Moullet on Minnelli and Sirk

Some Came Running: Colorful
Luc Moullet, 1958

For once, the French title corresponds to the American one and, most importantly, to the film itself. Comme un torrent (literally: Like a flood) is an enormous, poorly constructed machine – or not constructed at all to be more precise – that is entrancing because of its rough edges, its faults, its enthusiasm, its gratuity, its excess, its madness. The director, Vincent Minnelli, had enough of these to make musical upon musical. He also ruined the last one, Gigi, which is imprinted with a very English academicism that won him an Oscar. His real domain is the melodrama. With it, Minnelli finds himself on solid ground; he is free to accentuate the romanticism of his direction and paint in large brush strokes, with his great sociologist and humanist’s talent, the particularities of the individuals in our modern world.

The film is dense like the bestseller that inspired it. Like Peyton Place – but with a thousand times more talent – he evokes, thanks to unanimism, the life of a small American town. A wandering writer returns to his hometown, makes friends, has to choose amongst his female friends, and has fights with his family. There’s a murder at the end since a good conclusion is a must. Minnelli the storyteller is pleased, like Chabrol, to evoke the little details of everyday life. The various scenes are more important to him than continuity and dramatic interest. Rather identical actions repeat themselves throughout the film’s two hours and fifteen minutes: whisky, fight, flirt, melancholy, whisky again, and hangover. The continual disorder of existence makes up the film’s true subject.

And it’s a very agreeable disorder because the writer in question and his diabetic, gambler friend comment on the situations in which they find themselves with a humor that is at once skeptical and serene, and always surprising and welcome. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin are perfect. Shirley MacLaine, as the very gallant girl whose ideal life is sweeping her friend’s bedroom until she dies, soundly crushes Giulietta Masina. She knows to go to where an actress can go too far: it’s understood that she’s a ham, but her simplicity, her lack of tired tricks win over the most reticent of viewers. I hate Martha Hyer, the poor man’s Grace Kelly, but here Minnelli knew to soften her performance; her half-lit face with her blond hair down becomes rather extraordinary. Elmer Bernstain’s music makes a horrible racket. But that it can frighten, that one can hear it and remember it is already a lot for a film score.

Minnelli worked on his photography in each scene, without preoccupying himself too much with the rest: he gets the most out of each camera movement, each unusual and poetic framing, and out of Metrocolor – more impressionistic than realistic – that accentuate the confusion typical of modern life. A small town party, with the multiplicity of its shades, its impressive crowd movement and its crazy, even Grand Guignol, side grandiloquently closes this festival of a certain modern romanticism.

Re-creation through Recreation
By Luc Moullet

The Tarnished Angels, American film in Cinemascope by Douglas Sirk. Script: George Zuckerman, from William Faulkner’s novel Pylon. Cinematography: Irving Glassberg. Music: Joseph Gershenson. Set Design: Alexander Golitzen and Alfred Sweeney. Cast: Rock Hudson. Dorothy Malone, Robert Stack, Jack Carson, Robert Middleton. Production: Albert Zugsmith 1957. Distribution: Universal Film.

Maybe Zugsmith and Sirk liked Pylon and liked making a film based on it. Nevertheless – contrary to Intruder in the Dust and even Long, Hot Summer, and contrary to all the great films with literary sources – The Tarnished Angels remains, by its conception and by its direction, conformed to the canon of the most commercial Hollywood traditions. Universal doesn’t pretend to make cinematic art. That’s why successes are more numerous at Fox and even Columbia. What interested them couldn’t have been the intrinsic value of Faulkner’s masterpiece, but the spectacular and dramatic elements of its subject matter, as well as the novelist’s famous name: easily attracting two kinds of audiences.

Faulkner is not Hemingway. There is no chance of discovering in his work the banal and old-fashioned message that make some people pick up A Farewell to Arms. And it is precisely because of its absence of intentions – constrained it is true by the mysterious material of the original – thanks to Hollywood standardization, that Sirk’s film ends up being the most faithful adaption of a novel by Faulkner. It is too often forgotten that the value of an adaptation of any literary work is completely independent of the script’s value; in many cases, the most intelligent script makes the worst film. There’s no need for Aurenche or Bost; a Zuckerman is all we need. Is it a betrayal? Yes: the facts and the characters are very different and certain themes specific to Faulkner and writers of his generation are elided – the airplane’s ambivalent character, the complicated relationships between man and his machine, the “sweat ethics.”

It doesn’t matter. Sirk cannot adapt his personality to Faulkner’s. He merely offers his not inconsiderable favorite motifs: variations on female psychology, a depiction of excess that is both critical and embellished, with this moral and metaphysical subtext that reappears from time to time in the work of the author of Thunder on the Hill and The First Legion. We don’t have any right asking more of him. He accepts from the start the novel’s initial facts, at least overall, without trying to give them a specific orientation. From this method, the result becomes necessarily Faulknerian: from its subject and structure Pylon is an insane novel, without a foundation. Only its aesthetic manages to give it its coherence. Considering just his out-of-the-ordinary actions – imposed mostly by Faulkner’s art – Sirk, helped by the commercial tradition of adaptation that only retains the framework of a work, was obligated, so that his film would have a head and a tail, to make recourse to an overall comparable aesthetic. The difference is of degree, not of nature. One of Douglas Sirk’s multiple styles is marked by the fleshing out of emptiness, exaggeration, and conspiracy – like Summer Storm or Written on the Wind, which one could say was filmed on the wind.

When one has nothing to start with, all excess, all forms of expression are good. The effects in The Tarnished Angels are totally gratuitous. Faulkner’s technique presents, refined, this same behavior, inspiration alone dictating the tone. Who cares about verisimilitude? Attempts, variations, and disparate efforts: The Tarnished Angels is a faithful adaptation essentially through its use of the camera and direction of actors. The whole film is made of short, small tracking shots, generally lateral and almost invisible, the camera perpetually wandering four or five meters above the ground. Why? No reason. Just Sirk’s pleasure in making his camera move. There’s a very pretty shot that recalls Renoir that shows us Devlin’s apartment and a surprising high angle shot when the flashback begins. There are the endless surprises with the discovery of Hudson and Malone entwined (this Dorothy is not at all worthy of Lorelei) by a masked party-goer, the unbelievable drunkenness in the apartment upstairs, the pointless glimpse of the curious old man on the first floor, the shot of Jack abandoned on the miniature, spinning airplane, while his father kills himself in a real plane. The Cinemascope compositions are extraordinarily precise and airy, without being showy. There’s nothing to say about the characters. We’ll never know who Devlin is, who LaVerne is, who Siggs or Roger are. And it’s very good like that: the novelistic subtlety that is spoken about so much, and so often badly (cf. Antonioni, Fellini, Gremillon, Losey), is here, in the flesh, in the precise meaning of that expression. It is obtained artificially, someone will tell me: flashiness predominates, there is nothing inside. But it is because it is all surface-level, that it comes just from the mise en scene, that it gains value. In art, there is only artifice: let’s praise artifice cultivated without remorse, which thus gains a secondary sincerity, rather than artifice by itself as by others under hypocritical pretexts. The true is as false as the false; only the very false becomes true.

Translations by Ted Fendt, 2012

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