All That Heaven Allows Review
Douglas Sirk, the German-born filmmaker and theatre director, who has never really achieved any kind of household fame and remains obscure to many film buffs today, was best known for a series of big budget American melodramas that both typify and subvert Hollywood drama of the 1950s. The most outrageously enjoyable of these is his super-rich family saga Written on the Wind, but this is perhaps his finest achievement.
Jane Wyman plays Cary Scott, a recent widow nearing the end of middle age who’s children’s college studies ensure she is alone most of the time. Her best friend Sara Warren (the ever-wonderful Agnes Moorehead) wants her to join the country club and regain a social life, and she reluctantly agrees. A friendship soon springs up between her and Ron Kirby (Sirk regular Rock Hudson) who prunes her garden occasionally. Shunning her ‘safe’ suitor Harvey, she opts for Ron and begins to fall in love with him. His harmonious existence growing trees and his relaxed, welcoming entourage of friends is a far cry from the constrictions of her social strata. The romance blooms, and before long Cary wants to take him to the country club to introduce him to her friends and show him off. As awkward in a suit as he is indulging in meaningless small talk, it is a disaster. To make matters worse, both her children are also bitterly opposed to their marriage.
A delicate, exquisitely beautiful piece of cinema, All That Heaven Allows deals with the oppression and prejudice faced when straying from the norm and introducing the unexpected into a routine existence, the way narrow, instinctive assumptions cause real harm and how blithely people destroy one another’s lives in a myriad of heartless, careless ways.
I hesitate to use the word “melodrama” to describe this film, as it’s a great deal more than the label suggests. Sirk’s glossy, seamless style employing luscious colours, smooth, simple camera movements and the musical underscoring of every mood and emotion (melodrama at its most literal) means one might initially be drafted into thinking the film is nothing more than another matinee weepy, and as such inclined not to take it seriously, though nothing could be further from the truth. Despite Sirk’s own initial misgivings about the project – as he puts it “I was trying to give that cheap stuff a meaning,” - he succeeded brilliantly, not at becoming another a trifling, cynical exercise in emotional manipulation, but a film that genuinely says as much about human nature as your average Bergman, Antonioni or Allen.
Incorporating the tragic irony and symbolism from his theatrical days in expressionist pre-war Germany, he tells his story as much with the people involved as the artefacts and objects associated with them. One particularly revealing incident about Cary’s sexual and romantic frustration is at the start of the film – going out for a country club dinner with the hopelessly bland Harvey, Cary bravely dons a scarlet, low-cut dress, the defiant effect of which she is well aware of. At the end of the evening, Harvey offers a half-hearted proposal, ensuring her they will have a future of “companionship and affection”. Her disappointment is palpable.
Sirk’s envisaging of Rock Hudson’s character borders on pastiche. Constantly surrounded by nature imagery - living in a greenhouse, growing trees, feeding wild deer from his hand and probably knowing every flora and fauna in the area - he is a vision of earthy, sensitive, chiselled perfection. However, he is also unprepared to give up his perfect way of life, putting all the strain on Cary. We can only assume he is being cruel to be kind, forcing her to make the right decision, but the pressure at such a crucial time from the last person who should applying it inevitably backfires. And when it does, it’s painful to watch as she goes reluctantly back to her empty house at Christmas, with only the gift of a television from her children for company.
Jane Wyman is superb as Cary, conveying the character’s melancholy and social discomfort perfectly, and one of the finest performances of her career. Hudson plays his masculine ideal for all the role’s worth. Two standouts in the fine supporting cast are Jacqueline de Wit as chief gossip Mona Plash, delivering devastating remarks with the sweetest smile, and Gloria Talbott as Cary’s psychoanalyst daughter, emotions in turmoil just discovering her sexuality but attempting to approach everything from an objective angle.
Russell Metty’s beautiful Technicolor photography, giving the film a vivid watercolour look, is quite breathtaking to behold, especially in his use of reds and blues. The score by Frank Skinner is elegant and perfectly pitched, with an outstanding use of romantic strings and a gorgeous main theme.
The film’s conclusion is full of bitter irony and shaky uncertainty, as Cary’s toils and hardship haven’t nearly come to an end, but it is far from unhappy. Exactly how much can one endure in the quest for real love, the picture asks? A great deal, when hope is involved, and while not exactly blazingly original, it is a life-affirming conclusion to a poignant, sincere and desperately underrated film.
Presented anamorphically in the aspect ratio of 1.77:1, it allows a sliver more information at the top and bottom than its original theatrical presentation of 1.85:1. Print damage is occasionally visible, but only small instances, very infrequently. Grain also sometimes jumps up, bids us good day, then subdues, but I don't look on grain as a bad thing - it's part of the film and almost inevitable with Technicolor film stock. The colours retain every drop of their vivid, drenched, unworldly hues. The red of daughter Kay's outfit in her final appearance doesn't bleed or smear, exactly the same as all other colours. There is no sign of edge enhancement or MPEG ringing, and detail is still splendidly sharp, even in the shadows and darker areas. The compression job is also gorgeous, thanks to a generous bitrate. An outstanding job by Criterion.
A remarkably clean and vibrant recording of the soundtrack is presented. Everything is clean, clear and well balanced. No complaints, or huge amounts of praise, either way.
Not exactly as extensive as some Criterion special editions I have seen, but the quality is here in spades, coupled with the features on Written on the Wind it has everything the uninitiated need to know about Sirk and his work. Producer Shannon Attaway has compiled a fine collection of supplements.
The stills gallery has a few dozen black and white stills, some publicity, some behind-the-scenes, and some colour posters and lobby cards. The trailer is thankfully spoiler-free and sums up the film nicely, complete with big sweeping title cards. It's only in slightly worse condition than the film itself, and is in non-anamorphic widescreen.
Next, we have Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1971 six-part essay (not including the introduction and conclusion), analysing six of Sirk's most significant films. Fassbinder cited Sirk as his greatest influence and even remade All That Heaven Allows himself as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, so had more qualifications than most to write on the subject. It's a very funny set of notes, perceptive, sharp and witty (peppered with some strong language), dealing with both the film’s characters as his praise for Sirk's direction.
Then, for the best of the lot - not the hour promised on the box, but just over 30 minutes of interview footage with Sirk taken from the 1979 BBC documentary "Behind the Mirror". It's pretty sharply edited, fading out at the exact end of a sentence, fading into a text card, giving some information or other. I have a feeling this is because many film extracts were used, and Criterion wasn't interested in paying for the rights, so edited them out (you can occasionally hear music starting up just before the fade to black), so I'm pretty convinced Criterion haven't chopped any interview footage itself (indeed, why would they?).
The only other extra is a worthy essay by Laura Mulvey contained in the booklet within the keepcase.
Criterion have done justice to Douglas Sirk more than All That Heaven Allows with this disc. With the extensive illustrated filmography on Written on the Wind, both discs amount to a great primer in Sirk and his artistry. He's one of the truly great directors, and I'm thrilled Criterion are giving his memory and work the respect it deserves. Even at the higher price point, it's a great set and well worth your time and money.