Fall 2017

Errol Morris on the Magnificence of Douglas Sirk's Obsession



Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels (Photo: Photofest)

The Tarnished Angels is one of the greatest movies ever made," contends Errol Morris as he draws the shades and settles into a much-used couch in his Vermont vacation home. He is escaping for a few days after finishing the mix on his new series, Wormwood, and takes itemized issue with the 1958 New York Times review that trashed Sirk's adaptation of William Faulkner's novel Pylon, about air-circus fliers.

"If you wanted to make a movie about love and death, I don't think you could come close to this movie; just the amount of story material and visual material it contains," he says. "Sirk created some of the most despairing films ever and, since I am a connoisseur of despair, I find them totally irresistible."

Morris first encountered The Tarnished Angels around 1973 while programming a Douglas Sirk series at the Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley. The film tells the Great Depression-era, Mardi Gras-set story of New Orleans reporter Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson), who entangles himself with a team of visiting airshow fliers: World War I flying ace poster boy Roger Shumann (Robert Stack), his parachutist wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone), their worshipful son Jack (Chris Olsen) and Roger's mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson).

LaVerne is a bombshell whom Roger treats callously, and rumors circulate around Jack's true paternity, with Jiggs as the assumed second. Burke smells the great American human interest story when he meets Roger, the famous flier, and invites the cash-strapped band to stay in his apartment. He quickly falls for LaVerne and intervenes when Roger sends her as an offering to wealthy flying team sponsor Matt Ord (Robert Middleton) in exchange for a hastily repaired plane to race. Inevitable tragedy transpires after Roger realizes his familial negligence and vows a fresh start once this race is completed, but the plane fails and Roger crashes in the water as he selflessly avoids the crowds on the runway.

"Sirk created his own brand of tragedy—the unhappy happy ending," says Morris, "and Tarnished Angels is the bleakest of them all. It's that line from Caddyshack, 'You'll get nothing and like it.'"

STAR-CROSSED LOVERS: Morris calls Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels, which stars Rock Hudson as a New Orleans reporter and Dorothy Malone as a parachutist in barnstorming aerial act, "the greatest tragedy since Sophocles, which is admittedly hyperbolic; however, I believe it to be true." (Photo: Everett)

The film opens with a black-and-white CinemaScope panorama of the New Orleans airfield before cutting to the adjoining fairground and whirling carnival rides, with Burke meandering his way to camera.

"As a person who loves wide angles, this has some of the most impressive ones, one after another. You feel this world of aviation," says Morris. Soon, though, a third of the Scope frame is obscured by the verticals of a corrugated hangar door, as Jiggs steps in front of it to look out.

"Sirk loved to put his characters in front of barriers that obscured part of the frame," Morris says. "In this film, he often uses objects that cast vertical or horizontal shadows on the characters. It's reminiscent of the checkered racing flag or pylon, but also suggests imprisonment and separation."

Soon Morris homes in on the way Sirk uses blocking and camera moves rather than cuts to accomplish his coverage, when Matt Ord, standing by a plane in a wide, spots LaVerne off camera.

"Look at the depth of this," says Morris. "He creates really complex shots with these characters in these wides. Ord turns and gives his back to camera as it cranes left to catch LaVerne walking away in the deep background. Each frame is incredibly rich. It's a model on how to design a movie."

"Sirk created his own brand of tragedy—the unhappy happy ending, and Tarnished Angels is the bleakest of them all." -Errol Morris

Morris continues on the subject as Sirk cuts to Burke, now sitting at his newsroom typewriter arguing with his editor about the value of the airshow story and the whiskey in his coffee. "Sirk is working often with three, four, five characters, and they are all brought into the frame in camera motion. In this case, a character invisible in the foreground suddenly appears," he says, as Burke's editor crosses to frame right and into the background and a colleague reporter rolls his chair in to take his place. "It is all immensely skillful, visual storytelling."

Burke hurries home through Mardi Gras festivities to get to his houseguests, sending a female companion on her way rather than inviting her upstairs. Sirk cuts into Burke's apartment and cranes through it, tracking along the hall through another series of divided windows, revealing along the way Roger and Jiggs sleeping in his bed with Jack on the floor. As Burke turns to put his bags on the mirrored entry stand, we see a reflected LaVerne reading on the settee.

"Of course he's falling in love with her, because everyone's falling in love with her. She becomes this sublime love object," Morris says as Burke joins her in the shot: LaVerne reclined in soft light and Burke hunched in the shadows by her bare feet, loading logs into the hearth and lighting her cigarette. "And Sirk's framing is always unexpected; this two-shot is kind of miraculous. He's showing their relationship by how he frames them, but also the distance between them. All in just one image. He's always putting people in shadow and it's hard for me to think of it as just the DP, because it's so much a part of Sirk's art."

With Jiggs pretending to sleep in the next room, LaVerne tells Burke the story of how she had fallen in love with Roger as a young girl in Iowa, and followed Jiggs to him on the road. As she tells the tale, Sirk chooses moments to move Burke out of frame and leave her alone, light cutting across her face through the blinds.

"It's important to remember this is Scope, so it's this huge canvas you're working off of, but it's also a story about some girl lost in her own dream and the privacy of that dream, so the one-shot is perfect," Morris notes. "That speech that Dorothy Malone makes is just great writing and acting, by the way. See, Sirk knows at what point to embed his characters in this vast tapestry and when to isolate them," he says as Sirk cuts to a one-shot of Jiggs eavesdropping from bed. "Woven into this story of her relationship, you've got Jiggs' whole story being played against it visually. Jesus Christ, is there any greater moment of pathos? The guy who gets nothing. It's about all of these dreams thrown together, animated by death."

Burke gets fired from the paper after refusing to abandon the airshow story and, in the next race at the airfield—an exciting concoction of live shooting and plate shots—Matt Ord's pilot is killed and Roger's plane is irrevocably damaged in the crash. With no plane to fly in the coming race and having just gotten into a fight with Matt in Dallas because of his attentions toward LaVerne, Roger allows his obsession with flying to take over. Knowing the implications, he convinces LaVerne to go to Matt and persuade him to let Jiggs repair and allow Roger to fly his second plane. Burke and LaVerne acknowledge their growing feelings, and Burke secretly convinces Matt to make the deal for the plane without sacrificing LaVerne. When Burke and LaVerne finally share a kiss, a Mardi Gras reveler in a death mask bursts in to laugh at them.

"That's the stuff that's right out of German Expressionism or Ensor," says Morris. "It's a kind of reminder that death is standing right off stage; that everything that he's doing, everything that he's facilitating, is bringing about this horrendous tragedy; that these humans are just like popsicle stick figures animated by whatever crazy dreams they have, all leading to death.

"There is a yearning in this movie for something. Everybody wants something. Burke wants to be able to say his profession has some kind of real meaning, that it's about something real in the world, real in life. And he doesn't care if he has to drink himself silly in order to find it."

Against his better judgment but pushed on by Roger's obsession, Jiggs gets Matt Ord's plane functional enough to race but sabotages the starter at the last minute to keep his friend from risking his life. Roger presses him again to get the engine humming and, before taking off, professes his love for LaVerne for the first time, begs for forgiveness and promises to quit flying and to build a normal life with Jack and her after the race. LaVerne confesses she never went to Matt, and they reconcile as Jack climbs aboard his favorite airplane carnival ride, then is forced to watch his father's real plane go down.

PICTURE PERFECT: Morris admires the depth and symbolism of Sirk's framing: "He creates really complex shots with these characters in these wides. Each frame is incredibly rich. It's a model on how to design a movie." (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Bottom) Photofest)

"This must be one of the truly horrific scenes," says Morris, shaking his head at the scene. "You cannot be redeemed. In Christian tragedy we say, What pity it had to happen when it might have happened otherwise. In Classical tragedy we say, What a pity it had to happen. Period. I always thought of Sirk's as Classical tragedies; people pinned like insects to some kind of board where there is really no alternative available. The story is a man who can't love, can't see the love that other people have for him, and what do you do about it? It is really clear what you do about it: for one evanescent, fleeting moment, you acknowledge it, and then you die."

Jiggs drinks, sitting alone outside Roger's memorial dinner, as inside LaVerne spurns Burke and accepts Matt Ord's proposition to come with him and let him take care of Jack. Clutching his bottle, Jiggs watches as the life he has known walks out on him; he is taunted by another mechanic for losing "his LaVerne" as she leaves with Matt, and Burke staggers into the distance, challenging him to do something about it. Jiggs rises into the light calling after Burke, "Where you going? Burke, where's everybody going?" while over his shoulder the restaurant door is shut. Jiggs turns at the sound, and Sirk executes a rare rack focus to the restaurant owner shutting the lights, then tracks back to Jiggs as he again looks after Burke and steps to camera, half his face in shadow.

"This is the shot that I love," says Morris. "'Where's everybody going?' This is what makes it a masterpiece and how you know that the whole story is really about Jiggs. He's like a phantasm. The power of it, the desolation. The unredeemable nature of it all. I think, What a pity it had to happen this way."

Sirk gives each character an ending as Burke inspires his editor with the story and gets his job back, then retrieves LaVerne from Matt before putting her on a plane back to Iowa with the hope he will see her again one day.

"You're not supposed to have so many endings in a movie, but Sirk manages to have at least four or five," says Morris. "He manages to give his audience a kind of faux happy ending. And how many love quadrangles do you see? Sirk understood them better than anybody. I think it's almost a perfect movie. It gave me faith in the movies to see this thing again. I thought, this is an art form, despite what anybody might think."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

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