Tarnished Angels (1958)

 “The party’s next door. And that’s the way it’s always been. Next door.”

tarnishedA film directed by Douglas Sirk, based on a book by William Faulkner, and starring the luscious Dorothy Malone … what more could you ask for? Tarnished Angels is a wonderful film, certain to please Sirk fans, and if you’re new to Sirk, then you’re in for a treat. The 1950s was such an interesting period for cinema, and Tarnished Angels has to be one of the decade’s memorable films. Set in the 1930s, it’s a tale of desperate people, edgy with bitterness and disillusion risking their lives to eek out a meager living.

New Orleans reporter Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) meets a team of barnstormers at the local fair during Mardi Gras. Initially rescuing a child, Jack Schumann, from bullies, Devlin becomes fascinated with the Schumann team comprised of WWI flying ace turned stunt pilot Captain Roger Schumann (Robert Stack), his neglected wife, parachutist LaVerne (Dorothy Malone) and loyal mechanic, Jiggs (Jack Carson). Feeling sorry for the Schumann team, and with his curiosity aroused, Devlin offers them the use of his small apartment while they are in New Orleans. These are desperate times, and cash is hard to come by. The Schumanns lead a hand-to-mouth existence as they compete for prize money in their small plane, traveling across the country for various events.

Although it may appear that Devlin allows the Schumanns into his life, the reverse is true. Devlin witnesses the Schumann’s troubled marriage, and the obvious fact that Jiggs is in love with LaVerne. Roger Schumann is a cold, emotionally withdrawn man who manages to exact tremendous love and loyalty from both Jiggs and LaVerne, while they receive crumbs in return. When bitter LaVerne unburdens her troubles into Devlin’s sympathetic ears, sparks fly….

The plot, with its tragic dimensions, is strengthened by the drama of the daring and dangerous races performed by Roger Schumann. Burke Devlin plays an almost Jamesian observer role as he paws over the dregs of a cold, bitter marriage, but he also has a pivotal part in the unraveling of events as the characters tread a path to inevitable tragedy. Since this is a Sirk film (and considered his best by some fans), look for perfect shots with his subtly positioned characters.

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