All that mise en scène allows: Douglas Sirk’s expressive use of gesture

In Douglas Sirk’s famous melodrama All That Heaven Allows, the smallest hand movements of the actors speak volumes about their relationships.

Brad Stevens

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Rock Hudson as tree surgeon Ron Kirby and Jane Wyman as widow Cary Scott in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Rock Hudson as tree surgeon Ron Kirby and Jane Wyman as widow Cary Scott in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Generally speaking, we are encouraged to see films ‘as a whole’, appraising details in a larger context. Yet the great auteurs preferred exploring themes in microcosm to declaring them in broad strokes. Which perhaps explains why, during a recent viewing of All That Heaven Allows (1955), I found myself focusing not on the more obvious, and frequently analysed, aspects of Douglas Sirk’s mise en scène – colour, camerawork, composition – but rather on the movements of the actors, those tiny gestures which define their relationships.

A scene that particularly benefited from this approach was the one in which Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) shows Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) the old mill at the back of his property. Cary, you may recall, is a middle-aged widow who falls in love with tree surgeon Ron, despite the hostility that friends and family express towards her romance with this younger man from a lower social class. At this point, approximately 20 minutes into the film, Cary is still struggling to suppress her desire for Ron. But the performances suggest a very different struggle is taking place, one related intimately to Ron and Cary’s respective gender roles.

Consider, for example, the hand-movements of the two performers… and here it matters little whether we are referring to Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman or to the characters they play, for in a sense they are all performing. For the most part, Ron/Hudson’s arms swing loosely and easily by his sides. Occasionally, he nonchalantly places his thumbs (but only his thumbs) in the pockets of his trousers. When he reaches out to touch an object, picking up a piece of wood in order to sweep away the cobwebs blocking Cary’s path, it is a conscious movement with a practical intention.

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

By contrast, Cary/Wyman seems to be bursting with nervous energy. She shoves her hands deeply into the pockets of her coat, takes them out as she approaches the millstone, puts them back in again as she crosses the room, then removes them once more.

Twice during the course of this scene, Cary climbs steps halfway. While ascending a ladder leading to the loft, she looks around before reaching the top, then descends to examine a piece of broken Wedgwood that has caught her attention. When she comes across a wooden staircase, she insists on mounting it, but is startled by the appearance of a pigeon, and falls into Ron’s arms.

These half-climbed steps are a typically Sirkian device, in that they have both practical and metaphorical functions. Although Cary has already started down a path which will alienate her from the world of suburban respectability, she is as yet only capable of proceeding halfway into the bohemian community associated with Ron. Tellingly, it is the fall from this staircase (which leads to an unseen space Ron later converts into a bedroom) that brings her into Ron’s embrace. Suddenly realising she has, quite naturally, rested her hands on Ron’s shoulders, Cary moves back and pulls her coat tighter, as if it might offer a defence against those feelings that are beginning to surface.

All that Heaven Allows (1955)

All that Heaven Allows (1955)

Desperately casting around for a way of changing the subject, Cary virtually sprints towards the fireplace, which, she declares, makes the place “perfect”. “Perfect for what?” asks Ron, to which Cary retorts “Well, a perfect place for you to live”, simultaneously spreading her arms as if to say “that should be obvious”. Ron points out that “I’ve got a place to live”, making a hand-gesture which might almost be a critique of Cary’s, particularly in its economy (Cary needs two hands to make the gesture, whereas Ron only requires one).

It is worth noting that the song, Rovey Eye, which Ron later performs, is explicitly concerned with the voyeuristic male look being returned (“She look-a me up, me look-a her down”), since throughout the mill scene his gaze is frequently directed towards Cary, who responds by examining various aspects of the decor (and drawing the conversation around to them rather than discussing what is really on her mind).

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Cary’s avoidance tactics become particularly blatant when the dialogue about Ron’s need for a larger living space inevitably turns to the question of his meeting ‘a nice girl’. Realising they are coming dangerously close to the topic that primarily concerns her, Cary addresses her remarks not to Ron, but rather to the camera, as if she were attempting to convince the film’s audience that she is not attracted to this man.

As Ron approaches her, ensuring she can ignore his presence no longer, Cary walks away, then comes to an abrupt halt as Ron lightly touches her shoulder. When they kiss, their hands, which have hitherto been associated with either nervous feminine resistance to romance or relaxed masculine confidence, are banished to an offscreen space.

Although Ron prevents Cary from leaving, the gesture with which he restrains her is barely more than a suggestion (one almost obscured by the lower matte on Universal’s Region 2 DVD, though quite visible in Criterion’s transfer), and stands in marked contrast to the brutality of Howard Hoffer (Donald Curtis), who twice forces his attentions on Cary. It is Cary who makes the decision to obey an impulse she had hitherto been resisting.

All that Heaven Allows (1955)

All that Heaven Allows (1955)

This view of Cary as someone who appears (even to herself) to be manipulated by an assertive man, but actually acts of her own volition, is addressed by a later scene in which Ron informs his friend Mick Anderson (Charles Drake) that Cary “has to make up her own mind”. Mick insists “She doesn’t want to make up her own mind. No girl does. She wants you to make it up for her.” Mick’s implication, of course, is that Ron should behave more like Howard. Yet the denouement spectacularly contradicts Mick’s assumptions. Far from having her mind made up for her, Cary (who also has a best friend offering dubious advice) refuses to enter into a relationship with Ron until he has been injured in a fall, and is lying unconscious on a sofa in what used to be the old mill.

Ron earlier claimed that being a man involved making decisions for oneself, inspiring Cary to observe “And you want me to be a man”. Yet it would be truer to say that Cary wants Ron to be a woman. Sirk concludes the initial mill scene with a shot of the pigeon that caused Cary to fall into Ron’s arms (recalling those birds visible under the opening credits). And he ends the film by focusing on another animal, a deer that had been linked with Ron. But if the pigeon was an emblem of Ron’s challenging sexuality, the deer implies that the male has become a meekly submissive creature, signalling Cary’s transition from passive object to dominant subject. As with any organic work of art, it’s all in the details.

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