Why this might not seem so easy
Depending on who you ask, Douglas Sirk was either a peddler of gaudy sentiment or one of the most stylish and slyly subversive directors to have worked in Hollywood’s golden age. One of many filmmaking émigrés who fled from Europe to California at the beginning of the Second World War, the German-born Sirk parted ways with his homeland after a brief and begrudging stint in Nazi-controlled UFA. Appropriately enough, his American debut was entitled Hitler’s Madman (1943).
Sirk had a particular affinity for what he called “dramas of swollen emotion”. He took a nigh-on operatic approach to cinematic melodrama, best exemplified in a cycle of ‘women’s weepies’ he made during the 1950s, the final decade of his career. These films were successful at the box office but, for the most part, critically reviled in their time. But as was the case for many of his fellow ‘low art’ contemporaries, Sirk’s body of work was reappraised with the arrival of the auteur theory, with the critics of French journal Cahiers du Cinéma championing directors with a strong authorial stamp.
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Sirk would go on to become a key influence on such radical filmmakers as John Waters, David Lynch, Pedro Almodóvar and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fassbinder was his most ardent admirer and became a personal friend. “What passes on the screen isn’t something that I can directly identify with from my own life,” the German director would say of Sirk’s singular aesthetic, “because it’s so pure, so unreal. And yet within me, together with my own reality, it becomes a new reality.”
The best place to start – All That Heaven Allows
Although Sirk had been refining his singular approach to melodrama for decades, he solidified his trademark combination of knowing hyperrealism and earnest emotionality with Magnificent Obsession (1954), which also cemented his distinctive, full-bodied Technicolor palette. The following year, Sirk would reunite that film’s two leads, Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, in All That Heaven Allows (1955), which would prove the most enduring of his late-career triumphs.
The film tells the story of Cary Scott (Wyman), a dissatisfied and disillusioned widow enduring suburban ennui in a picture-perfect New England hamlet. While she may have a social life, two ostensibly loving grown-up children, and even a similarly widowed suitor, Cary’s all-too-comfortable life has well and truly lost its lustre (if it ever had any). But all that changes when she gets to know Ron Kirby (Hudson), her young and handsome gardener. A rugged yet gentle giant, Ron is sensitive, self-determined and ever-so-slightly bohemian, a combination that proves utterly intoxicating for Cary. A romance soon blossoms between the two lonely souls, much to the disapproval of the prying suburbanites that encircle them.
Like many ‘women’s pictures’ made during Hollywood’s classical period, All That Heaven Allows is a film that treads a careful line between wish-fulfilment and commiseration. It furnishes its presumed female audience with romantic fantasy while also endeavouring to reflect their everyday frustrations and fears. This latent contradiction practically demanded by the film’s genre allows Sirk to create a potent thematic tension, one between sincere sentiment and embittered irony. At once a tender love story, a scathing social satire and a heartfelt plea for tolerance, All That Heaven Allows is the prototypical Sirk melodrama.
What to watch next
If you found Sirk’s social critique compelling but his syrupiness a little overbearing, a toothier example of his canonical melodramas would be Written on the Wind (1956). Anticipating the opulent familial dysfunction of television sagas such as Dallas and the recent Succession, Sirk here foregrounds the Freudian failings of an oil-rich Texan family with a vicious panache.
If his more humanistic side appeals to you, Imitation of Life (1959) is simply a must-watch. Whereas All That Heaven Allows had addressed structural inequalities in relatively oblique fashion, here Sirk crafts an out-and-out treatise on American race relations, and a strikingly uncompromising one at that. Imitation of Life would be Sirk’s final feature film, and may well be the Hollywood melodrama’s formal apex.
If by now you’ve developed a taste for the melodramatic then All I Desire (1953) offers a more muted but nonetheless compelling take on the American family, and Sirk’s character study of an unhappy husband in There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) makes for a fascinating male counterpoint to All That Heaven Allows.
There’s also The Tarnished Angels (1957), Sirk’s final collaboration with Rock Hudson. It’s an affecting tale of faded stunt-flyers set against a sweaty, sordid New Orleans backdrop, with pulse-quickening aerial sequences that demonstrate Sirk’s apparently formidable action chops.
As a jobbing studio director, Sirk’s filmography offers practically every genre, from the musical to the western. His fluffy comedies like Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952) and No Room for the Groom (1952) offer some satire alongside broad laughs, and Shockproof (1949) is a taut little film noir with screenplay by the legendary Samuel Fuller.
His penultimate film, A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), is a heartfelt WWII polemic told from a German perspective (still a rarity in American cinema), and one that dramatises the destruction of Sirk’s homeland with an admirably clear-eyed fervour.
Where not to start
Magnificent Obsession may seem like an obvious entry point, given that it began the series of lush Technicolor melodramas that would come to define the ‘Sirkian’ aesthetic. But whereas a film like Written on the Wind might well dispel a melodrama sceptic’s preconceived notions of the form, Magnificent Obsession has every chance of reinforcing them tenfold.
Put simply, the film’s story is objectively silly. It relies heavily on coincidence and contrivance, gleefully vaulting numerous logical chasms across its runtime. Moreover, the tone often verges on histrionic. To an unaccustomed viewer, this saccharine tale of a repentant playboy millionaire and his devotion to the woman he inadvertently blinded (yes, really) might come across as downright absurd.
Having said that, Magnificent Obsession is a genuinely brilliant film, but one that is probably best served by at least a passing familiarity with Sirk’s cinematic sensibilities. Beneath its candy-coloured exterior are undercurrents of unspeakable sadness, full and rich emotion that Sirk managed to draw from what could’ve been just another stolid morality play. This was his genius, weaving grace into the ostensibly tacky. It may have taken a while for film culture to catch up to Douglas Sirk, but he’d only ever been hiding in plain sight.