Monday, August 25, 2008

Three Sirk Melodramas

In a new essay at Moving Image Source, Chris Fujiwara contrasts audience responses to Douglas Sirk's 1950s melodramas in the United States and Japan. He argues that Sirk was sincere about his characters' emotions while remaining detatched from the assumptions of the society he depicted. Yes and no. I'm astonished that people would find The Tarnished Angels (1958) funny, but Written on the Wind (1956) has such an ambiguous tone that, when it came time for me to write about it for the blog, I was too intimidated by it to do more than analyze its structure a little. However, I don't see any evidence of Sirk's detatchment from, say, the conservative sexual politics in All I Desire (1953), in which Naomi Murdoch/Barbara Stanwyck is triumphantly restored to the family she abandoned ten years earlier in order to pursue a career on the stage. If this makes Sirk an idiot, then by default so are millions of people who went to see his films in the 50s, the vast majority of whom no doubt believed in their messages.

Seeing All That Heaven Allows (1955) again, I was especially impressed by the subtlty of Jane Wyman's performance. Consider the scene where Cary Scott/Wyman, a suburban widow, is Christmas tree shopping when she runs into Ron Kirby/Rock Hudson, a much younger tree farmer, for the first time since calling off their engagement, and they realize they still love each other. They only make small talk ("I didn't know these trees were yours." "No, they're Mick's"), and yet Wyman has such an expressive face that she's able to convey an emotion without over-playing it. Sirk's restraint as a director is crucial. A master of group stagings and of moving his actors around the set, he's able to direct the viewer's gaze much more subtly through his mise en scène, only going in for close-ups when he needs to. When Mona Plash/Jacquelin de Wit, the town gossip, first sees Cary getting into Ron's car, the reaction shot of Mona and the butcher is too much by half, but this is a rare lapse rather than typical. I find the film so moving precisely because it doesn't bully the viewer with heavy-handed effects.

However, the movie really lays it on thick with the symbolism equating Cary with a freightened deer. The deer first appears outside Ron's home in the woods. When Cary pulls up in her car, Ron's feeding it out of his hand in the snow. He and Cary step inside the old mill, which Ron has renovated so that the two of them can live there. At the end of the sequence, Sirk cuts back to the deer who scurries away. After Ron falls off a cliff and suffers a concussion, Cary, who hasn't seen him since the night she went shopping for a Christmas tree, comes to his sickbed. In the morning, she opens the improbably large shutters of the improbably large window that Ron installed for her in the old mill. As Ron wakes up, the camera moves to the window where the deer reappears. The pastoral setting and innocuous deer offer such a kitschy image of nature that I can't help but laugh at it.

The film's gender politics haven't aged well. Although Ron and his friends, Mick/Charles Drake and Alida/Virginia Grey, enjoy an alternative lifestyle avant la lettre (Ron doesn't read "Walden," he just lives it), Mick and Alida's marriage is strictly conventional. Mick, a former advertising executive turned tree farmer, is the breadwinner and Alida takes care of the housework. I don't see any evidence here of Sirk's detatchment from the assumptions about the roles of men and women in the society he depicted.

Imitation of Life (1959) even goes so far as to equate being a woman with motherhood. Lora Merideth/Lana Turner is a single mother whose career as an actress prevents her from spending time with her daughter, Susie/Sandra Dee. According to the film, she would've been better off had she married, Steve Archer/John Gavin, an aspiring photographer whose dreams of having his work exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art lead to a steady job in the advertising department at a beer company. In an early scene, she runs out on a lunch date with Steve to see a talent agent, Allen Loomis/Robert Alda, but when Loomis advises her to sleep her way to the top, she tells him that she doesn't want to make it that way. A few months later, Loomis calls her about an audition for a new play by David Edwards/David O'Herlihy, a thinly-veiled parody of Noel Coward. Steve, who's just sold one of his photographs to the beer company, tells Lora not to go because he doesn't want to see her get hurt again and gives her an ultimatum: "If you leave, it's over between us." She decides to go. Although the play leads to a career on the stage, once Lora makes it on Broadway, she finds that fame isn't everything she dreamed it would be. Eventually, Lora's inability to lock that down causes a rift between her and Susie, who develops an Oedipal hang-up on Steve when he reenters their lives after a ten-year absense. The choice offered to Lora is one between something real--namely, Steve--and chasing her dreams on the stage, and although she's right in the short run (she gets the part without having to compromise herself), she ends up paying for it in the long run.

Although Lora's black maid, Annie Johnson/Junita Moore, is a devoted single mother, her fair-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane/Susan Kohner, resents her for her race and tries to pass for white. Eventually, she too goes into show business but not on Broadway. The first time Steve (and the audience) sees the grown-up Sarah Jane, he remarks, "The last time I saw you, you were all legs." "I've still got them." Shortly after, we see Sarah Jane in her bedroom in a low-cut nighty in order to prove the validity of her claim and to foreshadow Annie's discovery that she's been working in a sleazy cabaret. When she runs away, Steve hires a private detective to find her. In the film's most heart-breaking scene, Annie travels to California where Sarah Jane is working at a more upscale cabaret, not to bring her home, but to look at her one last time. When Sarah Jane's white roommate drops in, Annie says that she used to look after Sarah Jane, recalling the film's first scene in which Lora asks Annie, "How long have you taken care of Sarah Jane?" As Annie leaves, Sarah Jane whispers, fighting back tears, "Goodbye... Momma." In both sets of mothers and daughters, acting comes between them, preventing Lora from giving love and Sarah Jane from accepting it.

There's Always Tomorrow (1956) was Sirk's second film with Barbara Stanwyck after All I Desire, and in both movies, like Lora in Imitation of Life, her character chooses her career over a family only to regret it later. Here, Clifford Groves/Fred MacMurray is a family man going through a mid-life crisis when an old flame from his youth, Norma Vale/Stanwyck, now a successful fashion designer, shows up at his house one night out of the blue. He bumps into her again at a resort in the desert, but when his son, Vinnie/William Renyolds, shows up unexpectedly with his girlfriend, Ann/Pat Crowley, and sees them together, Vinnie begins to suspect they're having an affair. It's all quite innocent and soon after Clifford invites Norma to their house for dinner so she can meet his wife, Marion/Joan Bennett, who never suspects a thing. Afterwards, Marion tells Clifford that she feels sorry for Norma who so obviously wants to have a family. It's to the movie's credit that Norma isn't a home wrecker or a femme fatale, but once again the film reflects the assumption of post-war American society that the man is the head of a household and a woman's place is in the home.

What does this proove? That Sirk, working in popular genres (primarily melodrama), made films whose messages flattered the attitudes of their audience--primarily middleclass white housewives. Certainly one can find evidence of ideological tensions in his films. In Imitation of Life, although Annie talks about hitting Sarah Jane, we never see Annie do it as it might complicate our sympathy for her. Although viewers in the 1950s probably thought nothing of it, seen today even the fact that she brings it up to reassure Lora is troubling. However, it does seem to me that there are moments when Sirk is being knowingly ironic. In Written on the Wind, when Kyle Hadley/Robert Stack, upon learning he's sterile, walks out of the pharmacy and sees a boy riding a mechanical horse, the image is so over-loaded with symbolism that it gets a laugh. In All That Heaven Allows, the mix of the subtle acting and over the top symbolism creates a push-pull effect, at once drawing us into the characters' emotions while keeping us outside the film by calling attention to its own artifice. Mirrors and windows are two recurring motifs that literally frame the characters. When Cary plays the piano in one scene, the shape of the reflective surface has the same dimensions as CinemaScope. (That said, the symbolism in A Time to Love and a Time to Die [1958] doesn't strike me as funny, intentionally or otherwise.) Since All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life are all overtly critical of post-war American materialism, Sirk's critical distance might reflect the original audience's ambivilance about the subject, condemning and celebrating it at the same time.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Silent Light

In my most recent entry on Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, I noted that the consensus among English-speaking reviewers was that 2007 was a pretty great year for the movies. Writing about this year's Toronto Film Festival line-up, Michael Sicinski confesses that he's still catching up with films from last year. Personally, if I were back in the 'Fax, I'd play it cool and wait for the films to come to me, confident that most--though certainly not all--of the year's important releases would turn up at Video Difference on Quinpool Rd. eventually. But seeing as I'm in Busan, I've decided to take matters into my own hands and started torrenting. I've even drawn up a far from exhaustive list of nineteen must sees (plus the one I watched on Tuesday): Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra, Eric Rohmer's Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon, Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit, Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' (Endless), Christophe Honoré's Les Chansons d'Amour, Claude Chabrol's La Fille coupée en deux, Ulrich Seidl's Import Export, José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia, Michelange Quay's Mange, ceci est mon corps, Lee Chang-dong's Milyang (Secret Sunshine), Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely, Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, Naomi Kawase's The Mourning Forest, Jacques Rivette's Ne touchez pas la hache, John Gianvito's Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, Jiang Wen's The Sun Also Rises, André Téchiné's Les Témoins, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Le Voyage du ballon rouge and Roy Andersson's You, the Living. Obviously this list is slanted against American films since I saw most of the worthwhile titles back in Canada.

Silent Light

I wasn't a fan of Carlos Reygadas' first two features, Japón (2002) and Battle of Heaven (2005), although both won passionate admirers. Without seeing them again, it's difficult to say whether Reygadas' third feature, Silent Light, represents a breakthrough or whether I simply missed the boat on his earlier work. Japón was obviously influenced by Bruno Dumont and Abbas Kiarostami, which is fine, but it didn't--or so it seemed to me at the time--bring anything new to the table. (When Battle of Heaven premiered at Cannes, Reygadas started citing Werner Herzog as an influence, which only seemed to endear him more to some reviewers. In any event, I was disgusted and bored by the film's celebration of religious masochism.) Silent Light lifts even more liberally from the art movie canon than its predecessors, but its sounds and images are too wondrous for it to be dismissed as a mere knock-off.

The film's similarities with Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet (1955) are inescapable. Both are about isolated religious sects--in this case, Dutch Mennonites living somewhere in Mexico--and both end with religious miracles. However, the style of Silent Light isn't very Dreyeresque. For starters, Dreyer's film was adapted from a play by Kaj Munk and is essentially an actor's film. The director's mobile long takes maintain a unity of time and space. It's set mainly indoors and was shot on a soundstage. Reygadas' is scarcely a narrative film. (The opening shot, slowly panning across the night sky with the sound of crickets on the soundtrack, recalls Bill Viola's The Passing [1991].) His static set ups regard the characters, all played by non-professionals, as painterly subjects, placing them in the exact center of the 'Scope frame as a Wes Anderson might. When he does move his camera, it's often a smooth dolly that moves slowly in on the characters or just as slowly away from them. Reygadas favors a constructive approach to montage, rarely (if ever) giving the viewer an establishing shot of the entire space. In a funeral sequence near the end of the film, we never see the whole congregation together, but isolated medium shots of two or three people at a time. Much of the film is set outside, and Reygadas' talent for shooting landscapes is stunning. For the first time in a Reygadas film, one senses the emergence of a unique sensibility.

There are a lot of striking images in the film but I want to talk about one in particular that occurs maybe forty minutes into the film. Up to this point, the narrative has seemingly maintained a close temporal unity. The first time we see the film's protagonist, Johan/Cornelio Wall, he's having breakfast with his wife, Ester/Miriam Toews, and their six children. In the next sequence, he pays a visit to his friend, Zacarias/Jacobo Klassen, a mechanic, and speaks frankly about the fact that he's having an affair. This is followed by a brief scene in which he meets Marianne/Maria Pankratz for some midday neckin' in the desert. Later, Johan and his family visit an outdoor bath. All of this could've happened in a single day, so when the next sequence showed Johan's father/Peter Wall and mother/Elizabeth Fehr milking their cows in the early morning hours, I assumed this was the next day. After Johan tells his father that he's having an affair, the two men step outside to talk about it. In a shot reminiscent of the opening scene of John Ford's The Searchers (1956), Johan's father opens the barn door to reveal that the ground is covered in snow, retroactively signaling an ellipsis in the narrative. Additionally, this calls into question the apparent temporal unity of the earlier scenes. Reygadas is obviously paying homage to Ford with this shot, but given its placement in the film, its function is radically different.

For some time now, Roger Ebert has been championing what he's termed the "New Mexican Cinema" of Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro. (Who is the old Mexican cinema?) Unlike Reygadas, all three have made films in Hollywood with varying degrees of success. Del Toro has made three Spanish-language films, one in Mexico and two in Spain. I haven't seen Cronos (1993) or The Devil's Backbone (2001), but I was sufficiently impressed by Pan's Labyrinth (2006) that I sought out Hellboy (2004) to see what del Toro brought to the material, which turned out to be very little. I haven't seen Cuarón's first feature, Sólo con tu pareja (1991), but his fourth, Y tu mamá también (2001), while not the best Mexican film I've seen, runs a close second after Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962). I loved A Little Princess (1995) and I liked Great Expectations (1998), but Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) is indistinguishable from the first two films in the series, and Children of Men (2006) was wildly overrated when it came out for being nominally more challenging than most Hollywood fare. (One wonders if the rumors about the studio not wanting to release it at Christmas time because it was too bleak were actually cooked up by the publicity department in order to lend the film an aura of artfulness.) I liked Iñárritu's Amores perros (2000) when it came out for its style and dark humor, but his subsequent two films make me wonder if the over-generous response from reviewers hasn't gone to his head. 21 Grams (2003), his first English-language film, is such a humorless dirge one might think it was a Canadian film if not for the non-linear plot which makes the story slightly challenging to follow. With Babel (2006), one wonders if the filmmakers were trying to confirm every ethnic stereotype they could think of: the film gives us ass-hole gringo millionaires, their Mexican maid (an illegal alien, natch) and her drunk ass-hole son, a slutty Japanese schoolgirl, and Innocent Arab Children Literally Caught in the Crossfire of International Conflicts. Although Reygadas is fluent in English (see the interview included on the DVD of Battle in Heaven), he has no apparent desire to make a film in Hollywood. This doesn't make him more Mexican than the other three--Silent Light, after all, was filmed in Dutch--but it speaks to the vast difference between filmmakers trying (and often failing) to do good work inside the studio system and an uncompromising independent. As talented as Cuarón, Iñárritu and del Toro are, Reygadas is in a different class altogether.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Three Lubitsch Musicals

I've seen three of five Ernst Lubitsch musicals starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald with Monte Carlo (1930) and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) yet to screen. I may have to give those two a pass. Two of the films so far have been charming (and one not so charming), but none of them have been particularly great and I don't know how much more of MacDonald's singing I can take. Not screening is Rouben Mamoulian's brilliant Love Me Tonight (1932), also starring Chevalier and MacDonald, in which a tune sung by Maurice/Chevalier, a tailor in a working class neighborhood in Paris, is carried from one character to another like the Olympic torch until it reaches Princess Jeanette/MacDonald's fairy tale castle.

The Love Parade (1929) is the not so charming one. Count Alfred Renard/Chevalier marries Queen Louise of Sylvania/MacDonald only to find that he doesn't much like living in his wife's shadow. To teach her a lesson, he throws a hissy fit and threatens not to attend the opening of the country's opera, which would cause a scandal. He embarasses her by showing up late, and then reduces her to tears by staring at one of the dancers through a pair of binoculars. According to the film, for them to have a happy marriage, Louise would have to submit completely to Alfred and hand over any say in matters of state, which she doesn't much excel at anyway. In one scene, her advisers are telling her to borrow money from America when Alfred barges in and explains how everything in the budget can be payed for by exploiting natural resources, having mastered macro economics in a matter of days. The hero is a jerk, it's not funny and the songs stink.

One Hour With You (1932) was Lubitsch's fourth film with Chevalier and MacDonald, and his second time filming Lothar Schmidt's play "Only a Dream," so it's hardly surprising his heart wasn't in it. (It's telling that Lubitsch shares the same title credit with his assistant, George Cukor, suggesting that the latter directed some scenes.) The screenplay by Sam Raphelson is no more inventive that it absolutely needs to be: Dr. Andre Bertier/Chevalier and his wife Colette/MacDonald are happily married (which, in the world of the film, simply means they still enjoy screwing after three years of marriage) until the latter's best friend, Mitzi/Genevieve Tobin, returns from Lauzanne and tries to seduce the former. It's indicative of the shallowness of the script that Andre is only tempted to sleep with Mitzi, who looks perpetually drunk, because she's a willing woman. The film's most eccentric stylistic traits--the strecthes of rhyming dialogue leading into the musical numbers and Andre's assides to the camera--no doubt come from Schmidt's play, and aren't matched Lubitsch's sounds and images, which are strictly functional. Parts of the film are tinted, with blue corresponding to moonlight and yellow representing interior lights; daytime scenes aren't tinted, even when the characters are inside. This is enjoyable enough, I suppose, but not especially memorable.

The last film in the cycle, The Merry Widow (1934) is a pleasant enough diversion. The film opens in the imaginary country of Marshovia where Count Danilo/Chevalier has beded the entire female populace except the widow Sonia/MacDonald, who refuses even to lift her black veil. Deciding she's had enough of Marshovia, Sonia splits for Paris. The richest woman in Marshovia, Sonia pays fifty-two percent of the country's taxes. Fearing that an economic crisis would lead to a revolution, King Achmet/George Barbier sends Danilo to Paris to seduce her. But before checking in with the embassy to get the details of his mission, Danilo heads to a cabaret where he's far from a stranger and meets Sonia who tells him her name is Fifi. The plot piles on the standard romantic comedy crisises, although Lubitsch seems more interested in sustaining individual sequences than advancing the plot. (Two particular highlights are King Achmet discovering his wife, Dolores/Una Merkel, in bed with Danilo, and Danilo and "Fifi"'s first meeting in the cabaret.) Made the same year as Mark Sandrich's The Gay Divorcée starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, it's the only Chevalier-MacDonald film in which the stars are required to do any dancing. There's one striking sequence in which Lubitsch contrasts the solitary waltzing of the two leads with an embassy ball packed with twirling dancers. At 99 minutes, it does go on a bit too long, but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

Two Sirk Melodramas

Douglas Sirk's Sleep, My Love (1948) is one of those movies in which everybody thinks the woman is hysterical, but it turns out that there really are people plotting against her. Here, Alison Courtland/Claudette Colbert is being terrorized by a psychiatrist with horn-rimmed glasses that no one else has seen. One is reminded of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938), but where that film had a clear intent, I'm not sure what the purpose of Sirk's film is. Was he trying to warn viewers against trusting their spouses? It's skillfully made without being exceptional on any level.

A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), in contrast, has a very simple purpose. Not unlike Clint Eastwood's recent Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) about Japanese soldiers fighting in World War II, it wants us to empathize with a single German soldier and his girlfriend. Given their ideological agenda, these films--and Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall (2004)--can't deal with the rise of facism, only its decline. Sirk's film begins and ends on the Russian Front in 1944 with the Germans in retreat and taking heavy losses. While on leave from the front, Ernst Graeber/John Gavin falls in love with and marries a nice girl, Elizabeth Kruse/Liselotte Pulver, whose father (never seen) is in a concentration camp. Despite being a bit sentimental, this works far better as storytelling than either Eastwood or Hischbeigel's films, and Sirk's widescreen compositions are often stunning, especially in the opening and closing scenes which are set mainly outdoors and in the countryside. However, as much as one appreciates the film's non-stereotypical treatment of the Germans, one regrets the way it shies away from the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Films by Ernst Lubitsch and Douglas Sirk

Friday was the first day of Cinémathèque Busan's nearly month-long program of films by Ernst Lubitsch and Douglas Sirk, two German directors who made it big in Hollywood but otherwise have little in common. I've seen six films so far, some brilliant, all of interest, and among those yet to screen, I can recommend Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), and Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959). The quality of the prints varies dramatically, and three Sirk films (all pre-1954) are being screened on 16mm.

The first film I saw, Sirk's inexplicably titled Shockproof (1949), is a deterministic melodrama about a female ex-con falling back into her old habits. Its social agenda and overall structure recall Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937), but there are some striking differences between the two. Here, the heroine, Jenny Marsh/Patricia Knight, didn't actually commit the crime she went to prison for but took the rap in order to protect her boyfriend, Harry Wesson/John Baragrey, a professional gambler. Rather than being driven to crime by economic desperation, her biggest problem is having lousy friends. She's only out of jail a few days when she and Harry are picked up in a bookie joint in violation of her parole. But rather than sending her back to prison, Jenny's eccentric parole officer, Griff Marat/Cornel Wilde, forbids her to see Harry and gets her a job looking after his own blind mother so he can keep an eye on her. In other words, like Mark/Sean Connery in Hitchcock's Marnie (1964), he tries to make an honest woman of her. Soon she's even cooking dinner for him like a "normal, decent" housewife. The script by Helen Deutsch and Samuel Fuller has plenty of twists, and Sirk's elegant mise en scéne helps to elevate the material, but the happy ending is so unconvincing that I can only hope it was imposed unwillingly on the filmmakers by the studio.

Made just before the implementation of the Hays Code, Lubitsch's Design for Living (1933) is as striking for its frank attitude about sex as it is dated in its sexual politics. On a train bound from Marseilles to Paris, Gilda/Miriam Hopkins, a successful commercial artist, meets Tom/Fredric March, an unsuccessful painter, and his flatmate George/Gary Cooper, an unproduced playwright, and soon after falls in love with both. Rather than break-up the boys' friendship, Gilda makes a gentlemen's agreement with them--"No sex"--and resigns herself to become "a mother of the arts," helping them to improve their craft and achieve fame. "My career doesn't matter," she announces at the outset. This is certainly enjoyable, but I wouldn't call it one of Lubitsch's best (for one thing, Tom and George are interchangable Jules and Jim types); its over-inflated reputation as a classic has more to do with the prestige of the Noel Coward play it's based on than its merit as a film.

Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956) has a three act structure with a turning point--which is basically just another act break. Notwithstanding the credit sequence, the first part of the movie is set in New York and Miami, and establishes Mitch Wayne/Rock Hudson's goal of marrying Lucy Moore/Lauren Bacall. Kyle Hadley/Robert Stack, a bazillionaire playboy and Mitch's childhood friend, functions as an antagonist who tries to lure Lucy away. The second part of the film begins with Lucy arriving in Texas after marrying Kyle in an offscreen ceremony. The turning point is Kyle's discovery that he's sterile which drives him to drink. The last part of the film is a perfunctory courtroom sequence in which Marylee Hadley/Dorothy Malone, Kyle's sister who's loved Mitch since childhood, tries to have him framed for Kyle's murder. She breaks down on the witness stand and tells the truth, which is totally inconsistant with her character. The film ends with Mitch and Lucy kissing as they get in the car to leave the Hadley estate forever.

The film divides these characters into symmetrical sets of Decent (Lucy and Mitch) and Indecent (Kyle and Marylee), associating decency with pragmatism. While Mitch gets around in a black company car, Kyle and Marylee are both associated with brightly painted convertibles. When Mitch meets Lucy in the film's second sequence, she's working in the advertising department at the Hadley Oil Company in Manhattan. Mitch is in town with Kyle, who flew in on a whim on his private plane. Mitch invites her to lunch, and when they arrive at the restaurant, Kyle is in the company of two floozies. As they're leaving, he attempts to give Mitch the slip and drives Lucy to the airport. Mitch magically gets there ahead of them, but Lucy isn't that sort of girl, anyway. In Miami, Kyle presents her with a lavish hotel room with a closet full of fur coats. But when he shows up for their date that evening, he finds that she's gone. "Lucy, are you decent?" he asks walking into the bedroom. "I guess she was." Earlier, the very fact that she favors Kyle raises doubts in Mitch's mind about her decency. "Are you looking for laughs or are you soul searching?" Kyle is only sympathetic in his desire to have a family. After he marries Lucy, he becomes temporarily decent and stops drinking. Marylee, who shows no desire to have a family, isn't sympathetic at all. Describing Mitch to one of the floozies, Kyle says, "He's eccentric. He's poor," but the movie suggests the opposite: Lucy and Mitch are normal, and Kyle and Marylee (who does less soul searching than anyone) are rich weirdos.

Adapted from William Faulkner's "Pylon" (which I haven't read), and set in Depression-era New Orleans, Sirk's The Tarnished Angels (1958) is about a straight-laced journalist, Burke Devlin/Hudson who's drawn to a family of flying daredevils that live like gypsies: hot shot pilot, Roger Schumann/Stack, his wife LaVerne/Malone, the mechanic, Jiggs/Jack Carson, and Roger and LaVerne's illiterate son, Jack/Chris Olsen. Burke's interest in them is never strictly professional and continues well after he's fired from the paper. When Roger's plane is damaged in an accident, the only person who can get him another one in time for the next day's race is a local businessman, Matt Ord/Robert Middleton, and Roger asks LaVerne to pay him a visit to persuade him, which she agrees to. For all the differences in period, milieu and tone, the emotional dynamic here is much the same as it was in Written on the Wind: Burke is in love with Roger's wife, but here LaVerne is neither a saint like Lucy Moore nor a whore like Marylee Hadley. Photographed in black-and-white and 'Scope with dramatic, high contrast lighting, the film is particularly striking for its mise en scène. Notice how Sirk moves his actors around the set rather than having them stand still while delivering lines at one another. It's at once Sirk's most compelling film and his most stylish.

Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is set almost entirely inside a gift shop in Budapest where every business relationship doubles as a personal one. (I suspect we never see the boss' wife because their relationship is strictly personal.) The two main narrative threads involve Alfred Kralik/Jimmy Stewart's relationship with the boss, Hugo Matuschek/Frank Morgen, and a new employee, Klara Novak/Margaret Sullavan, which run parallel to one another. Mr. Kralik--the characters always address each other by their last names--is the store's oldest employee and he's often invited to Mr. Matuschek's home for dinner with Mrs. Matuscheck. But when Mr. Matuschek begins to suspect that Mr. Kralik's having an affair with his wife, Mr. Kralik finds himself suddenly out of work. (Mr. Matuschek hires a private detective whose manner is entirely businesslike.) Earlier in the film, Kralik gets off on the wrong foot with Ms. Novak, each unaware that they've been corresponding anonymously through the mail for several months and plan to marry. They agree to meet at a café, but Mr. Kralik, who's just lost his job, doesn't tell her he's the one who wrote her the letters. Thinking she's been stood up, Ms. Novak falls ill at the same time Mr. Matuschek attempts suicide, and Mr. Kralik pays a visit to each. Anxieties about the Depression hang over the characters. The film contrasts Mr. Kralik, who stands up to Mr. Matuschek on business matters, with Mr. Pirovitch/Felix Bressart, who has a family to feed and runs away any time Mr. Matuschek asks his employees for their opinion. There's a moving scene, after Mr. Kralik is fired, in which Mr. Pirovitch cautiously asks Mr. Matuschek to reconsider. Written by Lubitsch's usual screenwriter, Sam Raphelson, it's typical of their best work for the way it brings out depths of feeling in seemingly light hearted material.

To be continued...