The Tarnished Angels Review

The quartet of main characters in Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels aren't so much introduced to the viewer as they are made available for observation. The actors who play them almost immediately get identified and matched to their character names. From there it's a game of bold acceptance. These are troubled souls not just unwilling but unable to change. They are burdened by tragic fatalism and we can do nothing but watch as the disintegration occurs. Those who are attuned to the flaws and miseries brought to the screen by smuggling subversives like Sirk, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller in 1950s Hollywood should find much to appreciate here. The Tarnished Angels is a film that is felt, that infects the emotions and changes  how we approach the medium. The self-destructions on display are as stark and cold as the monochromatic contrast found in the cinematography.

The chilly hero at the center is Roger Shumann, a WWI hero and ace pilot played with aggressive distance by Robert Stack. It's 1932 and he's been barnstorming for years alongside his mechanic buddy Jiggs (Jack Carson) and his wife Laverne and son Jack. Dorothy Malone has the task of playing the wife Roger ignores except when she's parachuting out of his plane. She pretends to enjoy it, having first gotten his attention at a show that way. She'd seen his likeness on a war bonds poster, imagining him to be something he wasn't. Nine years or so later she seems to still harbor that same fantasy and it's no closer to being accurate now than it was then. The flashback to her telling Roger and Jiggs she was pregnant includes perhaps the most insensitive marriage proposal in the history of cinema. That the dynamic has existed for this many years almost requires the suspension of disbelief.

Rock Hudson becomes the wrench thrown into this situation. He's newspaperman Burke Devlin, an alcohol-soaked idealist intrigued by the human interest element buoyed by Shumann's status as a war hero now participating in competitive flying exercises like this one in New Orleans. Devlin lets the Shumanns and Jiggs stay at his apartment since they have nowhere else to go. That leads to, among other things, Laverne opening up late at night to this handsome stranger about her various disappointments and ideals. The exact investment Devlin has in her and vice versa becomes something of a recurring question mark over the course of the film. It's never entirely clear how they see one another or for what purpose they're using the other. The relative ambiguity actually makes the relationship between Devlin and Laverne feel all the more real, as though their fates have briefly collided in a meaningful but imperfect way.

This same trio of lead actors had just appeared in Sirk's Written on the Wind but, perhaps arguably, it's easier to feel affection for this film. The circumstances are not wholly dissimilar but where The Tarnished Angels excels is in its deeply formed crevices and moody alterations of the expected. This picture is, with some forcefulness, the saddest depiction of aviation and lost war heroes ever attempted in Hollywood. There is no one here to relate to or root for or feel good about their fate. These are losers with murky futures but Sirk loves them and here he's asking his audience to do the same. Nothing that I'm aware of in Sirk's filmography quite feels like this one. It has a unique sense of displacement and relentless foreboding. Hudson's character Devlin likens the barnstormers to aliens from another planet, and he's not just creating copy. That's how he sees them. It's not an entirely inapposite comparison, either. They're creatures with no home who move from place to place doing things that only those with their unique talents can. They exist outside the accepted realm.

The twin tragedies that ultimately engulf The Tarnished Angels play as inevitabilities which are necessary to break the cycle. One sets into motion the basis for the other. There's a sense that what we're seeing with these characters is already on borrowed time. They really should not have been able to exist under these circumstances for as long as they have. Only now, with Devlin taking notice, can they allow fate to catch up to them. New Orleans and 1932 and Matt Ord (played by Robert Middleton) become a downfall that nonetheless feels almost cathartic. The situation we see at the beginning of the picture is so toxic as to seem like a call to arms for any kind of change, however painful.

Sirk and screenwriter George Zuckerman redecorated the William Faulkner novel Pylon to make these characters and their situation tragic enough for sympathy but cold enough to elicit a different kind of upset. Part of what makes The Tarnished Angels such a brilliant and affecting picture is its commitment to failure. So often Sirk is associated with melodrama or subversion but here we have a fairly straightforward and romantic love letter to fucking up. This isn't the kind of breach in accepted societal conditions seen elsewhere from Sirk. There's no well-to-do character having a crisis of conscience and re-examining his or her life. These are miserable people sort of, somewhat trying to be slightly less miserable if the opportunity presents itself. Whether you like that, whether you're open to experiencing the lives of others who aren't quite so polished, should determine almost completely how much you value Sirk's film.

The Disc

Eureka's Masters of Cinema Series is releasing The Tarnished Angels on Blu-ray only, occupying spine number 64 in the line. It's a dual-layered disc that is coded just for Region B.

The black and white Scope photography looks astonishingly good here. The film had previously been issued by Universal on DVD in the UK but this registers as a marked improvement over both that edition and, especially, the lackluster offering R1 consumers eventually got through the Turner Classic Movies site. Contrast reigns in a beautiful manner in this film and here it's reproduced with balance and care. Blacks are darkly brilliant. Likewise detail impresses as never before for home viewers. The image remains stable within the frame, exhibiting virtually no signs of damage. The few instances of minor speckles still present are likely caused by the origins of certain footage rather than any neglect in mastering or restoring.

Faithful to the original presentation, audio is presented in a single-channel, lossless PCM track. The English language mix has a nice consistency and fair amount of depth. Listening to the planes fly around is not quite Top Gun-like but it really need not be either. Dialogue emerges crisply and without distraction save for a thin hiss barely apparent at times. There's also an isolated music and effects track present here, also LPCM, and optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired.

A nifty array of special features can be found in the package, though I believe none are exclusive to this release. MoC thought enough of the audio commentary by critic Adrian Martin found on Madman's R4 DVD release to include it here, and with good reason. It's an insightful discussion of the many themes and ideas on display in Sirk's film.

"Talk About the Business" (19:00) is a featurette in which actor William Schallert, also in Written on the Wind, talks about his beginnings in Hollywood and his time working with Sirk. Critic Bill Krohn offers his thoughts on the film in "Infernal Circle" (29:42), which is another good opportunity to explore some of why The Tarnished Angels is so special. There's also "Acting with Douglas Sirk" (23:26), containing archival interviews of Sirk, producer Albert Zugsmith, Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone.  All three of these pieces were made by Robert Fischer's German-based Fiction FACTory in 2008  and included on previously released French editions of the picture.

The original theatrical trailer (2:38) completes the on-disc supplements from MoC.

A lengthy booklet is up to the label's usual high standards. It runs 44 pages and starts with a couple of paragraphs from Tag Gallagher's 2005 essay "White Melodrama" in Senses of CInema.  A 1958 Cahiers du cinéma article by Luc Moullet follows. For a bit of a different perspective there's Tom Henebry's 1958 Air Progress look at "How Hollywood Filmed Pylon" that lasts a good seven pages of text. A scrapbook collects bits of interviews from Douglas Sirk (from Sirk on Sirk) and William Faulkner (New York Times). In addition to the kind of image stills and credits we've come to expect from MoC, there's also an essay by Rainer Werner Fassbinder on the film to finish off things.

9 out of 10
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