screenplay, and universally panning the cast as ‘abominably hand-picked’. Sirk had worked with this trio of stars before in 1956’s Written on the Wind, and herein plays to stereotypes first and firmly established in that picture: Hudson, the strong and silent nobleman/purveyor of the truth; Stack, as the self-loathing, pitiful and emasculated fallen hero, and Malone, unusually tempered in her exertion of feral sexuality. Indeed, the characters each embodies in The Tarnished Angels are far more adult and frankly dishonest, disillusioned and absorbed by their all-enveloping melancholia. The picture excels as both a time capsule, eloquently devoted to that ‘go to hell’ attitude inculcated as the cultural norm after the ‘great war’, and, also as a porthole into the self-inflicted degradation of the human spirit that makes asses of the masses, and all but denies the noblest among them the hope and promise for their moment and place in the sun.
And we have yet to mention the marvelous Jack Carson, herein, giving emotional heft to the usually thankless part of the sidekick; Carson, who should have been elevated to leading man status, despite his unprepossessing mug, and who spent his entire tenure in pictures as the ever-identifiable ‘third wheel’ – utterly riveting as the ruthless press agent in 1954’s A Star is Born, and heartbreakingly genuine as the ambitious, though unloved son in 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. At our house, we love Jack Carson – if only, because he typifies more than most any other actor of his generation, the underdog most likely not to succeed, despite exploring every opportunity. In hindsight, some bizarre kismet appears to have followed Carson off the screen. Carson, who died in 1963 from stomach cancer, leaving us much too soon at the age of 52, marks us with an indelible force of nature in The Tarnished Angels – as the fellow who allowed his hero-worship to intrude upon any genuine sense of purpose or place, and, may or may not have sired a child by the wife of the man he has devoted his life’s ambition to serving. Herein, Carson carries with him something spectacularly empathetic - an internalized conflict of interest that he cannot escape or sacrifice to his caprice, much as it pangs him to cart around like the proverbial millstone about his neck.
Our story begins on the windswept beaches of New Orleans, Louisiana. We meet disillusioned WWI ace pilot, Roger Shumann (Stack). Since the war years, Roger has traded on his reputation as a war hero to become one of the barnstorming greats of the Great Depression. In an era when aviation was still new and something of a sport, and, the daring do of brave men held cache with the paying crowds, Roger can be counted upon to give the people a good show; a rare sampling of his high-flying prowess in a biplane that made him one of the revered heroes of the great war. Together with his wife, parachutist LaVerne (Malone), worshipful son, Jack (Chris Olsen), and devoted mechanic, Jiggs (Carson), Roger has insulated himself against the folly of realizing his life has fast become a one-note-wonder; this wonder man of the skies, only as good as his last aerial maneuver. Some time ago, Roger willfully threw over LaVerne’s love and Jack’s adoration for his own blind and thoroughly misguided ambition to become a somebody – putting on blinders to his family’s advancing despair, merely to satisfy his own unquenchable thirst for fame.
While Roger and Jiggs busy themselves in readiness for the air show, we are introduced to reporter, Burke Devlin. Aside: Rock Hudson’s great quality, able to shrink his physical presence, revealing an admirable, affable nature tucked within that larger-than-life musculature, has always served his ‘body of work’ immensely. And Sirk’s introduction to Devlin assures us that real masculinity cannot be defined by the physical measure of a man, rather, emerging from within. Herein, Devlin stops two grease monkeys from a rival pit crew taunting young Jack about his questionable parentage. Indeed, Roger or Jiggs might be his real father. Hoping for the scoop, Devlin befriends Jack, buys the boy an ice cream, and returns him to the hangar where Roger and Jiggs are working on his plane. He overhears Roger chastising Jiggs for having bought an expensive pair of boots. Indeed, Jiggs has spent their hotel money on this fashionable footwear. While LaVerne suggests the trio have lived out of an airport hangar before, Devlin magnanimously offers the group the use of his cramped apartment. Meanwhile, Devlin rushes off to confront his editor (Phil Harvey) and propose a ‘real scoop’ about the life of a WWI daredevil. Alas, Devlin’s editor infers that the only real ‘news value’ in covering such air shows derives from toting up the fatalities.
Devlin defies his boss and elects to cover the air show anyway. Meanwhile, affluent plane owner and show sponsor, Matt Ord (Robert Middleton) makes a rather bad enemy of Roger by propositioning LaVerne. He also attempts to gain favor with Devlin, gloating over his new plane and hothead pilot, Frank Burnham (Troy Donohue). That night, Roger, his family and Jiggs take up refuge in Devlin’s apartment. Unable to sleep, LaVerne borrows one of Devlin’s books to read. Soon, she and Devlin strike up a friendly conversation. Unbeknownst to either of them, Jiggs is quietly listening in from the next room. LaVerne explains how, as a love-struck 16-yr.-old, she fell hopelessly for Roger, leaving Iowa to follow him on the road. Ignoring Jiggs’ affections, she also lied to Roger about her aspirations to become a parachute-jumper. LaVerne confesses how she convinced Roger to marry her. In 1923, she became pregnant. Although Jiggs offered to make an honest woman of LaVerne, Roger insisted they roll dice to determine the outcome. Although cheapened by this proposition, Jiggs rolled low and Roger wed LaVerne soon thereafter. From the next room, Roger stirs, interrupting the end of their conversation.
The next morning, Devlin is informed that The Telegraph will not be covering the air show. Outraged, he rails against his editor’s decision and is promptly fired. Nevertheless, Devlin has just enough time to catch the air show, admiring LaVerne’s parachute jump that narrowly results in her almost being killed. Now, Roger and the rest of the pilots, including Frank Burnham, gear up for the pylon race – a dizzying course across an open body of water as the gathered crowds cheer from nearby grandstands. At first, this series of hairpin turns and other death-defying maneuvers in the skies leave Devlin and the rest of the crowd breathless and white-knuckled. However, as Roger comes in for the last pylon, his wing clips Frank’s plane. It plunges into a fiery ball of flame, killing Frank instantly. Meanwhile Roger, whose plane is severely wounded, barely escapes a crash landing and being burned alive. Matt’s outrage turns to sporting blood when Roger and Jiggs ask him to give them another of his biplanes, only to discover it has a faulty engine. Roger makes Jiggs promise to have the plane tip-top and ready in time for the next aerial event. At first, Jiggs resists, as it does appear as though Roger has something of a death wish in mind. Knowing Matt will not sell the craft to him outright, Roger asks LaVerne to visit Matt in his hotel room and ‘convince’ him to loan out the plane. Jiggs and Devlin are mortified by Roger’s pimping out his wife. But LaVerne dutifully complies. At the last possible moment, Devlin delays LaVerne’s sacrifice and goes to negotiate the terms of a lease on the plane in her stead. Devlin appeals to Matt’s business sense and is successful. Returning to his apartment, Devlin discovers an out-of-control Mardi Gras bash in full progress only a few rooms down the hall. He finds LaVerne getting quietly drunk inside his apartment while Jack peacefully dreams away his own obsession for planes in the next room. Indeed, Jack’s favorite ride at the fair is the suspended biplane swings.
Grappling with her self-doubt and self-pity, at once, desperately in love, yet deeply resentful of her husband’s callousness, LaVerne throws herself at Devlin’s head. But their passionate kiss is interrupted by a reveler from the down the hall, wearing a death mask as he attempts to enter the room. Meanwhile, inside the hangar, Roger pushes Jiggs to work feverishly on repairs to the plane. Arriving together, LaVerne and Devlin let Roger think she went to Matt’s hotel room. After LaVerne goes back to the apartment, Roger confides in Devlin. Although he loves his wife, he has never known precisely the depth of her affections for him. As the hour for the air show fast approaches, and Roger’s plane is still not ready, the show’s promoter, Colonel Fineman (Alan Reed) tries to intercede and cancel the event. Only Jiggs now admits he deliberately sabotaged the repairs, believing the plane unsafe for flying. Forcing Jiggs’ hand to finish fixing the aircraft, Roger is granted permission for takeoff with the rest of the competing pilots. Before this, Roger confides in his wife for the first time – this will be his last race. He loves her and will devote his life to becoming a family man from now on. Although his plane initially stalls, Roger wastes no time catching up to the competition, out-racing and out-performing all of their superior aircraft. Alas, his advancing victory is not to be. The plane begins to smoke, then stalls in mid-air, taking a perilous nosedive towards the beach and screaming crowds.
As his plane catches fire, Roger makes a split-second decision that will cost him his life. He banks hard and away from the beach to spare the spectators, his plane plunging headstrong into the surf and consumed instantly beneath the waves. Horrified, Jack and LaVerne deal with their grief separately. Divers recover the wreckage, but can find no trace of Roger’s remains for a proper burial. As a victory party was meant to be held that evening at Claude Mollett’s (Eugene Borden) saloon, the boys instead hold a good old-fashioned wake, paying tribute to Roger with a somber toast. Jiggs assaults a drunken reveler who suggests he can finally ‘continue’ his affair with the widow, now that the husband is out of the way. Later, Jiggs’ sheepishly apologizes to LaVerne for never having the guts to quash the rumors regarding Jack’s birthright. Feeling genuinely guilty for having earlier considered an affair with Devlin, LaVerne now chastises him. Seeing no way out, she begrudgingly accepts Matt’s generous offer to send Jack away to a proper school in exchange for her affections. A drunken Devlin commiserates with Jiggs before blindly stumbling into The Telegraph’s front offices to confront his editor with a ‘real’ story.
In what can only be described as Rock Hudson’s finest hour as an actor, Devlin eulogizes Roger’s life and times – not as a romantic figure or high flyer with his head in the clouds, but rhapsodized as the honest, if tragically flawed creature of fallible flesh and blood, who threw away happiness with two hands, wounded and eager to be considered ‘a somebody’ in his own time – a war hero, out of step in peace time, with a finite grasp on what real love could be and for whom no angels – tarnished or otherwise – would likely weep; his reputation, swept into the dustbin annals of forgotten history for all time. Impressed by his account of the man, in lieu of the legend, Devlin’s editor offers him his old job back. Accepting it, Devlin rushes to Matt’s apartment. He confronts a near catatonic LaVerne with pleas to reconsider selling herself to a man – any man – she does not love. Moreover, Devlin intends to use his money to send LaVerne and Jack back to Iowa, promising to pay for Jack’s schooling out of his own pocket. Although initially unconvinced, LaVerne is forced by Devlin to reconsider: she does not have to give up her dream to lead a decent life. Armed with renewed faith in the future, LaVerne leaves Matt’s apartment to accompany Devlin. The next day, she boards a waiting plane with Jack; Devlin, offering to lend her the same book she was reading the night he came home, and promising to collect it in person some day in the future.
As a Sirk-ensian tragedy, The Tarnished Angels is supremely satisfying. While much of Douglas Sirk’s back catalog often relied on grandly ambitious and rather salacious – bordering on silly – depictions of male/female carnal passion, painted in lurid Technicolor, The Tarnished Angels banks on its potently understated triage of performers to convey sincere moral regret. Hudson, Stack and Malone are pointedly real and electrifying, with Jack Carson giving them monumental support. While Hudson’s finest hour has already been discussed, Stack’s sustained and shrewdly nuanced deconstruction of a crumbling ego is authentic and affecting. Malone, who frequently played the viperous sexpot, herein, reveals a soft underbelly to her smoldering vixen; just a woman in love, who anxiously lacks it in return, and, with no strings attached. George Zuckerman’s screenplay provides ample wiggle room for each star to distinguish themselves, and for each character to have his or her moment in the sun. Zuckerman delineates these characters with a slier intelligence – an anathema to the heavy-handed folk who usually populate Sirk’s melodramas with their garish gush and coo, writ much larger than life. Indeed, The Tarnished Angels holds up today as perhaps Sirk’s finest offering because it is more delicately insightful and lightly seasoned in every way; exhibiting the hallmarks of a truly great storyteller.
The Tarnished Angels arrives on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber’s newly minted deal to bring large portions of Universal’s long-overdue and under-exposed vintage catalog to hi-def. For once, the results are impressive. While the main title opticals are marginally plagued by slightly more amplified grain and a few sporadic age-related artifacts, the rest of the image has been remastered with very impressive results. Fine details in Irving Glassberg’s gorgeous B&W cinematography abound. Glassberg’s expert use of the elongated Cinemascope frame results in one breathtakingly inventive composition layered upon the next. In 1080p, the results simply take one’s breath away, while managing to also capture the narrative’s encroaching sense of fatalism. The B&W image is generally free of age-related debris, has superior contrast, and looks exceptional on the whole, with a modicum of film grain appearing indigenous to its source. The 1.0 DTS audio is adequate, although Frank Skinner’s bombastic score could have benefited from a 5.1 upgrade. Extras are limited to a newly recorded audio commentary by Imogen Sara Smith. At intervals, this one gets a wee too academic for me. But overall, Smith has important information that will enhance our appreciation for this great movie. Otherwise, Kino floods us with trailers for this and other product it hopes you will want to buy. Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)