The beautiful thing about The Tarnished Angels, director Douglas Sirk’s adaptation of William Faulker’s novel Pylon, set during the Great Depression, is that the film remarkably encapsulates the human condition in a mere 90 minutes, using only a handful of characters and locations. Desire, love, greed, avarice, sorrow and tragedy are all present, though the film itself is a departure in style from the more overblown melodramas that Sirk is famed for. It’s a remarkable feat – that it also looks gorgeous, with its perfect silvery hues (it was shot in black and white Cinemascope, rather than in colour) and features terrific performances from Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, adds to the film’s appeal.
Roger Shumann (Stack) is a former First World War pilot, now daredevil, who travels from air show to air show to compete for the top prize. His blonde bombshell wife, LaVerne (Malone), fell in love with a poster of Shumann she saw during the war; and in a desperate bid to gain his affection, became a parachute jumper, gliding down to earth in a white floating dress. But to her driven, obsessed and foolish husband, she’s little more than an accessory, even if she is the mother to their small child, Jack, who is already itching for his own seat in a plane. It’s left to Jiggs (Jack Carson), their loyal mechanic, to worship the ground that LaVerne walks on. That is, until Burke Devlin (Hudson) arrives on the scene. The film is set during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and Devlin, a wise-cracking journalist with a drinking problem, and a thorn in his editor’s side, wants to write a human interest story about the Shumanns – about how a flying ace and all-American hero ends up scraping the barrel, living hand-to-mouth, while risking his life to compete against much younger hot-shots.
It’s a tight, claustrophobic picture, with much of the action taking place at a carnival, with the pilots racing in the air above the fair ground, flying a circuit that sees them swoop around pylons, inching ever closer to fly the tightest line. The crowd, cheering them on, will play their own role in the tragedy that unravels at the end of the film. But until then, the Mardi Gras parties and carnival atmosphere are the perfect foils for the characters’ inner torments. LaVerne has never had the chance to live her life to the full; instead she’s spent it chasing after a man’s withheld love; beautiful, charismatic, she’s endured a luckless life full of lonely nights.
Devlin, of course, falls for LaVerne, who’s charmed by his attention – although at first, he seems more interested in probing her for personal details about her marriage and life with Shumann for his newspaper story. But by insinuating himself into their lives, Devlin also has the perverse effect of eventually bringing the married couple closer together – but only after a shocking trade that the pilot tries to make with a greedy businessman: a new plane in return for his wife. Despite being portrayed as impossibly heartless, Shumann is eventually given one last shot at redemption – yet it comes at a terrible price.
Brought to life by Irving Glassberg’s expressionistic cinematography, and with an exceptional performance from Rock Hudson, who delivers a terrific epilogue to the sad story of the Shumann, The Tarnished Angels is an intriguing, unmissable slice of Americana.
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