Later this week, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents a new 4K DCP digital screening of Douglas Sirk’s final film, Imitation of Life. Sirk is one of the most influential directors of his era, a master ironist with an ear for dialogue and an eye for baroque mise-en-scene. The characters in his films wrestle with feelings and conflicts familiar to the audience, but he often adds an extra thematic or stylistic dimension, an unexpected perspective on a routine engagement. He once said, “Your characters have to remain innocent of what your picture is after.” In his best films, people who’ve seemingly overcome their problems are actually left with new and deeper issues—the characters in a Sirk film experience change, though the films also question the nature of their emotional and spiritual transformations.
Naturally, the ideal vehicle for such a thematic strategy is the melodrama, a style he perfected. Sirk illustrates melodrama’s sociopolitical potential, highlighted by a fatalistic treatment of social customs and materialism; the suggestion is that the characters’ choices are greatly influenced by financial circumstance and ideological directive. This is all reflected in his imagery, which implies that human desire is shaped by our surroundings; perhaps my favorite single favorite assessment of Sirk is Dave Kehr’s contention that “he is one of those rare filmmakers who insists you read the image.” You can find my five favorite Sirk films below.
5. Magnificent Obsession (1954) In a lot of ways, this is the ultimate Sirk film, despite the fact that it absorbs much of John M. Stahl’s 1935 original. The film stands out for its irreverent plotline and Sirk’s corresponding direction. Rather than limit the story’s emotional extremes, Sirk lets them roam free, allowing a vigorous if somewhat demented tone to emerge.
4. Lured (1947) Sirk’s noirs are fascinating because their singularity and clarity of vision belie the fact that they never fully grapple with the form’s essential tenets. In this film, the thematic elements are intentionally askew, but everything is held together by Sirk’s intrepid investigation of what film critic Fernando F. Croce perfectly describes as “the alluring trapdoors of the romantic image,” an observation that reminds me of Sirk’s own assertion that in cinema, “You can’t reach, or touch, the real. You just see reflections”
3. All I Desire (1953) Sirk took an unconventional approach to all of his films, noir and otherwise; in this melodrama, an excellent Barbara Stanwyck attempts to reenter the family she once abandoned to pursue a career as an actress. One of Sirk’s most enduring themes is the phoniness of show business, an idea he explores here by playing it off the ideals of the nuclear family. The director depicts the manners and phony morality of bourgeois middle America in such a way that reflects the oppression, jealousy, and joy of celebrity, a stunning and ambitious contrast rendered in subversive and uniquely ironic terms. It’s an idea he’d explore further in . . .
2. Written on the Wind (1957) This is a great film about people, a remarkable collection of intersecting personal and sexual misunderstandings and entanglements. This is also, in the director’s own words, “a film about failure,” and the sense of tragedy and frustration is constantly at odds with the film’s famously vivid Technicolor. Sirk couldn’t have assembled a better cast: Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone, Robert Stack, and especially Rock Hudson fit remarkably among the director’s wry, subversive characterizations.
1. All That Heaven Allows (1955) Sirk takes a soap opera plot and turns it into an indictment of 1950s social etiquette and sexual politics, ideologies that are not only inflicted on the dual protagonists (forbidden lovers Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman) by their antagonistic peers but also guide their own behavior and the ways they perceive themselves. The story and characters essentially operate on a feedback loop, but Sirk’s visual style features images that break the cycle. In one of the director’s greatest sequences, Wyman sits in front of a mirror preparing for an evening with some well-to-do community members, and she’s simultaneously confronted by her desire (Hudson’s gift) and her duty (the children) in an elegant and heartbreaking shot.