Largely dismissed as “women’s pictures” upon their initial release, Douglas Sirk’s late output—starting roughly with 1954’s Magnificent Obsession and continuing through his final feature, 1959’s Imitation Of Life—have long since been reclaimed. Critics and cinephiles argue, very persuasively, that Sirk’s direction of these apparent soap operas is subtly subversive in a way that audiences of the day mostly failed to notice. So many astute reassessments have been written over the years, however, that there’s now a real danger of discarding the trees in favor of the forest, especially when it comes to first-time viewers who’ve done their homework. Sure, one can gain a greater appreciation of All That Heaven Allows, which Criterion has just given a Blu-ray upgrade, by looking beyond its lushly melodramatic surface. But the film also works magnificently as a lush melodrama, provided that one doesn’t snootily reject that genre out of hand.
Doing so would be rather ironic, given the movie’s subject. A few years after the death of her husband, well-off widow Cary (Jane Wyman) hasn’t given up on the idea of romantic love, despite the entreaties of a respectable older gentleman (Conrad Nagel) that she marry him for the sake of bland companionship. When she falls in love with her gardener, Ron (Rock Hudson), scandal ensues, though it’s not always clear whether Cary’s wealthy and sophisticated friends are more shocked by Ron’s lowly profession or by the fact that he’s much younger than she is. (Hudson was only eight years Wyman’s junior, but the film seems to imply a significantly larger age gap.) In particular, Cary’s adult children, Ned (William Reynolds) and Kay (Gloria Talbott), find the idea of Ron as their stepfather insupportable, with Ned going so far as to suggest that he’ll disown his mother if she goes through with it. Surely Cary should choose propriety over passion and be content to spend her twilight years alone with the brand-new TV set her kids have bought her?
To a contemporary audience, the hysterical outrage over Cary daring to fall for—gasp!—a gardener plays a little over the top, especially since that gardener is embodied by the unfailingly dapper Rock Hudson. Once this scenario has been accepted at face value, All That Heaven Allows requires no sly subtext to stir the emotions (though that subtext is there for those willing to seek it out). Wyman’s face alone is frequently heartrending—much of her performance involves exquisite silent reactions, like the crestfallen look that Cary struggles to hide when her older suitor suggests that she can’t possibly still be seeking torrid romance at her age. Hudson’s typically stolid performance is more problematic (and the film features a few moments that play as camp now that his homosexuality is common knowledge), but he gives Ron an unshakable sense of rectitude that serves the material well, unfashionable though it is today.
More than anything else, though, All That Heaven Allows is simply a stunning visual achievement, with Sirk employing deeply saturated color and geometrical compositions (note how often a vertical line separates Cary and Ron in the frame) to rapturous effect. Only a good 35mm print can convey the film’s full aesthetic power, but Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade provides a reasonable facsimile of the experience—there are blue shadows here that stagger the eye, even on a TV screen. (Given the symbolic use of television in this film, however, prepare to feel guilty for watching it that way.) Interested parties can debate the meaning of the stag that features prominently in the final scene—does it represent the future return of Ron’s potency, or does Sirk mean to suggest that only by becoming a nursemaid can an older woman land a younger man? Just be sure to acknowledge first that it’s beautiful and affecting, right on the surface.