When I recall films I’ve seen and loved, my memory most often fixates first on fantastic scenes, lines of dialogue, performances, shots, musical cues — the concrete things that film stories are usually made of. With this film it’s different; I find myself thinking about reds, oranges, yellows, browns, I’m so caught up in this film’s marvelous color scheme that I may not even get to thinking about the pure whites of the winter in the film’s second half, or the rainbow window in the room of Cary’s daughter, or the green of the trees and the blue of the sky. Technicolor may as well have been invented for Hans Detlef Sierck and for him alone.
Douglas Sirk, that is. Born in Hamburg in 1897, fled Germany with the rise of the Nazis. Before the war, he studied theatre and made a number of dramatic films, but after the war he found himself working for Universal Studios, making money and gaining fame with his treatment of melodramatic stories in the genre of the women’s’ picture, the female melodrama.
Cary Scott is an affluent widow, living in a suburb, introduced wearing two separate shades of gray on her coat and undershirt; she’s trapped in a very gray life. Ron Kirby is her gardener, who’s smart, kind, and introduced to us wearing a light-brown suit with a white shirt underneath. Cary, before her first true conversation with him, is talking to her friend Sarah, an embodiment of the suffocating upper middle class country club culture, and she’s frankly dressed like a clown: two scarves, one green and one purple, a blue coat and red lipstick, which matches her bright hair. There’s no greater sin in a Douglas Sirk film than wearing colors that clash, and she’s an eyesore. One might call her tasteless if that word didn’t come with certain connotations about class. One truly progressive thing about Sirk’s films: he truly believes that taste transcends class, and that quite often it’s the working class who really have it.
You’d certainly have to believe that to work in the genre of the female weepie. Sirk made melodramas for female audiences and, largely because of a distaste in the (male) critical sphere for anything female, his films were never critically well received, though they certainly had their fans. Among them were thousands of women, but also Jean-Luc Godard, who wrote in 1958: “I am going to write a madly enthusiastic review of Douglas Sirk’s latest film, simply because it set my cheeks afire,” Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who adapted All That Heaven Allows into his own story about racism, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Andrew Sarris, who wrote in his book The American Cinema, “Time, if nothing else, will vindicate Douglas Sirk.” He was right.
After her eyesore friend leaves, Ron asks Cary if she needs help carrying a box of china, which leads to her asking him if he needs any coffee, which leads to a quick lunch. When Cary goes to sit down on her patio table for lunch, Ron pulls her chair out for her, but it’s clear he’s doing this because he’s a well mannered person. He speaks in very quick sentences, and her interest in him isn’t overtly romantic, just curious about his life. In this exchange, Sirk picks the perfect moment to break their comfy two-shot and move into close-ups. But it’s not a romantic moment: it’s the moment Kirby talks about the death of his father. Then they start talking about trees. He thanks her for the coffee, and leaves. One truly special thing about this film is the nonchalance with which its romance proceeds: there’s no meet cute, no inciting incident, no ceremony when the romance begins. For all his melodramatic reputation, Sirk has captured a truly realistic representation of a relationship’s beginning.
The film proceeds, as Cary goes with her “friend” Harvey to a dinner party at the country club, where we meet the townspeople, the women who gossip about Cary and the men who throw themselves at her. Cary wears a bright red dress, and it never stops being the centre of attention. “It’s about time you wore something besides that old black velvet!” says her daughter, while her country club “friends” talk about how so few widows wear red because it draws so much attention. Harvey sums up Sirk’s entire modus operandi with just four words to Cary: “That color becomes you!” There’s another scene later on where the color theory is so front-and-center it’s no longer subtextual at all: when Cary must first decide whether to live with Ron or not, it’s a push-and-pull motion. She goes from the window to a point further inside the house, and she’s alternately bathed in orange light without Ron and blue light with him. The scene ends with a streak of blue light in an orange room, Ron silhouetted by the fireplace, their two worlds united. Sirk’s taste is exquisite.
But it’s more than just color. Sirk’s placement of objects in the frame for metaphorical, witty purpose is unmatched in the melodrama canon. In the first conversation between Cary and her children, he frames it in a mirror, and then casts Cary’s room in a melancholic blue light, while her children stand outside in the yellow hallway. When Cary and Ron first enter the old mill, there are two objects that subtly eclipse them: a beam of blue sunlight and a spiderweb, literally a ray of hope shining upon something old and forgotten. All over the film, there’s the strategic placement of fireplaces (some with cauldrons, heating up and steaming some water) and room dividers. And of course, there’s that lovely rainbow window in Cary’s daughter’s room that reflects a dizzying array of emotions upon Cary in the most significant part of her transformation in the film’s last act. Sirk and Ron really have the same job: they arrange a garden of objects, all with significance, in an order that emphasizes their meanings and brings new meanings in. Sirk’s cinema is the cinema of interior decoration.
But Sirk cannot take all the credit for this film’s brilliance. Jane Wyman, who is always quiet about her feelings, who never reveals too much to us, truly holds the key to this film’s delicate emotional balance. She’s our point of view, and much of what she’s asked to do is simple reaction: reacting to the two contrasting parties at the start of the film, to the town’s disapproval of Ron, to her children’s protests; but Wyman never allows this character to become passive. She is always smoldering but never burning up, always quietly stewing in her feelings, only allowing us moments of catharsis at just the right time. She will shake you to her core when the children buy her a television set with nothing but a look. Like the rest of the film, she is aware of the effect of even the most subtle change.
Rock Hudson’s portrayal of Ron Kirby, as I’ve said above, is the skeleton key to understanding the underbelly of this film’s love story. Hudson is strong and caring, sometimes quite firm with Cary, but always respectful. He’s a simple man not because he’s dumb, but because he speaks simply (about only the things that are important). He gets angry with the country club, but only because it’s clear he doesn’t fit in. Rock Hudson walks the fine line of sensitivity and masculinity. What are we to make of Hudson’s secret homosexuality in real life? Is Sirk some kind of genius of code, who knew about this and made the story secretly about this homosexual love? No. Sirk is aware of unconscious drives (evident from Cary’s daughter discussing Freud and the Oedipus complex in the film’s second scene) but understands the application of this narrative to a wide array of “forbidden love” stories. This could just as easily stand in for a gay relationship as an interracial one (it does in Fear Eats The Soul). Sirk deals in richly detailed archetypes, and he’s aware of what he’s implying. For example, every time he cuts away when Cary and Ron are making love (as the Hays code mandated) he cuts to an image of an animal. He takes great care to remind us that this love is perfectly natural. Make of that what you will.
Is the hysteria of the townsfolk, that Cary would marry a poor gardener, just a bit ridiculous? Yes, but this is not a film about a town that’s prejudiced against a gardener, it’s a film about how that prejudice affects their love. Any more focus on the obstacles would betray the film’s simple focus and distort the love story. We don’t need to know about their classism, since there’s nothing all too complex about it. Sirk’s film runs only 88 minutes, and covers such a breadth of emotions with just a few characters and even fewer incidents. Though the emotions are big, the story is quite small. Sirk abides by Ron’s own rule: he “absolutely refuses to let unimportant things become important.”
I could go on listing brilliant things about Sirk’s work here, but one of the most brilliant of all is that he manages a surprise ending (which I won’t spoil) in a story where you can predict nearly every plot beat beforehand. Sirk was largely hated by critics because his films were populist and enjoyed by a large audience of women (and our culture has never stopped scoffing at the very smart things enjoyed by a large amount of women). Perhaps this film’s romance is applicable to Sirk’s own romance with the womens’ picture: the old, upper class, intelligent German filmmaker comes to a new place and finds a drama with an intelligence none of his peers can see, intelligent because it deals in gestures and emotions and carefully selects what’s important, and though the critics, like the country club friends of the film, hated him for it, he celebrated the life that they offered him. Thank goodness Sirk cared more about good taste than he cared about class.