Tarnished Angels (1958): Sirk’s Finest Film?

I admire cult director Douglas Sirk’s stylish, elegant melodramas, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life.  But if I had to choose one Sirk film that’s his finest in terms of narrative, characterization, coherence, and style, and acting, I’d select the black-and-white Tarnished Angels, which may also be the finest screen version of a William Faulkner story.
Sirk reunited three of his 1956 Written on the Wind stars, Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, and Dorothy Malone, for what is probably the best Hollywood adaptation ever of a William Faulkner novel, “Pylon,” sharply scripted by George Zuckerman.
Set in the Depression era, in 1932 to be exact, in New Orleans, the tale centers on Roger Shumann (Robert Stack), a WWI hero who is now reduced to appearances on the crash-and-burn circuit of stunt aerobatics. Hoping to win the big cash prize, he arrives in town to race in the air show, though his plane is dilapidated. 
Meanwhile, his frustrated wife (Dorothy Malone) and young son (Christopher Olsen) are forced to live shabby, meager lives, in sacrifice of Shumann’s one and only true love, the airplane.
Rock Hudson plays Burke Devlin, a hard-drinking, idealistic reporter who becomes intrigued with former war ace and current air show stunt pilot and his work.
Clearly, Shumann is an obsessive man, who has not relinquished his glorious past, willing to live hand-to-mouth with his dissatisfied and bitter wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone), lost son who’s in need of a role model, and loyal, ad-eyed mechanic (Jack Carson).
Devlin befriends the wild bunch, but he is soon chagrined at his powerlessness, having to witness self-destructive Shumann’s inner demons damage his self-worth and tear his family apart. Sirk is particularly good at evoking the gypsy-like, nomad lifestyle of Shuman and his likes.
Matt Ord (Robert Middleton) is the wealthy, venal air show competitor who offers Shumann an impossible choice that will stoke the furnace of tragedy to the extreme, bursting point. (Lusting after LaVerne, he offers Shumann a plane to fly in return for his wife).
At first, he is simply repulsed by Shumann’s diminished conditions, but as he is romantically drawn to his stunning wife LaVerne, he gets a more intimate knowledge of the man and his life.
Indeed, Devlin begins as a detached reporter, a professional who’s out there to do an “objective” story about “whatever happened” to a hero like Shumann.   However, first hand experience of the men, their work, and risks involved transform Devlin from an impassioned observer to a committed and humane individual
The screenplay is replete with poignant observations and witty humor in conveying both the idealism and cynicism of this particular style. There are several outstanding scenes, including Shumann’s voice-over narration while looking back at his WWI adventures, and a scene, in which a drunk Deviln lectures his editor and peers at the newspaper about the real heroism of a man like Shuman.
William Faulkner reportedly based much of his book on the actual experiences of his own brother, Dean Faulkner, who was a barnstorming pilot in the early years of the Depression.
Made in black-and white, and lacking the glossy (and ironic) stylistics flourishes of Douglas’; popular melodramas (“All That Heaven Allows,” “Imitation of Life”), “The Tarnished Angels” is one of Sirk’s finest films, a sharply focused chronicle of daredevils, directed with passion, commitment, and precision
Shot in a realistic style, the air sequences are riveting, capturing the excitement, danger and risk of flying those airplanes.
Spoiler Alert
In the end, while all are watching Shuman crashing his aircraft to his death, Devlin persuades his wife and son to start a new, healthier life elsewhere, and they reluctantly leave, with the understanding that Devlin, who’s in love with LaVerne, will join them someday.
End Note: Trivia Pursuit
Robert Stack’s hero is named Devlin, the moniker of Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s 1946 masterpiece “Notorious.”
Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson)
Roger Shumann (Robert Stack)
LaVerne Shumann (Dorothy Malone)
Jiggs (Johnny Carson)
Matt Ord (Robert Middleton)
Col. Fineman (Alan reed)
Sam Hagood (Alexander Lockwood)
Jack Shumann (Christopher Olsen)
Hank (Bob Wilke)
Frank Burnham (Troy Donahue)
Produced by Albert Zugsmith
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: George Zuckerman, based on the novel “Pylon” by William Faulkner
Camera (CinemaScope): Irving Glassberg
Editor: Russell Schoengarth
Music; Frank Skinner
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Alfred Sweeney
Costumes: Bill Thomas
F/X: Clifford Stine

Running time: 91 Minutes