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The Tarnished Angels

The Tarnished Angels

By Ben Nicholson • August 28th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
THE TARNISHED ANGELS (MOVIE)
Universal

Original release: January 11th, 1958
Running time: 91 minutes

Director: Douglas Sirk
Writer: William Faulkner, George Zuckerman

Cast: Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Jack Carson

The Tarnished Angels

We all have recurring dreams or themes that reappear across multiple nights of slumber as our subconscious tries to work through some aspect of our increasingly busy lives. Until a few years ago, I dreamed regularly about flying. It’s a fairly typical dream type that swathes of the population have and is considered, it seems, to represent freedom. The ground is the shackling daily grind of real life and we leap into the air, like Superman, and are able untether ourselves and escape from the oppressive stress of day-to-day existence.

That longing for a sense of freedom is surely one of the main contributing factors behind humanity’s long-held desire to fly. From the use of kites in China in the second century BC, through da Vinci’s famous deign, all the way to the Wright brothers; our fascination with heading up, up, and away has always been more than a purely practical consideration. It’s one man’s addiction to that aforementioned sense of freedom that proves the catalyst in Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels, based on William Faulkner’s novel Pylon.

Most well-known for his Technicolor melodramas, this monochrome feature is widely regarded as the director’s bleakest work. As a viewer who always seems drawn to the miserable over the jocular, it seems the perfect place to begin my relationship with him and his films. Rock Hudson may headline, but he stumbles into a story in full swing when he arrives in the carnival atmosphere of a traveling air show that’s landed in New Orleans. The dynamic he becomes embroiled in is that of the Flying Shumann’s; a family of sky high performers headlined by barnstorming pilot, Roger (Robert Stack).

The Tarnished Angels

After meeting Roger’s young son, Jack (Christopher Olsen), at the airshow, Burke Devlin (Hudson) is introduced to the rest of the troupe: Roger’s beautiful parachutist wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone) and mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson). Devlin, we come to learn, is a talented reporter and perennial sot, disillusioned with the kind of stories he’s forced to cover at his paper. He’s hit the field of the show in search of a human interest angle; a drama and cast that he can immortalise in print and who will provide a moving narrative for readers.

What follows would undoubtedly achieve Burke’s desires – as LaVerne’s downtrodden but devoted backstory is revealed along with Roger’s adamantine callousness. It seems that everyone’s in love with LaVerne, whether they’ll admit it or not, but she only has eyes for Roger. He, of course, claims disinterest and seems to prove it when he asks the unspeakable of his wife in order to secure him a plane with which to fly the shows crowing race, a death-defying challenge around a course. If he has room in his heart for only one, that one would appear to be Uranus, god of the sky.

The Tarnished Angels is shot through with elements of Greek tragedy and you get the sense from early on that Roger Shumann’s fatal flaw may be his addiction to being airborne. I’ve seen it posited that the film has an undercurrent of the more mystical to it; that Roger is actually The Tarnished Angelsone of eponymous angels, with the title taken as literal. As a fallen angel, he harbours a desperation to return to heaven and that is what drives him to fly in these dangerous races. There are also other indicators that could support this theory if certain aspects of plot and ise-en-scène are interpreted as such.

I, for one, have a far more human reading of Shumann – leaving the talk of heaven and angels as purely allegorical. For me The Tarnished Angels is a wonderful look at a man never capable of being at ease on the ground. His previous fame was as a hotshot WWI fighter pilot and he’s arguably that now typical cinematic soldier who shines in the glory of battle, but for whom the real world offers little. As such, he’s never able to let go of his grip on the planes that made him famous and – in a similar fashion to the much more recent Hurt Locker – is incapable of leaving behind the near-death existence of war.

Of course, this means he’s never been able to give LaVerne the love she craves, and deserves, and we slowly see that this, in turn, means the same for Jiggs and Burke himself, who both hold candles for her. As they attempt to help her, save her, comfort her, she turns back to Roger – and he’s busy getting his plane ready for that next perilous flight. Whether he’s aiming at self-destruction, or just desperate to feel alive again, he seems to be shooting for that sense of freedom flying promises us all.

The Tarnished Angels

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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