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The Tarnished Angels

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The Tarnished Angels

Based on William Faulkner's Pylon, this 1957 Douglas Sirk film is arguably his best--a masterpiece whose intensity and scale should make it, along with such better-known works as Vertigo and The Searchers, one of the defining films of classical narrative. Set in 1930s New Orleans, it concerns Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson), a reporter who gets involved with a family headed by World War I ace Roger Shumann (Robert Stack), who's married to LaVerne (Dorothy Malone) and now competes in small-time air shows. All of Sirk's major themes are here: the impossibility of finding happiness, children as "tragedies beginning again and again" (Shumann's son Jack seems bound to repeat his father's life), haunted, half-dead characters who reduce themselves to objects (Shumann feels like nothing without his plane). Sirk uses the black-and-white 'Scope frame to create spookily intense images, the objects within them taking on almost animistic power: a businessman who lusts after LaVerne watches her walk in a shot filled with airplanes and their shadows, an overwhelmingly weird conflation of her shape and theirs that mocks his gaze while almost obliterating her presence. Even the film's sexual theme has a strange morbidity: dancers at a wild party are filmed almost headless, their writhing torsos providing a bizarre counterpoint to the melodramatic love scene they're intercut with. The whole film comes together as a poetic vision of mirrors and objects, faces and shadows, circular movements and narrative cycles, defining a world where characters are unable to see or truly feel each other's presence--more than once a Mardi Gras mask has more presence and power than a human face. To be shown in 35-millimeter. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, June 10, 6:00, 312-443-3737. --Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.

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