Tagged: Douglas Sirk

Sirk #9: Interlude (US 1957)

At first I thought that everything is wrong with Interlude or perhaps it is that nothing is right. Douglas Sirk told John Halliday that it was the film in which he had little chance to develop the project or contribute to the script and none of the characters excited him. It was supposed to be an update of a John Stahl film and more surprisingly a version of the James Cain story Serenade. When the shoot began Sirk was still in a plaster cast after his accident on the Battle Hymn shoot and he had no time to research locations which were all covered by an assistant and the cinematographer Bill Daniels.

An American woman from Philadelphia, Helen (June Allyson), arrives in Munich to work for the American ‘cultural agency’, America House (which I think is a government body). She claims to be looking for experiences and trying to see something of the world. Her parents have discovered that an American doctor, Morley (Keith Andes), the son of friends, is also in the city. He calls on Helen but she soon meets a famous Italian conductor, Tonio Fischer (Rossano Brazzi). She is unaware that he has a sick wife and accepts his invitation to suddenly drive to Salzburg in the middle of a grand house party. A romance ensues.

A familiar Sirkian shot through the windscreen?

June Allyson was nearly 40 when she made the picture but the character seems to be written much younger. Allyson plays younger but she just doesn’t seem right for the role. Brazzi however does seem right for his role, except that, as Sirk points out, he has no sense of musical timing which caused headaches for the crew when he is seen conducting the orchestra. I don’t mean to criticise either actor but in June Allyson’s case her character doesn’t seem to make sense unless she is a woman who is younger and less experienced. Otherwise we keep thinking, “What did she do in Philadelphia/Washington DC for the last twenty years?” Jane Wyman was only a year or two older than Allyson when she starred for Sirk in roles which suited her – perhaps this is just a function of the period in that women are the same age for twenty years then suddenly ‘past it’? Helen calls herself ‘a girl’ at one point. I should also point out that Keith Andes’ doctor is also fairly long in the tooth for a visiting ‘research student’. The script by Daniel Fuchs and Franklin Coen seems confused.

Interlude is a Ross Hunter production in CinemaScope and Technicolor and it takes Sirk back to Germany and in a sense to Schlussakkord (Germany 1936) a Sirk melodrama with a great conductor as the male lead. Yet somehow it feels more like those 1950s Hollywood films in which Europe is at once both the ‘old world’, full of palaces and grand houses to be admired but also the front line in the Cold War with attempts to demonstrate to Europeans the ideals of American democracy. (‘America House’, like the British Council, is an agency meant to provide education and an introduction to American culture.) On the other hand, the cinematography creates not just beautiful vistas but also very pleasing ‘Scope compositions for a melodrama – with matching music (but an unconvincing title song). At moments it seems like a rehearsal for The Sound of Music (1965). The second half of the film did work for me and I found it both sad and moving, so I guess it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be.

The lovers in a café overlooking Salzburg

I should mention two other aspects of the casting. The sick wife Reni is played by Marianne Koch (credited as ‘Marianne Cook’) who I first came across in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) as the German contribution to Sergio Leone’s first film in the trilogy of ‘No Name’ Westerns. Her aunt is played by Françoise Rosay, the veteran French actor who fled Nazi Occupation in 1940 with her husband Jacques Feyder. She appeared in two Ealing films in 1944. Her appearance in 1957 is as a formidable matronly figure from the Victorian era (she was born in 1891). These casting decisions alongside the Italian Brazzi seem to say something about the state of popular cinema in West Germany in the 1950s.

I’m trying to come to some kind of conclusion about this film. From the perspective of 2019 this melodrama does seem rather strange with Tonio’s sometimes quite brusque treatment of Helen and the latter’s difficulty in coming to terms with a sick woman as her rival. I’m wondering if women now would be more likely to react to Tonio’s behaviour and also more direct in dealing with what they discover about his circumstances. But perhaps I’ve got that all wrong? Perhaps I’m not giving June Allyson enough credit for representing a certain type of American woman in the 1950s credibly?

I’ve a feeling that Interlude is technically efficient as a romance/melodrama but I’m not sure that Sirk and his cast and crew were fully able to exploit its potential.

Trailer with French subtitles (includes SPOILERS) if you want to see the film first:

Sirk #6: Lured (US 1947)

Inspector Temple (Charles Coburn) has to decide if Sandra (Lucille Ball) is suitable for undercover work. (From dvdbeaver.com)

Lured is one of the films directed by Douglas Sirk in the 1940s after his arrival from Germany and before he began his long association with Universal. The production was put together by the independent producer Hunt Stromberg and distributed through United Artists in North America and the UK. Although filmed primarily on a studio lot in Hollywood, the film is in many ways a European production. It appears to be a remake of a French original Pièges (1939) directed by Robert Siodmak before he too went to Hollywood. The French film was given an English title of Personal Column and after its release, in the US, Lured was re-titled as Personal Column because the Production Code Office decided that ‘Lured’ was too much like ‘Lurid’! The UK release used Personal Column. Sirk judged that the title change was responsible for the film’s relative failure at the box office after a strong start.

Sandra undercover and watched by her police protector (George Zucco)

Fortunately, the film has been restored and is now available on Blu-ray (along with A Scandal in Paris (1946), also by Sirk) from the Cohen Group (See the trailer below). It turns out to be highly entertaining and both witty and a genuine noir thriller. It features a lead performance by the fabulous Lucille Ball who has never looked lovelier or sparkled with such vitality and intelligence. She also gets to wear some great costumes. Stromberg surrounded her with an outstanding cast that would not have been out of place in an A List major studio picture. George Sanders, Charles Coburn, Cedric Hardwicke and Boris Karloff are joined by several of the other ‘Brits in Hollywood’. The film is photographed by the great William Daniels and the music is by Michel Michelet from the French original. Production design is by the Russian Nicolai Remisoff and the script was adapted from the French by the Polish émigré Leo Rosten. The narrative is set in London with Sandra (Lucille Ball) down on her luck and working as a ‘taxi dancer’ in a seedy dance hall after her American touring theatre show (she was a dancer) collapsed. When her friend Lucy goes missing after answering a ‘personal ad’ in the newspaper, Sandra goes to the police and finds herself being offered a job as a police detective by Charles Coburn’s Inspector. A serial killer is sending poems in the style of Baudelaire to Scotland Yard and each one signals a young woman’s disappearance. Sandra must answer any personal ads looking for young women, in the hope of ‘luring’ the killer out. Officer Barrett (a nicely-judged performance by George Zucco) is watching her all the time. Eventually, Sandra meets Robert Fleming (George Sanders), a nightclub owner looking to expand his business. She’s already come across him as looking for girls for his club. Is he to be trusted? Sandra takes to him, but are we sure he is kosher?

Sandra meets Robert Fleming (George Sanders) at a concert

Sirk liked this production very much. Stromberg gave him a free hand and Sirk appreciated all the talent he had to play with – and in return, Lucille Ball and Charles Coburn relished the chance to play roles in a crime film. Sirk had worked with George Sanders on two previous American pictures and Sanders and Ball make a good couple. Hardwicke is excellent as Fleming’s partner in the club business. The studio sets are beautifully lit and this works as a noirish London serial killer narrative with Gothic overtones, enhanced by the sequence featuring Boris Karloff. I have been able to view both the version on YouTube and the trailer for the restoration/new print on DVD and to watch a version of the film on Talking Pictures TV. This latter is odd in a couple of respects. First, it appears to have lost 5 minutes at the beginning but which turns out to be not particularly a problem. Secondly, and weirdly, all the newspapers, poems and handwritten notes in the film are in French. The film also ends with the traditional French ‘FIN’. I don’t understand this at all. The film does use some stock footage of Piccadilly Circus and a London bus but why substitute the English language close-ups of newspapers etc. with French versions? The only explanation I can think of is that Talking Pictures TV have got hold of a French release copy of the film with the subtitles removed? If anyone knows the real answer, please comment on this post.

Sandra and Fleming with the latter’s business partner Julian Wilde (Cedric Hardwicke)

None of the quirks of the version I saw on Talking Pictures TV spoiled the film for me. I found it well worth watching and Lucille Ball was wonderful. It wasn’t what I was expecting from Sirk, but it stands up as a stylish Sirkian production.

Sirk #7: Shockproof (US 1949)

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Chiaroscuro lighting in a melo-noir

After yesterday‘s peculiar mixing of styles I immediately stumbled across another example with this melo-noir. The reasons for the strange combination are easy to trace through the scriptwriters: Sam Fuller’s noir script, good guy brought down by bad woman (who is really good), was rewritten by Helen Deutsch of National Velvet (1944) fame. In its widest sense most films are melodrama as they require a contrived narrative and character types to function as mainstream texts but in this context the melodrama refers to the way, as Slant magazine has it, Deutsch ‘lobotomised’ the noir intentions.

Whilst the enigma of Patricia Knight’s femme fatale is interesting – is she as bad as she appears? – the schmaltzy home environment of the schmuck (Cornel Wilde), complete with ‘cute’ kid brother and smiling blind mother, suffocates the nihilism that John Baragrey’s bad guy struggles to sell (the ending is terrible).

Douglas Sirk’s expressionist visual style, that is celebrated in the melodramas that were to follow in the ’50s, is directly wedded to noir‘s visual style, if not the narrative. As can be seen in the publicity photo above, chiaroscuro lighting is present but my overall impression when watching the film was it is not one that relishes the noir visual style. Knight’s femme fatale, however, could be the cousin of Gilda who did go wrong. Sirk seems most interested in the interiors of the home, the key setting for melodrama.

Cornel Wilde has the thankless task of the parole officer who is unbelievably ‘good’. One thing noir movies reeked of was sex but Wilde’s far to anodyne here (not blaming him specifically – could be the script). It’s as if the Production Code had been swallowed when noir movies tended to push it as far as they could.

Apparently Sirk was so disillusioned with Hollywood after making the film he  returned to Europe. Fortunately he came back to make some of the greatest Hollywood films of the era.

Fox and His Friends (Faustrecht der Freiheit, West Germany 1975)

The central characters sitting in a three-seat chair in the apartment bought with Franz’s winnings. Fassbinder plays Franz (seated in the centre).

This screening was part of an ongoing tour of new Fassbinder prints (DCPs) from the Fassbinder Foundation. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) was certainly the most prolific and arguably the most inspiring filmmaker of the last fifty years. He made over 40 features for film and TV. Only a minority got a formal release in UK cinemas but more have become available on DVD over the last few years. Restorations by the Foundation have been produced at regular intervals. The film here has a 2015 restoration credit. I went to see it in a cinema despite having a DVD at home (one of very many as yet unwatched). I’m glad I did.

The English title doesn’t tell us much about the film’s narrative. Though not directly translatable, the German title does indicate more. It conveys the awkward combination of ‘freedom’ and ‘the law of the jungle’. ‘Fox’ is the central character played by Fassbinder himself as a working-class gay young man whose real name is Franz Biberkopf. Fassbinder appeared in many of his own films and often took the name ‘Franz’. Here the whole name is taken from the central character of the 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin which Fassbinder adapted for a major German TV series in 1980.

During a very entertaining title sequence we learn that Franz/Fox has been working in a fairground show as ‘Fox the talking head’ (separated from his body, emphasising, as one commentator put it, the disconnect between his brain and his penis), but with the showman arrested by police Franz is now back on the street. Hustling for money and ‘cottaging’ (is there a specific German word for this?) he hooks up with Max, a suave antiques dealer played by Karl-Heinz Böhm (famously seen as the eponymous character in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in 1960). Convinced he will win the lottery, Franz persuades Max to help him buy a ticket and with his winnings of half a million DMs, he joins the group of wealthy gay men who are Max’s friends. The remainder of the film sees Franz alienated from his own circle of working-class (or at least petty bourgeois) gay men while he is being carefully parted from all his money by his new sophisticated associates. This latter is largely achieved by involving Franz in a bailout of his new lover Eugen’s family printing firm. Franz isn’t just fleeced, he is humiliated on a daily basis. It can only end badly.

Franz (Fassbinder) whose dress sense always marks him out as ‘not one of us’ when he is with his wealthy new friends. Eugen uses the ever present mirror.

I was struck by many aspects of this film but I was most surprised to read about the contemporary critical reaction to it in the 1970s, much of it coming from gay critics such as Andrew Britton who apparently suggested that the film should be ‘denounced’ because of its representation of gay men. Fassbinder argued that the film (his first to present a gay male community in such detail) wasn’t really ‘about’ gay culture – it was simply the backdrop and the narrative would have been the same if these were groups of heterosexuals. I think Britton might have had a point in the context of the 1970s, but now Fassbinder’s argument seems more acceptable. I suspect the main issue for mainstream critics and audiences is that, though still a low-budget film, Fox and His Friends looks more like a glossier mainstream drama than Fassbinder’s earlier 1960s films – but it doesn’t deliver the same kind of narrative pleasures. A common complaint is that it starts in quite a humorous vein and then darkens and becomes ‘pessimistic’ before the tragic ending. Mainstream Hollywood this ain’t. But anyone who knows Fassbinder wouldn’t be expecting anything other than a coruscating satire on the German bourgeoisie and that’s what we get throughout. The society is poisoned by the attitudes of the wealthy and the poor have to eventually tread on each other just to keep their heads above water. The naïve and guileless Fox/Franz is the perfect guide to this corruption of human values.

Franz with his own associates in the downmarket bar

It should be pointed out that by 1975 Fassbinder was a well-established director in West Germany with half his output already produced, but that in the UK and US his films didn’t receive a release until 1974’s Fear Eats the Soul – the review of which by Laura Mulvey in Spare Rib was a significant moment in the study of Douglas Sirk and the feminist interest in melodrama. New and old films then began to appear out of chronological order. I don’t remember the release of Fox and His Friends but Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Monthly Film Bulletin review suggests that its UK release was in early 1976. It was classified as an ‘X’ Certificate (over 16s only) film with a running time of 123 minutes, suggesting no cuts compared to the current version. The film has a series of full frontal male leads in a bath house which must have been unusual at the time.

Max (Karl-Heinz Böhm), Eugen (Peter Chatel) and Max’s wife (Barbara Valentin) in a ‘disturbing’ pose in front of a mirror which distorts the sense of space in the room

Philip (Harry Baer) and Eugen, former lovers, meet in a boutique where Franz is being ‘transformed’ . . .

. . . and kiss in this extraordinary low-angle mirror shot

The Mulvey interest in Fassbinder is significant since Fassbinder himself had become very interested in Douglas Sirk’s melodramas since viewing several at the start of the 1970s. Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seele Auf) was generally accepted as Fassbinder’s re-working of elements of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). I was consciously seeking throughout Fox and His Friends to find any ‘Sirkian’ elements. It did seem to me that though the context and the characters are very different, there are some elements that seem familiar from Written On The Wind, Sirk’s 1956 feature. At the centre of Sirk’s delirious melodrama about a Texas oil family are alcoholic family members, illicit relationships and problems for outsiders in the family group. I think it is significant that Fassbinder chose a small printing company for Eugen’s family – a German industry as nationally symbolic in some ways as the oil industry in Texas. Much more important though is the general aesthetic approach in Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas – the use of colour, camerawork and mise en scène as well as music. I was struck most of all by the camerawork of Michael Ballhaus and the production design of Kurt Raab – both Fassbinder regulars. I’ve included here a selection of screengrabs from a film that is presented in such a carefully constructed way.

Franz with his only family, his sister Hedwig (Christiane Maybach). Note the mirror yet again and the nickname spelt out in studs

Eugen humiliates Franz in an upmarket restaurant. Here it isn’t the mirror but the use of two posts that dominates the composition and divides the two men

Perhaps I’m so obsessed with how satisfying I find the overall aesthetic qualities of the film that I haven’t come to any firm conclusions about what it all means. In the images above I’m impressed by the two familiar melodrama/noir tropes of mirror reflections and compositions dominated by doorways/windows and diagonals. The camera observes this world and offers us these signifiers of the ways in which it oppresses characters. Others have suggested that Fassbinder has taken Sirk’s ideas about directly presented emotions presented through a stylised ‘soap opera’ aesthetic. It does feel to me that this is ‘art’ that perfectly serves Fassbinder’s critique of West Germany’s bourgeois society. But I’m also conscious that Fassbinder is also arguably indulging or ‘working through’ his own personal concerns in this film. It is dedicated to his then current lover Armin Meier – and to ‘all the others’. In addition, he found a role for his former lover El Hedi ben Salem (the male lead in Fear Eats the Soul) as a gay man in Marrakesh when Franz and Eugen go on holiday. Fassbinder had a difficult childhood which if not working-class was not ‘comfortable’ middle-class and some commentators have argued that his insecurity with his working-class gay partners manifested itself in this film through the masochistic way in which as a filmmaker he organised Franz’s downfall.

Here are two helpful clips in gaining an understanding of how Fox and His Friends works. The first is gay filmmaker Ira Sachs giving his personal response and analysis of the film and the second is the film’s trailer (no English subtitles). This shows the range of compositions similar to the stills above which define the aesthetic: