Douglas Sirk

Geek obsession: Douglas Sirk movies

Why it’s daunting: The 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk come on full-strength, with gaudy Technicolor images and swollen theme songs that lunge right for viewers’ heartstrings. If you withstand that assault and find a way into his elaborately decorated world, there’s a second hurdle to clear: his fans. Beginning in the 1970s, when outlaw filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder championed Sirk (a German émigré born Detlef Sierck), and ticking upward with the growth of feminist film theory, Sirk’s movies have been championed as subversive critiques of Eisenhower-era conformity. The argument, in essence, goes that their excesses were so flagrantly absurd that they were meant to undermine the very values they seemed to endorse. To those who breathe less rarified air, such up-is-down appreciation is hard to swallow, not least because you could mount a parallel argument for almost any overwrought weepie.

Possible gateway: There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

Why: A toy magnate whose newest product is a “walkie-talkie robot man,” Fred MacMurray has a beautiful wife, three spunky kids, and the rest of the American dream. But he’s trapped in his perfect life, essentially mirroring the plight of a typical melodramatic heroine. Enter MacMurray’s old flame (and Double Indemnity co-star) Barbara Stanwyck, offering a life of freedom and detachment. Where a typical movie of the time would characterize MacMurray’s subsequent temptation and return to the home as a triumph, Sirk explicitly casts it as tragedy. You don’t need to read against the grain to pick up on the movie’s broadside against the soul-deadening aspects of family life; you’d have to be blind not to see it. Shot in black and white, Tomorrow has a relatively subdued emotional register, which makes it a good place to dip your toe in Sirk’s waters before diving into the deep end. (There’s Always Tomorrow was recently released as part of Universal’s Barbara Stanwyck Collection, albeit in a full-frame transfer that mutes Sirk’s widescreen compositions. If you can, go for the version from the UK’s Masters Of Cinema.)

Next steps: Now you’re ready for uncut Sirk, the series of gloriously over-the-top tearjerkers he made with Rock Hudson: Written On The Wind (1956), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Magnificent Obsession (1954). With their lush, even lurid color palettes and incredible stories, they’re best approached with skepticism held firmly in check. Stifle the guffaws when Hudson’s Magnificent playboy dumps his riches and finishes medical school so he can cure Jane Wyman’s blindness, and you may get locked into a curious kind of complicity. By opening yourself to the movie and dismissing the reflexive cynicism that characterizes much modern movie-watching, you expose vulnerabilities long buried. You need to let the films achieve their primary goal—reducing you to a quivering, sobbing mess—before you can fully appreciate the force with which Sirk rebuts some of the era’s most repressive strictures. Filling his casts with impassive men (Hudson, John Gavin) and stoic women (Wyman, Lauren Bacall), Sirk plays the actors’ relative stillness against the grandiose scores and soap-operatic plot twists endemic to the genre. Pick one and watch it more than once, and you’ll start to appreciate the fissures lurking under the films’ glossy surfaces—as soon as you can see through the tears.

Where not to start: In many ways, Imitation Of Life (1959) is Sirk’s signature work, but until you’ve learned to see beyond the surface of things, the film’s treatment of racial issues may provoke strong feelings of anger, even disgust. Though its nominal focus is on struggling actress Lana Turner, whose relationship with daughter Sandra Dee sours as she finds success, the more fascinating and troubling mother-daughter pair is Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner, Turner’s African-American domestic and her light-skinned offspring. Moore’s character is so smiling and selfless that she seems like a caricature of black servitude; even her daughter treats her like hired help. Her submissiveness can be infuriating, especially when the movie treats it as a paradigm of motherly propriety. But as deeply troubling as the film is from a modern perspective, it was equally blunt in presenting the quandaries forced by Kohner’s character, who exploits her light skin and passes for white. By equating Kohner’s passing with Turner’s pretensions of grandeur, the film mounts a potent critique of American materialism, albeit at the price of suggesting, with a trace of old-world snobbery, that people shouldn’t attempt to rise above their class.