Sirk #1: Captain Lightfoot (US 1955)


Captain Lightfoot is a Hollywood film adapted from a story by the prolific W. R. Burnett. It is mainly interesting as an example of the genre films with A list casts and budgets released by the studios at the time when they were trying to assert film’s dominance in the face of television’s rapid rise. The two important ingredients were the location of the story – a ‘runaway’ production in Ireland – and the combination of Ross Hunter as producer, Douglas Sirk as director and his protegé Rock Hudson as leading man.

The film was shot completely on location – in County Louth and in various country houses around the country. Sirk, quoted in Jon Halliday’s Sirk on Sirk (1997), remembered how much he loved Ireland and enjoyed the shoot despite some of the production difficulties. The story refers to attempts by Irish villagers to create a revolutionary ‘Society’ in 1815. Hotheaded local Michael Martin (Hudson) falls foul of the British and is hunted by dragoons before being rescued by a clergyman (Jeff Morrow) who turns out to be the notorious highwayman Captain Thunderbolt in disguise. Thunderbolt is the main funder of the rebels, stealing from the British in various ways, including the operation of an aristocratic gaming house in Dublin. Martin is soon inducted as Thunderbolt’s second in command and given the title ‘Lightfoot’. Lightfoot will cause various problems when he falls for Thunderbolt’s impetuous beautiful daughter (Barbara Rush).

Shot in Technicolor and early CinemaScope (2.55:1 with separate 4-track mag stereo) this is a vibrant and colourful action adventure with appropriate romance and historical/political elements. Sirk remembered that he and his cinematographer (Irving Glassberg) were required to work on early ‘Scope films in such a way that the film would work on both Scope and Academy ratio cinema screens. At this time many cinemas were still in the process of converting to widescreen – the same requirement would be made in the 1970s when most films expected to find their audience on 4:3 TV sets. Sirk also had to contend with Irish rain for many outdoor shots but he discovered an appropriate lens and he and Glassberg produced very fine outdoor action sequences. He also discovered that Rock Hudson was equipped for screen comedy to go with his dashing good looks and boyish charm.

The film offers good light entertainment and enjoyable performances. Films that see Irish resistance to British colonialism always went down well in parts of North America and I was amused to see a fist fight reminiscent of John Ford’s The Quiet Man made in the West of Ireland a few years earlier. Overall, however, I was most impressed with the confident staging and direction of actors from Douglas Sirk who was by 1955 established at Universal with Hunter’s backing and access to stars. Hudson’s performance here comes between two of his performances in Sirk’s melodramas – Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955). The relationship between Morrow and Hudson was taken as the basis for the Michael Cimino film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (US 1974) with Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.

Douglas Sirk and global film

Douglas Sirk on set with John Gavin and Liselotte Pulver during the shoot of a Time to Love and a Time to Die (1957). (photo from:

Douglas Sirk on set with John Gavin and Liselotte Pulver during the shoot of A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1957). (photo from:

Born Hans Detlef Sierck in Hamburg in 1897, Douglas Sirk was one of the many filmmakers who left Germany in the mid-1930s for political and personal safety reasons, eventually ending up in Hollywood and beginning to work on American films in the early 1940s. He died in Switzerland in 1987 nearly thirty years after his final Hollywood film Imitation of Life. In his later years, Sirk was able to enjoy the revival of interest in his films, attending the Retrospective at the Edinburgh Festival in 1972 and receiving writers such as Jon Halliday, whose book Sirk on Sirk (Secker & Warburg) first appeared in 1971 (a revised edition was published by faber & faber in 1997).

In Germany in the 1930s, Sierck had been a highly respected theatre and film director but at first in America he struggled to find the openings that would allow him to make the Hollywood A pictures that his German success and obvious talent suggested was his proper role. After a potential deal with Warner Bros. fell through, he found himself contracted as a writer at Columbia which gave him a platform to direct a number of small independent pictures released through United Artists. After briefly returning to Germany in the late 1940s he finally got a contract with Universal in 1950. Again he was mainly employed on ‘smaller’ films at Universal (like Columbia, a mini-major without much access to A list stars). However, he was able to work with long term collaborators (such as the cinematographer Russell Metty) on a range of genre films and to develop his own star, Rock Hudson. His major successes came with a series of melodramas, mainly produced in Technicolor and forms of widescreen, for the same producer Ross Hunter. These were generally seen as ‘women’s pictures’ or ‘weepies’ and as such were critically derided. But they were commercially very successful and it is these films which would be later re-evaluated by critics and film scholars in France, UK and US. These were also films seen around the world which would serve to inspire future auteurs including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar, Aki Kaurismäki and Fatih Akin.

Dorothy Malone in a melodrama composition from Written on the Wind. (This is the image that appears on the 1971 edition of Halliday's book on Sirk.)

Dorothy Malone in a melodrama composition from Written on the Wind. (This is the image that appears on the 1971 edition of Halliday’s book on Sirk.)

Sirk’s influence on younger directors is one aspect of his importance in global film. He also worked as a director in Spain, Switzerland, Holland and Ireland as well as in Germany and America. An avid reader with interests in theatre, cinema and other arts across cultures, Sirk is a major figure in film history associated primarily with the concept of melodrama, visual style and disguised social commentary. One of the most read posts on this blog is ‘What is Melodrama?’, a piece which uses Sirk’s 1954 picture All That Heaven Allows as a prime example. Many film students will know about Sirk from the revival in interest in his films in the 1970s, especially among feminist film scholars. But today it’s quite difficult to see Sirk’s films in cinemas and apart from the handful of films most often cited, the other titles don’t have much profile. To properly understand how Sirk’s later melodramas are constructed it’s important to look at the whole body of work. We’ll try therefore to discuss some of his films on the blog.

The other side of film in Europe


The current window display in the Kinoteka located in the Diocletian Palace in Split. It is open but there are building works ongoing.

In the UK we’ve got used to 12 new film releases each week (600-700 per year) and to have cinema screens easily accessible in most cities and large towns. It’s quite a shock to be in Croatia and to discover that only the largest centres have cinemas and that these rarely open during the day.

Croatia has a population of 4.3 million and in 2014 the country’s 59 cinemas (153 screens in 2013) had less than 4 million admissions. The number of cinema visits per head is thus usually less than one per year. The comparable figure in the European countries with the highest admissions rates, in France, UK, Ireland and Iceland, is 2 to 3 per year or more.

In Split, Croatia’s second city with a population of over 220,000, there are two modern multiplexes in shopping malls and one older cinema in the tourist area. Split is lucky to also have two art cinemas but one seems to be ‘part time’ and the other has a single screen – the Kinoteka (see above) is an important part of the city’s cultural offer. But both the art cinemas and the multiplexes need more promotion to create a higher profile. It took a long time to find the two cinemas nearest to the tourist centre in the old town and when we did find them there was very little ‘point of sale’ information. If you didn’t know the cinemas were there you wouldn’t stumble across them. On the other hand, the newspaper on sale in Dalmatia – coastal Croatia – does list the main cinemas, something many UK papers have stopped doing. These cinemas also seem to only programme evening screenings. The earliest shows I could find were some ‘family shows’ at 15.00 but most were only at 17.00 or 19.00 and then later.

Cinema listings in Dalmatia for 23rd September.

Cinema listings in major Croatian towns/cities (outside the Zagreb region) for 23rd September.

Most of the commercial offerings are Hollywood films subtitled, I presume, for local audiences but there are also some examples of local films and this is the norm for the country according to the Film New Europe website profile. In 2014 there were 169 films released in Croatia including seven local productions. The Film New Europe profile alongside those from Cineuropa and aspects of European AudioVisual Observatory reports suggest that the Croation government have supported the industry in various ways helping with installation of digital projection and offering support to productions, cinemas and festivals. There are twelve Croatian cinemas listed in the Europa Cinemas Network. These are all cinemas with some kind of commitment to ‘cultural cinema’ and will be expected to show European films as part of their programming. The Kinoteka in Split is one of these. My research suggests that there are several municipally-owned cinemas in the country and the film festivals in Split do, I think, receive public support. (With my usual bad luck I missed the latest festival in Split by a few days.)

The Kinoteka has been showing French New Wave films with a revival of Jacques Demys Les paraplieues de Cherbourg. The larger poster refers to the latest Croatian film shown at Cannes, Zvizdan

The Kinoteka has been showing French New Wave films with a revival of Jacques Demy’s Les parapluies de Cherbourg. The larger poster refers to the latest Croatian film shown at Cannes, Dalibor Matanic’s Zvizdan (The High Sun).

My comments above are not intended as negative criticism of the cinemas or Croatian film policy. I’m interested in different approaches to film across Europe. My impression (as a tourist) is that Croatia still maintains an interest in European art cinema like other parts of the former Yugoslavia but that popular cinema doesn’t have the same appeal as in some other European countries. I was interested to see that the newspaper listings of films on TV gave the director’s name – something that again UK newspapers tend not to do routinely. The difference between the UK and Croatia is also noticeable in terms of ‘holiday viewing’. In North America the summer is the longest major season of blockbuster cinema and audiences flock to see the big films in air-conditioned cinemas open from mid morning. In the UK we’ve been more or less forced to follow suit but ironically when the sun comes out we tend to want to stay outside. In Southern Europe and especially in Italy, the summer was the worst season for big films until the new multiplexes with air-conditioning appeared as an alternative to outdoor evening screenings. In the UK, seaside holiday resorts have always tried to exploit the seasonal ‘captive audience’ and because of the unpredictable British weather cinemas have prospered with matinees on wet days. This is where I most felt the lack in Croatia – a wet day with little to do and no cinema within 20 kms – and then with no matinee showings.

It would be good to hear from readers about their holiday destinations and their impressions of local film culture. I really liked everything about Croatia – except the lack of opportunity to see films! The Number 1 film in Croatia last week was Labirint: Kroz spaljenu zemljuMaze Runner: The Scorch Trials. In Split I could have chosen between Catherine Deneuve in the Demy and Emily Blunt in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, which doesn’t open in the UK until October 8th.

A Taste of Honey (UK 1961)


Murray Melvin and Rita Tushingham in A Taste of Honey

This was one of my memorable screenings from the 1960s. However, I see on revisiting that it received an X Certificate at the time: a sign of the times but even then anachronistic. It is one of the best directorial outings by Tony Richardson, who also worked with Shelagh Delaney to adapt her original play to the screen. The film offers that authentic sense of time and place which was so notable feature of many films in the period. Walter Lassally, filming on location in Manchester, Salford and Blackpool, deserves much of the credit for this, as does the sound recording and editing of Charles Poulton, Don Challis and Roy Hyde. Plus a fine score by John Addison. What also stands out is the cast. Newcomer Rita Tushingham is marvellously convincing as the young Jo. And Dora Bryan, Murray Melvin and [briefly] Paul Danquah play finely alongside her. The film softens the original play slightly but has the same sense of freshness and adventure. Both were daring for the time, though it is difficult to remember clearly how restrictive were social codes around sexuality, sexual orientation and ethnicity/colour. I have revisited the film several times and it is one of the 1960s ‘kitchen sink’ dramas’ that stands up well. So it is a welcome treat that Picturehouse at the National Media Museum are re-screening the film on September 23rd and in the film’s original and proper format – 35mm.

Note, Roy advises that the screening is part of a “Research Project on ‘Cinemagoing in the 1960s’ and that the film will be introduced by Dr Melvyn Stokes.”