THE TARNISHED ANGELS nosedived in 1958 when director Douglas Sirk’s loop de loop around “Pylon”, William Faulkner’s Depression Era novel about a screwed-up group of daredevil barnstormers, took serious flak from critics and cried “Mayday!” at the box-office, cartwheeling into 79th place. Nowadays, with a cultish worship of its pilot, a regular Sirk Circus, the original level-headed verdict has turned to OMG oxygen-deprived swoons of reviewer rapture so ridiculously certain of their mission they’re like kamikazes, who could only be waved off by an untouchable Emperor. Fittingly, we quote from someone who worshipers of the Code of Bulsheedo deify as a goddess (think Kali)—Pauline Kael: “It’s the kind of bad movie that you know is bad–and yet you’re held by the mixture of polished style and quasi-melodramatics achieved by the director…” As a rule, I agree with her about as often as with the average President, but she broken-clocked this flying monkey. *
Written in 1935, set in some fanciful place resembling New Orleans, Faulkner’s turgid book was adapted by George Zuckerman, who’d scripted the 1956 pulp classic Written On The Wind for Sirk. Reuniting three of the stars from that delicious hard-breathing opus—Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack—Sirk added ever-reliable Jack Carson to help them sulk, pant and shout life into a clutch of existential losers consumed with constant boozing, whiffed promiscuity and paraded self-loathing. Buddy, can you spare a war?
Miserable ex-ace-turned-stunt-flier Stack (bellowing) races his bi-plane around pylons at fairground shows; miserable, sexually frustrated wife Malone (tight sweater silhouette duty) does suicidal parachute gambits; miserable doormat/mechanic Carson (grousing) can’t live without them. Miserable drunken reporter Hudson (rhapsodizing) becomes fascinated by the gypsy menage-a-weird. When it’s not loud and joyless, it’s slack and joyless. In between, it’s just joyless. That’s taken straight—watch it with someone who has a shared fondness for camp and you’ll have a blast.
The stops-pulled, sex-smoldering melodrama that Sirks, Zuckerman and the actors stirred with contemporary mid-50s trash like Written On The Wind was an exultant Cadillac rush of excess. Trying to strike similar emotive flint with the preach-speech of mid-30s Faulknercana leaves the cast looking ridiculous, saddled with mouthfuls of awful, pretentious dialog. Atrocious lines abound. You’ve got to hand it to the scene where Stack and Carson throw dice to see who marries Dorothy: this is handled with dead seriousness. Malone, 33, looks customarily hot, at least, though her hairstyle, makeup and bust-thrust attire are about twenty years off-base. That she could emerge from her absurd parachute scene with any dignity is good for a three-highball toast. Poor lost-sheep Hudson is—and I like Rock—simply terrible: he was better in even A Farewell To Arms, generally considered his weakest performance.
Best acting in the film comes from familiar bad guy Robert Middleton, who gets a more sympathetic role here, and doesn’t embarrass himself. Sirk stages some of the crowd and flying scenes well (one of the crashes has real flair) and the b&w cinematography from Irving Glassberg is crisp and sharp. 91 minutes, with Alan Reed, Christopher Olsen, Robert J. Wilke, Troy Donahue and William Schallert.
* Every great movie, including those you assume pretty much everyone sees as a masterpiece, has someone who thinks it stinks. Conversely, there are a lot of movies with undeserved bad raps that they can’t shake. For moi, this hairy turkey is a head-scratcher: decoding the ecstatic paeans currently making the rediscovery rounds for The Tarnished Angels is like reading “artist’s statements” in a gallery crawl: best done after several glasses of something red. The overkill emboldens me. I’d need meth and a Doberman on my lap to keep me awake through Jules and Jim and I guess I am one of just two or three people of Earth who like The Pride And The Passion (I really do–and I know one special someone who does, too–but then, she also laughs at my jokes….). I quite enjoy Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Written On The Wind (where Malone won her Oscar) and the little-seen A Time To Love And A Time To Die. His Battle Hymn (also with Rock) is a joke. I sheepishly confess to not yet bearing witness to Magnificent Obsession or Imitation Of Life. Never mind me: are you blown away by this one? Touched? Hey, that’s a good thing: you enjoy a piece of art that a bunch of dedicated craftspeople worked their tails off in order to make the best show they could. Don’t listen to the critics. Don’t listen to me. Put down that candelabra.