Back to IndieWire

The Essentials: Douglas Sirk

The Essentials: Douglas Sirk

German filmmaker Douglas Sirk (né Hans Detlef Sierck) directed almost 40 films in a career that spanned three decades. A late bloomer known for grand, gorgeously expressive and emotional melodramas in the 1950s, he took a third of his career to hit full stride. The early movies were comedies, glossy adventure stories and war dramas. During his days working in Germany the director was heavily censored and when he escaped to the United States in 1937 he found himself stifled once again, “A director in Hollywood in my time couldn’t do what he wanted to do,” he once said. 1942’s vengeful, vehemently anti-Nazi “Hitler’s Madman” only really existed because it was seen as patriotic, and films Sirk made as late as 1952, like “Has Anyone Seen My Gal?” featuring his broad-shouldered go-to male muse Rock Hudson, were insubstantial trifles compared to his mature work. That film, lightweight comedy though it is, does still possess hints of commentary on class, status, money and the sickening desire for it all — themes Sirk would explore, and quietly explode, in his best work.

That work came between 1954 and 1959 at Universal-International Pictures, where Sirk broke through and finally found his way to his now-trademark CinemaScope –lush, dark melodramas and subversive social critiques. Emotionally swollen with desire, passion and infatuation, the pictures are lavish and sumptuous, but concealed beneath the impeccable aesthetics lies a caustic indictment of American bourgeois values. Again and again he revelled in the irony of often wealthy, privileged people longing for more, but trapped within the excess and decay of their decadent lifestyles.

The films were largely a bust at the time, and critically reviled; the were often dismissed by the cognoscenti with the pejorative “they’re just soap operas for women.” It wasn’t until he was retroactively championed by the Cahiers du Cinema crowd for his immaculate craft and style that his artistic reputation finally gained its rightful position. “Time, if nothing else, will vindicate Douglas Sirk,” critic Andrew Sarris correctly predicted.

But the emphasis on the much-extolled radiant style and blazing Technicolor belies the inflamed full-bodied, sanguine emotions and psychological underpinnings of Sirk’s work, not to mention their captivatingly watchable qualities. While the movies were incandescently shot, the emotional substance within was just as luminous and psychologically cutting; much more than merely ostentatious and histrionic, as so many of those early critics suggested.

Douglas Sirk is in the air again of late. Our friends at BAMcinematek recently put on a Sirk & Hudson retrospective and the filmmaker was born today on April, 26 in 1897 (he was 89 a the time of his death in 1987). And so naturally, we’ll use the day to celebrate some of Sirk’s essential, must-see pictures.

All That Heaven Allows” (1955)
One of Sirk’s true masterpieces, “All That Heaven Allows” compellingly blurs the line between soap opera and high art, and in the process has become one of the few films that has matured into both a critical favorite and cult classic. “All That Heaven Allows” tells the story of Cary (Jane Wyman), an affluent New England widow who falls in love with her sensitive gardener Ron (Rock Hudson). Their romance, of course, upsets the local community and even Cary’s children reject her newfound happiness as unnatural. Their romance, too, is tinged with tragedy. Everything is so emotional that each sequence surpasses mere melodrama and almost encroaches on the land of hysteria — it’s exhibit A in why Sirk’s films were often labeled “women’s pictures,” and not in a complimentary way. While the film was initially panned (the notoriously crotchety Bosley Crowther gave it a withering write-up in the New York Times), time has been kind to “All That Heaven Allows”: it was partially remade by both Rainer Werner Fassbinder (as “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul“) and Todd Haynes (whose “Far From Heaven” is an explicit homage, down to the title); it’s been referenced by everyone from Francois Ozon to John Waters (among others); it made it into the National Film Registry in 1995; and has its very own deluxe Criterion Collection home video release. Surprisingly subversive (especially in retrospect, given Hudson’s hidden homosexuality), “All That Heaven Allows” is both a loving homage to fifties normalcy and a startling deconstruction of it (down to the obvious phoniness of many of its sets and props). The Sirk ethos has never been distilled so beautifully, cleanly, or heartbreakingly. Because, even as hammy and overwrought as it can sometimes seem, chances are “All That Heaven Allows” will still make you cry your eyes out.

There’s Always Tomorrow” (1956)
The barrier for some to diving headfirst into Sirk’s filmography has been the dreaded ‘M’ word, and we’re not talking about mumblecore here. Melodrama, like musicals (yet another ‘M’) has always been something of a bad word. But in case you had any doubt, “There’s Always Tomorrow”  once again showed that his use of melodrama is, like any gifted genre deconstructionist, merely a comfortable avenue for the audiences to experience the real emotions and characters that are Sirk’s prime directives. In ‘Tomorrow’, he locks his aim, like a sniper shooting for the truth, on Fred MacMurray’s put-upon, attention-starved husband and father. He’s desperate to get away from the family routine for some quality time — away from their three kids — with the missus. Life being life, things just keep getting in the way, until MacMurray’s Clifford, a successful toy manufacturer, happens upon an old friend played by the radiant, sophisticated Barbara Stanwyck, who’s a bit lonely and recently divorced. Nine times out of a ten, be it typical Hollywood tripe, a soap opera or even a good, conventional movie, would have these two engage in a torrid, destructive love affair. But Sirk has more interesting, left-of-center concerns with this film, making for a complex, layered drama where just about every character is vital to the outcome and the tropes of most family dramas are upended and twisted. MacMurray, in what must have been a mind-bending feat at the time, subtly and brilliantly plays his role like that of a nagging, desperate wife, just wanting to be alone with his partner. Because of these atypical tactics, the film is alive, able to transcend the many shortcomings of melodrama, reaching the more satisfying descriptor of simply being a very good drama. Most Sirk-olytes will tell you his lush color films feature his best work, but the lovely black and white photography in ‘Tomorrow’ only adds to the murky grays of the narrative. Don’t sleep on this one.

Magnificent Obsession” (1954)
Based on the Lloyd C. Douglas novel of the same name, Sirk’s “Magnificent Obsession,” is one of the great tearjerkers of the 1950s. In his third film with Sirk, Rock Hudson, plays Bob Merrick, a rich caddish, playboy type, who in a reckless accident crashes his speedboat, and is resuscitated with equipment borrowed from the town saint Dr. Phillips. Phillips then suffers an attack of his own and dies while his equipment is being rushed back too late to save him. Changed by the unfortunate ramifications of his accident and resuscitation, Merrick is guided by an older intellectual and artist, Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), who helps him in his mission to make things up to Dr. Phillips widow, Helen (played by Jane Wyman). On his quest for contrition there are many twists and turns, which are a touch soap opera-y (he accidentally blinds her, he then pretends to be someone else, then they fall in love and so on.) However Sirk’s aptitude for melodrama makes it all work and gives the high-stakes emotions a deeply accessible poignancy that will have the harshest cynic reaching for the tissues. The crisply-hued Technicolor only serves to make the mix of spirituality and sentimentality feel more heightened, while fantastic performances from both Hudson and Wyman also go a long way, and Wyman was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role. “Magnificent Obsession” was a box office hit for Sirk and Universal, and though it has been criticized for its hokeyness, there is no denying its importance and worth in Sirk’s canon.

Written On The Wind” (1956)
At one time more closely resembling the true-life story of tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds (whose life was also dramatized for the David O. Selznick romp “Restless“), “Written On The Wind” concerns two dirt-bag siblings in Texas – Marylee (Dorothy Malone), a woman of ill repute, and her alcoholic brother Kyle (Robert Stack), both the children of a local oil baron (Robert Keith). Kyle gets involved in a relationship with Lucy (Lauren Bacall), a New York City secretary, while Marylee has a weirdly-defined relationship with Mitch (Rock Hudson), who works as a geologist at the oil site. What follows is a calamitous intersection of personal and sexual misunderstandings, entanglements, and ultimately (this is a Douglas Sirk movie, after all) tragedies. There are about an entire soap opera season’s worth of twists and turns in the second and third acts, and the movie, which is under 100 minutes, really moves. This is one of Sirk’s most brutal movies (even if it is photographed like some lush colorized noir by Russell Metty,) because like in all of his films, Sirk was doing so much beneath the surface that only seemed appropriate at the time because they had the silky imprimatur of studio-approval (including the frank inclusion of miscarriage and, by association, abortion.) And it’s all set to a quite brilliant theme song.

The Tarnished Angels” (1957)
A type of companion piece to “Written On The Wind,” Sirk’s antepenultimate film again featured the same producer/screenwriter and the trio of Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone. Shot in black and white by Irving Glassberg and based on William Faulkner‘s “Pylon,” this melodrama exploited the unlikely intersection of aviation and obsessive love in another quadrangle, like ‘Wind.’ “I need this plane like an alcoholic needs his drink,” Roger Shumann (played by Stack) says in his raison d’être soliloquy. Hudson stars as Burke Devlin, a New Orleans reporter intrigued by a peculiar gypsy aviation trio making ends meet in the Depression-era carnival circuit by racing and pulling off stunts at rural air shows. Shumann, a disillusioned WWI vet, cares for nothing but flying. Not even his wife LaVerne (Malone) a daredevil parachutist, his loyal mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson) or his doting son Jack (Christopher Olsen) can penetrate his compulsion to fly — it’s the only thing in life he seems to do right. Devlin, selfishly only sees a story at first, but soon becomes enamoured of the loveless LaVerene and discovers the true nature of this trio’s already blemished history together. While captivating, it’s perhaps not quite as absorbing as Sirk’s expressive color pictures of the 1950s. Still, it’s artistically ambitious and due for re-evaluation, not to mention a new transfer that highlights its somber and hard-fought mood.

Imitation of Life” (1959)
As Douglas Sirk’s last Hollywood picture, “Imitation of Life” sure packs a whammy. A remake of the 1934 Claudette Colbert-starring version based on the Fannie Hurst novel, the film certainly has a history with regards to production and reception, particularly with regard to how it dealt with race and gender issues. As a typical “woman’s film,” the plot is full of melodrama as Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her daughter Susie (child – Terry Bunham, teenage – Sandra Dee) take Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane (child – Karin Dicker, teenage – Susan Kohner) under their wing by hiring Annie as a housekeeper and providing them all with a place to live. Lora goes from being a struggling actress to a Broadway star, bringing prosperity to their makeshift family, though not much peace. While Lora is away shooting a film, Susie develops a crush on her mother’s would-be boyfriend (John Archer) and Sarah Jane struggles with her pale skin in a segregated world, in which she tries to pass as white until her race is ultimately uncovered – including some nasty business with Troy Donahue. Suffice it to say, there isn’t a happy ending, but there is hope and potential for growth in the characters who survive to the film’s climax. Sirk specifically had the film focus more on Annie and Sarah Jane than previous versions (its borderline experimental narrative takes an early subplot and eventually makes that the main focus — a trick that still feels fresh and innovative today) thereby creating one of the most compelling racial commentaries up until that point. By operating with this soap operatic quality, “Imitation of Life” was able to bring the issue of race further into a more traditionally feminine, domestic sphere — and Sirk’s lush visuals and setting therefore become the spoonful of sugar that helps the “medicine” of racial commentary go down.

Let’s not forget that many of Sirk’s best movies were remakes — and all remakes of 1930s John M. Stahl films, including “Magnificent Obsession,” “Imitation of Life” and “When Tomorrow Comes” which Sirk made into the now the hard-to-find “Interlude ” (which has been called an unsung masterpiece by Richard Brody.) Three other key films in Sirk’s oeuvre, aside from “Interlude” are “All I Desire” starring Barbara Stanwyck, which feels like more of a test run for the sumptuous female-led melodramas he became famous for and “A Time to Love and A Time to Die” which blended his extravagant style with his penchant for war dramas. Also of note is 1949’s “Shockproof” written by Samuel Fuller and starring actor and sometime director Cornel Wilde.

Sirk’s body of work was reevaluated by the Cahiers Du Cinema crowd, but there’ve been many others who have helped. Rainer Werner Fassbender was a huge proponent of Sirk’s work and remade “All That Heaven Allows” as “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.” In fact, many of his pictures were heavily indebted to Sirk’s style including the sumptuously colorful “Lola.” The echoed influence was then carried down to Todd Haynes, indebted to both filmmakers, who made a homagistic pastiche of their work with “Far From Heaven.” Quentin Tarantino was also a fan and there’s an iconic line in “Pulp Fiction” when Vincent Vega (John Travolta) orders the Douglas Sirk steak, which he makes sure is prepared “Bloody as hell.”

Sirk retired early at the height of his commercial success, leaving some to believe he wanted to go out on top. But the filmmaker was already 62, in poor health, and looking to slow down and engage his mind in quieter, less stressful ways. — Drew Taylor, Erik McClanahan, Diana Drumm, Rodrigo Perez and Sam Chater.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox