The Tarnished Angels (1958)

FILM, Film Society
img_tarnishedangelsPreviously at the Wellington Film Society: the desperate living of Douglas Sirk’s bleak Faulkner adaptation.

It seemed a particularly Sirkian approach to make a film about desperate people living desperate lives set in the Great Depression, smack back in the middle of 1950s economic prosperity. The Tarnished Angels doesn’t have the glossy Technicolor of Sirk’s more famous work but the downbeat black and white adds to the grittiness on show. And yet for its dark subject matter, The Tarnished Angels is surprisingly thrilling and exciting, whether it’s the air races that manage to be both stark and stunning, or the characters’ quests to avoid succumbing to self-destruction.

The film is based on William Faulkner’s Pylon, and Faulkner reported said the film was “pretty good.” New Orleans reporter, Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) becomes obsessed with a group of travelling pilots/parachutists—in particular the parachutist LaVerne Shurmann (Dorothy Malone). LaVerne’s husband, Roger (Robert Stack) was a World War One fighter pilot hero, but his glory days are long gone and he is left flying cheap planes around tight courses for scant change. Completing the quartet is Roger’s mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson), who is in love with LaVerne and it seems Roger. Given the Production Code morality imposed on the film, aspects of Faulkner’s novel were sanitised, but it still feels more adult than its contemporary films.

Each of the characters suffer from an addiction in some way, whether it’s Burke’s alcoholism, LaVerne’s infatuation/love for Roger, Roger’s addiction to speed (flying that is), and Jiggs’s devotion to both Shurmanns. (It seems obvious that it’s more likely to be LaVerne—that key part of his characterisation in Pylon was no doubt watered down by the Production Code’s outright ban on adultery unless it were a “punishable sin.”) In that Sirkian way, each of the characters is able to recognise that each ought to get out, but are unable to do so. Tying it into the Great Depression—when the out is arguably more painful than the addiction itself, and indeed the out was caused by people acting in the same way—makes it a particularly bleak narrative. The carnival around them, in which the crowds have an ephemeral blow-out, as if it’s all that they can countenance, forms a key backdrop to the film.

It’s in the imagery that Sirk makes his key point: the characters are stuck in circles. That is what addiction has left these characters doing. The film is dominated by shots of ferris wheels or fairground rides that move but ultimately remain still (the scene involving LaVerne’s son watching the climactic race is a great example of this). Even the exciting races simply involve pilots going in circles. When the characters have a plane in their disposal, they go around and around. And it culminates in that brilliant final shot with a piece of typical Sirkian ambiguity. The plane finally leaves skywards, but in the last few images, it stops climbing. Its passengers may escape, but to what?

Film Societies in fourteen centres run an annual programme of weekly/monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Full details at, or for information about a film society closest to you, visit the NZ Federation of Film Societies.