Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay by: Peggy Thompson
Based on a Novel by: Edna L. Lee & Harry Lee
Starring: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead, Conrad Nagel, Virginia Grey, Gloria Talbott, William Reynolds, Jacqueline deWit
Country: USA
Running Time: 89 min
Year: 1955
BBFC Certificate: TBC

Though he was Universal’s most successful director by 1959, at the end of his run of classic melodramas for the studio, Douglas Sirk didn’t get much critical attention at the time, with his films often dismissed as throwaway “women’s weepies”. His reputation has gradually grown over time though, aided by the Cahiers du Cinéma critics that established the French new wave describing Sirk as one of Hollywood’s true auteurs. Later, directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar and Todd Haynes would profess their love of the director and pay clear tributes to him in their work.

Clearly also fans, after releasing Written on the Wind on Blu-ray last year, Criterion are double dipping on Sirk, bringing out Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows on the same day (13th March in the UK). I requested screeners of both and whilst it would have made sense to tackle the earlier Magnifcent Obsession first, I went against convention (due to a lack of time in watching the two films housed in that set) and chose to start with All That Heaven Allows.

The film brings back the three principles from Magnificent Obsession, Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson and Agnes Moorehead. This time, Wyman is playing Cary Scott, a widow living ostensibly alone in her middle-class home, as her two grown-up children, Kay (Gloria Talbott) and Ned (William Reynolds) live away at college and only visit on the weekends.

Growing tired of her lonely existence, Cary is shown a glistening alternative when Ron Kirby (Hudson) appears in her life. She finds herself drawn to this free-spirited and handsome man, who lives his best life with little care for what others think. Cary, unfortunately, does care what others think and her friends and family turn their noses up at her cavorting with a younger, less wealthy man. When the town gossip (Jacqueline deWit) spreads the word, resulting in humiliation for Cary, and when her own children refuse to support her, it all proves too much for the suffering woman, who only wants to be happy and loved.

It sounds like a typical Hollywood melodrama on the surface and Sirk himself, in an interview on this disc, says the story he was given wasn’t all that strong. However, he thought he could do something with the material by putting his own “fingerprints” on it.

And that he did. On top of the sweeping score (which makes beautiful use of Liszt’s Consolation D flat major No.3) and typically elaborate, boldly colourful production design and costuming (which are also all stunning), a lot of the dramatic legwork is done with reaction shots and clever visual clues, such as the use of Ron’s tree clipping. As such, the film can be subtler than it seems on the surface.

Likely aided by Sirk’s background in art and set design, costumes, props and production design are used very effectively here in telling the story and building characters. The use of the TV set in the film is another particularly notable example. I found it amusing at first how the TV is described as something that gives lonely women something to do, clearly a jab at the medium that was beginning to usurp cinema’s dominance of the entertainment world at the time. However, this idea is used powerfully later on when it symbolises the moment Carey has missed her chance and the closed-mindedness of her family and friends was forcing her into this solitary existence.

Thematically, the film has weight too. Sirk attacks middle-class snobbery here. His films are often described as having subtexts similar to this, but the message is front and centre this time around. The film is about breaking from convention and not getting caught up in the restrictive obsession that financial or material success is the only aim in life.

The performances are strong too. Wyman is not a well-known actress these days but she was a big star at the time. It’s a shame she isn’t better remembered as she’s a superb actress, particularly here. She says so much through subtle expressions and glances. Hudson, who was often called ‘wooden’ throughout his career, is admittedly not as nuanced in his performance as Wyman but he still has the sex appeal required for his character, so the central relationship is totally believable and has the required chemistry (despite Hudson, as is now commonly known, being homosexual in reality).

There are, as in many of Sirk’s films, some overbaked, corny and dated sequences. The bits with the deer at Ron’s cabin are a bit much, for instance. Sirk has stated that the broader elements of his films are part of his expressionistic style but I’m not always wholly convinced by their inclusion.

Ultimately though, All That Heaven Allows is a swooningly romantic melodrama with a sharp anti-bourgeoisie message providing some welcome bite. Using all the tools at his disposal, Sirk tells his story through lush imagery and cleverly constructed visual clues, to produce a strikingly cinematic May-September romance tale.

Film:

All That Heaven Allows is out on 13th March on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The transfer is stunning. The vivid colours of the film look glorious and details are remarkably crisp for the often problematic Technicolor process the original film went through. There are literally only one or two minor blemishes. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review to give you an idea of how it looks, though these have been slightly compressed. The film sounds great too, particularly the music.

The film comes with plenty of extra features too. These include:

– 2K digital restoration
– Audio commentary featuring film scholars John Mercer and Tamar Jeffers-McDonald
– Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), a groundbreaking essay film about the actor by Mark Rappaport
– French television interview with director Douglas Sirk from 1982
– Excerpts from Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk, a 1979 BBC documentary featuring rare interview footage with the director
– Contract Kid: William Reynolds on Douglas Sirk, a 2007 interview with the actor, who co-starred in three Sirk films, including All That Heaven Allows
– Trailer
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– An essay by film scholar Laura Mulvey and an excerpt from a 1971 essay on Sirk by filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The commentary from John Mercer and Tamar Jeffers-McDonald is deeply analytical, digging into how Sirk and his team use props, costumes and filmmaking techniques to tell their story. The pair of commentators are honest about aspects that have not aged well in the film but, overall, help you appreciate why the film is so effective. Having two commentators keeps the energy up too, preventing the fairly academic content from sounding too dry.

William Reynolds talks about his career and what it was like working with Sirk, comparing his approach to that of some of the other famous directors he worked with at the time. He also discusses the challenges of playing ostensibly quite an unlikeable character.

The hour-long excerpt from ‘Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk’ allows the director to take a deep dive into his life and career. It also features clips from many of his films, including one of his early German titles. It’s a must-watch extra.

The shorter French interview isn’t quite as extensive but Sirk still talks in fair detail about his craft, describing his use of sets, lighting, music and other filmmaking tools.

‘Rock Hudson’s Home Movies’ is an odd piece that mines all of the actor’s film appearances to find sexual innuendos, glances and body language that have a gay subtext. In between and over these, you get the actor Eric Farr narrating as Hudson, often appearing on-screen in moments that don’t quite work for me (he looks nothing like Hudson and appears next to the actor’s image yet speaks as him). The story told gets more meaningful and moving as it goes on though and suggests that Hollywood was fully aware of Hudson’s sexuality and played into it, even if the public was in the dark. It ends by focusing on the actor’s death from AIDS.

I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet, unfortunately, though I read the Laura Mulvey essay online and it offers a thoughtful look at Sirk’s approach to the film.

So, it’s an impressive package from Criterion, adding a great deal of supplemental material to better appreciate Sirk’s film and explore the lives of those involved in making it.

Disc/Package:

All That Heaven Allows - Criterion
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