LaVerne and Sirk
For me "The Tarnished Angels" is a bit of a curiosity because whilst technically a Douglas Sirk melodrama it certainly doesn't have the same feeling as his other better known movies. That vibrant use of colour, the clever use of reflections, the over the top acting all seems to be missing or restrained and instead we have something close to being a very normal drama and a black & white one at that. But then like Sirk's other movies "The Tarnished Angels" is more than just a simple drama as it revolves around complex characters and tangled emotions which makes it interesting. Yet whilst we have this depth, that look at social expectation also seems to be missing. Basically there is no doubt that "The Tarnished Angels" is a Douglas Sirk movie, just one which feels different to his other movies from the same period.
Having returned from the First World War a hero, flying ace Roger Schumann (Robert Stack - The High and the Mighty) now is forced to make his living as part of the flying circuit, going from town to town competing in races and doing death defying stunts. And along with him is his family who constantly have to play second fiddle to Roger's need for the excitement of flying. At their latest stop off they meet passionate newspaper reporter Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson - All That Heaven Allows) who wants to do a story on War Hero Roger but soon becomes disgusted by this man who is so cold and cruel to those close to him especially his stunning wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone - Tension at Table Rock) who everyone falls for including Devlin himself.
One of the things I always like about Douglas Sirk's movies they worked two fold, they worked as simple entertainment and then they worked at a deeper level with hidden context. "The Tarnished Angels" is a bit of a curiosity because it sort of floats in between as whilst it is entertaining it is only because of the depth, yet the depth is not as spectacular in his other movies. As such if you were to try and watch "The Tarnished Angels" as purely a romantic drama about a journalist falling for the wife of a stunt flier you are going to be left feeling a little disappointed. Oh there is romantic drama as we watch reporter Burke Devlin go from idolising Roger Shumann to disliking him to falling for his put upon wife LaVerne; there is even drama in the air as Roger risks his life but none of it really grabs you. And like wise whilst we have depth, as the true feelings of the characters come to the surface there is none of the usual social depth which Sirk often explored.
Basically what that means is to enjoy and to appreciate "The Tarnished Angels" you need to watch to be entertained by the individual relationships rather than anything else and it is when you do so that the movie gets good. Basically we have a simple situation made complex by the characters which start with Roger Shumann himself, basically an addict who needs to fly to feed his addiction to danger. That danger springs from being a war hero who needs to feel the adrenalin of dangerous flying to feel worthy and the knock on effect of this is that his addiction pushes those closer to him to the edge. And it also means that reporter Devlin goes on a journey of idolising this man, then despising him for his selfish ways through to realisation that the excitement drives him on, appreciating basically that war made him a hero but left him with a void when it was over.
But Roger is not the only one with depth, there is his stunningly beautiful wife LaVerne who turns heads where ever she goes and causes Roger to struggle with jealousy yet he still basically mistreats her. This inevitably brings the romantic drama as Devlin falls for LaVerne feeling for her as Roger mistreats her, but Devlin is a romantic not just in relationships but in the way he sees Roger and it clouds things. And Devlin is not the only one who has strong feelings for LaVerne as Jiggs, Roger's loyal engineer, has been in love with her since the first time he set eyes on her when she was still a teen. It is because all of these characters are complex creations, a mix of strengths and vulnerabilities which makes the storyline work but unless you are willing to delve into these characters and what makes them tick you wont get much out of "The Tarnished Angels".
Acting wise well Sirk reunites Hudson, Malone and Stack who worked together on "Written on the Wind" and again we get strong performances from each. Hudson as reporter Devlin not only takes us on a journey of idolisation, bitterness and understanding but delivers the movies most memorable moment, the raging speech in the newspaper office which is certainly very powerful. And again Hudson works well with Malone who delivers the mix of strength and vulnerability as the loyal and sexy LaVerne whilst Stack brings more self loathing and conflict as her husband Roger battling his need to fly with his feelings for LaVerne and their son. Honestly these are not the best performances that Hudson, Malone and Stack ever gave but the conviction in their delivery helps draw you into their conflicted characters.
What this all boils down to is that "The Tarnished Angels" is an entertaining movie but where as other Sirk movies work on two levels either simple entertainment or in-depth social drama this flies somewhere in between. It means that whilst there are good performances, drama, and complex characters neither is it just entertaining nor deep.