The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: August 19 - 26, 1999

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Imitation of life

Douglas Sirk's '50s America

by Chris Fujiwara

Magnificent Obsession Douglas Sirk was the essential '50s director: maybe not the best (though he was one of the most intelligent), but the one who best captured the era's tensions. His parables of passion, redemption, and doom (the more melodramatic his plots, the better) put the guilty conscience of prosperity on display. The Brattle's revival of four of Sirk's best films permits us to get caught up again in the swirl of madness, self-destruction, improbability, and beauty that was Sirk's America.

No other director has blended high, middle, and low sensibilities to such strange, exhilarating effect. In Written on the Wind (1957; screens August 20 through 23), Sirk's juxtaposition of Dorothy Malone's jutting breasts and buttocks with cars, gas pumps, and a roadside bar anticipates by almost a decade the iconography of lust in Russ Meyer's films, and it certainly competes with them in crude gusto. Yet Sirk is the director who read T.S. Eliot aloud to Rock Hudson and Robert Stack to get the actors into the spirit of The Tarnished Angels (1958; August 24) and who called on the shade of Euripides to guide him through the dramaturgical dilemmas of Imitation of Life (1959; August 26). Sirk is also sympathetically middlebrow in his approach to the candy-colored romance-paperback fantasies of Magnificent Obsession (1954; August 25).

One of the most popular films of its year, Magnificent Obsession looks as if it had been transcribed directly from the unconscious of 1954 America. Rock Hudson is a worthless playboy who indirectly causes the death of a saintly doctor and the blinding of his wife (Jane Wyman). Hudson works out his guilt by studying mysticism, courting Wyman, and (having in the meantime finished medical school and emerged as a brilliant surgeon) restoring her eyesight. As you watch Magnificent Obsession, every 10 minutes or so you think that the society that produced this must have been terribly screwed up. Then suddenly the film becomes even more outrageous and you don't know what to think. Wyman, Hudson, and Sirk make the film's insanity feel emotionally inevitable. Sirk photographs his interiors both to show them off to their full House Beautiful advantage and to make us see them as a theater of incorporeal forces.

Written on the Wind, though, has Sirk's most inflamed visuals. The screen, crisscrossed with diagonals, is tense with conflict from the start: each character is introduced in his or her own turbulent, isolated frame. The film comes from a lurid psychic enclave where symbols of sex and power wage primeval war. The first thing we learn about alcoholic oil heir Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) is that he has just flown 2000 miles for a steak sandwich. Rock Hudson, as Stack's best friend, a paragon of useless virtue, hangs around long enough to collect Stack's nobly suffering wife (Lauren Bacall). Dorothy Malone wants only Hudson, but because he keeps rejecting her she turns into the town slut. The interplay of these four is a Racine tragedy restaged as desperate Texas melodrama. The glittering sets are projections of the characters' fears and desires: mirrors, doors, screens, and windows outline a psychological space that throbs and bleeds in Technicolor.

For a follow-up to the hugely successful Written on the Wind, Sirk turned to a little-read Faulkner novel, Pylon, and made The Tarnished Angels, a harrowing masterpiece of disintegration. It's his richest film. Robert Stack is back as a war ace reduced to entertaining small-town gawkers by flying life-endangering stunts in a near-salvage-heap plane. Malone returns as Stack's wife, a parachute jumper, and Hudson gives a curiously self-effacing performance (one inevitably becomes a Hudson fan from following him through Sirk's movies) as a reporter who shares Malone's appreciation of Willa Cather. Sirk finds the equivalent to Faulkner's profundity in externals -- masks, rituals, and rapidly shifting surfaces -- and in the behavioral ambiguities that unfold as the characters play their most intimate scenes in the presence of others, emotions in full view.

Imitation of Life, Sirk's last film, is also paradoxical: a work of savage irony that rarely stops mocking and criticizing its characters, it builds to an emotional pitch unmatched in Hollywood movies. Filtering its analysis of gender and ethnic roles through the metaphor of show business, the film parallels the rise of a model (Lana Turner) to Broadway stardom with the efforts of a black (Susan Kohner, who is, unfortunately, white) woman to pass for white in a tawdry nightclub underworld. Sirk demonstrates a Jamesian eye for nuances of inauthenticity, and he attacks the ideology of love: his lovers act as if they had the right to control the beloved. His characters redeem themselves only in emotional collapse. In its stylistic mastery and unremitting pessimism, Imitation of Life summed up Sirk's career, and it makes a fitting conclusion to the Brattle's short sample of his work.

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