Douglas Sirk made trash. During a brief Hollywood career that lasted between 1943 and 1959, he experimented in a range of populist genres, including a Sam Fuller scripted noir and a poetic war film. However, it was his ‘Woman’s Pictures’ that cemented his reputation, melodramatic soap operas about tragic romances, deviant sexuality and upper-class decadence, shot in lurid technicolour and marketed straight at the unstimulated housewives of 1950’s Middle America. Despite huge box office returns, critics dismissed Sirk as a manipulative entertainer. Nobody believed such sentimental guff could contain any substantial insights.
At least, that was how it appeared on the surface. Radical new interpretations published by upstart French film journal Cahiers du Cinema in the 1960’s shattered the candied shell to reveal Sirk for what he always been; Hollywood’s most uncompromising and lyrical critic of post-war American society . A German émigré who cut his teeth in avant-garde theatre directing a production of Brecht’s musical satire The Threepenny Opera, Sirk’s talent for marrying vinegary satire with lush romanticism influenced swooning classics such as Todd Haynes’s Carol, while his vision of suburbia as festering theatre foresaw television series as tonally diverse as Desperate Housewives and Twin Peaks.
All that Heaven Allows, his poignant 1955 classic about a wealthy widower’s relationship with her younger gardener, sees Sirk operating at the peak of his powers. Set in a moneyed New England community, we follow middle-aged Cary (Jane Wyman) as she reluctantly prepares to return to the hermetic world of country clubs and dinner parties. Best friend Sara (Agnes Moorhead) sets her up with Harvey, a nice gentleman of a similar age who speaks of simple companionship. Better yet, Jane’s two college aged children, Ned (William Reynolds) and Kay (Gloria Talbott), approve of the age appropriate coupling.
However, Cary’s desires run deeper . She wants more than a kindly friend to read her the newspaper headlines by the dying fire. Far more interesting is Ron (Rock Hudson), a hunky horticulturalist who prunes her silver spruces. The fact that he is several years her junior is incidental. Peg Fenwick’s screenplay never signposts an exact point when these two loners ‘click’, allowing Sirk and his talented cast to suggest the attraction through stolen glances and fidgety gestures.
They begin to go driving together. Jane is fascinated by Ron’s indifference to doing the ‘done thing’. For instance, he thinks nothing of leaving the family landscaping business to pursue his dream of becoming a botanist, and his favourite party trick is to pop open wine gourds with his teeth. As details of their relationship begin to leak into the neighbourhood, Mona, a cocktail voyeur who tucks into rumours like truffles, wonders aloud if Ron is strapped for cash, while Kay and Ned are unsettled by the revelation that their mother may have needs that are just as pressing as their own.
The first miracle is that the age difference is never sensationalised. Cary and Ron’s love is played without irony, as deep and sincere as any screen romance west of Casablanca. Instead, Sirk’s treatment is acutely concerned with how women’s desires are controlled by a rigid society , and the ugliness we are capable of when traditionally agreed class lines are threatened. Watch the skin-crawling sequence where Cary introduces Ron to her friends at the club, how Sirk cuts away to eavesdrop on the hushed conversations of fellow members, noting that their gossip is not as much centred on the age gap than the fact that Cary is rich while Ron makes his living raking through the dirt.
That is the second miracle. A mainstream genre is commandeered as a vehicle to examine an evil that remains taboo sixty-two years later; the American class hierarchy. Like fellow European expatriate Hitchcock, Sirk’s art was inspired, never hobbled, by the restrictions of working in the studio system. The Hay’s Code, a censorship board established in 1930 to defend America’s moral standards from the dangerous contours of Jane Russel’s tight blouse, did not welcome the anti-society messages that were Sirk’s stock in trade. So instead of handing his character’s lengthy speeches on the injustices of class, Sirk wrote his blazing polemics in the silent yet unmistakable language of probing camera movement and meticulous staging.
The most immediate showcase for Sirk’s great gift might be the unbroken shot of Carrie checking herself in a dressing mirror before rising to welcome Ned and Kay home for the weekend. Instead of cutting to a reverse shot, Sirk shows us the family reunion by the mirror’s skewed reflection, gradually dollying the camera in, as if to burrow into the domestic image. Sirk once said of his work ‘There is nothing there without an optical reason’ , and the significance of the visual cue the becomes clear later when the children petition Cary to give Ron up, reasoning that bad gossip could limit their future career opportunities. Familial loyalty, Sirk seems to be hinting, is as much a construction as Wyman’s delicately curled perm when social mobility is at stake.
Yet, it’s too easy to file away Sirk as the sort of director film students swoon over, a subversive mainstream artist who dunked the comfortable furniture of American drama into varnish remover to expose the putrefying surfaces underneath. He’s a far, far more interesting filmmaker than that.
The first thing many people notice about colour films printed during Sirk’s era is how dreamlike everything looks. Leafy boughs glisten like clustered emeralds. A red gown burns like arterial blood. This was because Technicolour, the photochemical dying process that allowed celluloid to record the full visible light spectrum, was still in a rudimentary stage of development. Sirk embraced the system’s powdery postcard aesthetic and amped up the other elements to match. To watch his films is to be ravished by exquisite costumes, hysterical musical scores by Frank Skinner, and mannered performances that threatened to collapse into a tangle of neuroses at the drop of a champagne glass. There was never any doubt that you were watching a confection of the soundstage. And yet, this distancing- call it Brechtian Alienation, if you like- invited viewers to take a step back from their ordinary lives and take an overhead view of a society where the battle for civil rights was raging and women’s horizons were as large as their gilded kitchens.
All this would be as dry as sandpaper without Hudson’s rugged tenderness and Wyman’s career crowning performance as Cary. At the princely age of thirty seven, roles were drying up for the former star who won an Oscar for her wordless portrayal of a mute rape victim in 1948’s Johnny Belinda. Watch that brilliant, aging pin up face, this awe-inspiring final stand against mid-life obscurity, and pretend not to be gutted. That’s why scenes that should play like overripe pantomime instead bruise your soul like emotional piledrivers. Take the heart-breaking two shot where Cary tells Ron that their relationship is impossible, her tearful eyes gleaming in the luminous moonlight. The incongruity of cinematographer Russel Metty’s gorgeous framing directs your eyes to social injustice ; the actors’ raw, bloody earnestness makes you mourn the victims.
Most soap operas are the filmed equivalent of a gentle sedative; the kind that allow you to drift into an anaesthetised waking dream where everything is predictable and even the worst problems can be resolved within a ninety minute timeslot. Sirk’s grabbed you by the lapels, blew smelling salts up your nostrils and forced you to reckon with the wickedness that was thriving in your manicured backyard. That’s entertainment.