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With: Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Jack Carson, Troy Donahue, Robert Middleton, Alan Reed, William Schallert
Written by: George Zuckerman, based on a novel by William Faulkner
Directed by: Douglas Sirk
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 91
Date: 12/25/1957

The Tarnished Angels (1957)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Pylon Era

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Douglas Sirk had a huge hit with Written on the Wind in 1956, and the film even received three Oscar nominations — Dorothy Malone won Best Supporting Actress — despite the fact that critics of the time didn't really appreciate Sirk's magnificent artistry. So, with a little clout in his pocket, he set out to make a dream project, an adaptation of William Faulkner's 1935 novel Pylon. The Tarnished Angels was shot in that glorious combination of black-and-white and widescreen, and even though its attempt to evoke the 1930s never quite works, it doesn't matter. It's an unsung masterpiece.

It's set in a tawdry New Orleans, where an airshow comes to town. Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) is a hero of the first World War, and now spends his days drifting from town to town entering barnstorming races and doing parachuting stunts with his wife, LaVerne (Malone). They have a son, Jack (Chris Olsen, a remarkable child performer), and a mechanic, Jiggs (Jack Carson), who travels with them.

Truthfully, Jiggs is in love with LaVerne, and, indeed, so does is just about any man who happens upon her, with her large, beautiful eyes and cascading mane of blonde hair. Yet she is miserable, dealing with the realities of life with a man she once worshipped from afar. Roger never expresses any kind of feeling for her, and she is left with an incredible longing. Into this picture wanders hard-drinking reporter Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson), who writes for the local paper. He's both drawn into Roger's lifestyle and attracted by LaVerne, and begins following them around, hoping to do a great story.

Burke allows the traveling company to stay at his place. In the late night hours over some drinks, LaVerne pours out her soul to Burke, and he falls in love with her. Then, during a race, Roger survives a crash, but finds himself without a plane. Like an addict without a fix, he'll do anything for another one, even if it puts his life at risk. He bullies Jiggs into trying to fix up a discarded wreck with a burnt-out electrical system. What happens later isn't very surprising, but these plot turns are nothing compared to the rich, vivid way Sirk explores the depths of the characters' turbulent emotions.

Malone is the star here, and even though she's a sex symbol, Sirk understands her inner torments. He sees how she could latch onto Burke for a little while, just because he listens. But then when things become clearer with her husband, when feelings are expressed and clarified at last, he also understands her rage at Burke. Malone truly sinks her teeth into all this anguish, hitting every note perfectly, and looking great while doing it. The ultra-manly Stack is a little more limited, but he still makes Roger seem genuine. Hudson is a genuine surprise here, showing a great deal more subtlety, achieving many small gestures as well as big ones, than the actor was ever known for.

Whereas many directors are good at finding emotions in actors, Sirk was also a master of the visual. In All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, he used color and atmosphere to deepen the drama, and in The Tarnished Angels, that amazing wide screen and cinematography accomplish the same, but with a different set of tools. There are high angles, mirrors, and uses of negative space, but also incorporating the weird Mardi Gras costumes and decor, and the seedy cafes and airplane hangars, into the design. It's wretched, lost, and beautiful.

Now with a great Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber, this film can earn its place next to Sirk's best work. It beautifully preserves the look of the film, and a smart, enjoyable commentary track by film historian Imogen Sara Smith helps explain the movie's place in history. The disc also includes a trailer for this and a handful of other melodrama-type films. Highly recommended, and sure to be one of 2019's essentials.

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