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All That Heaven Allows: The Criterion Collection

Melodrama might be hackneyed and overwrought, but it is the foundation of cinema, from its earliest years to our present day. And even when emotions are reduced to cheap soap-opera clichés, high-pitched conflicts are often at the heart of great films, as the characters and events have to touch the viewers — in a very fundamental way — to move them. Such is why directors have to believe in the pulp, even if it's ridiculous, and perhaps why American cinema has never produced a greater melodramatist than Douglas Sirk. Part of the migration of German directors from the legendary UFA studios who were fleeing Hitler's Third Reich, Sirk (neé Claus Detlef Sierck) had an early journeyman's career in Hollywood before signing with Universal and finding a niche with 1954's Magnificent Obsession, starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. A huge success, the film made Sirk Hollywood's preeminent melodramatist of the 1950s — a genre he continued to explore over 11 more feature films before his retirement in 1959. Utilizing a retinue of marquee actors (Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone were regulars), Sirk was known for his popular but critically reviled "women's pictures" until he was later rediscovered by the "auteurist" film critics in France, and later America. It was those writers who first discovered what makes a Sirk film more than just a glorified three-hanky weepy — his bold use of mise en scéne (the director came out of the German Expressionist school of cinema) made the look and feel of a Sirk picture as important as the plot, dialogue, or acting. But mise en scéne, schemeze en scene. Sirk's films are gripping because — unlike many of his contemporaries — he refused to cheapen the sentiments, keeping his stories grounded and never camp. All That Heaven Allows (1955) is one of his best efforts (and also probably the best for first-time viewers), as it effectively illustrates why Sirk became a Hollywood legend. Recently widowed Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) is lonely. Her kids are out of the house and in college, and she doesn't want to join clubs or watch television to fill her empty time. On a day when her best friend Sara (Agnes Moorehead) cancels on her for lunch, Cary asks her gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) to join her and — though at first he's terse and uninterested — the two connect when she asks about his trees, as he's ready to quit gardening and become a tree farmer. Cary attends a party that evening with Sara and mutual friend Harvey (Conrad Nagel), where she learns that Harvey wants to marry her, although he can't offer her much more than comforting blandness. But when Ron returns two weeks later to finish his work on the garden, the two agree to a date to see his tree farm, and subsequently fall for each other. Cary finds herself curiously moved by the younger, independent man who lives by Thoreau's Walden. As their relationship deepens and the two plan to marry they become the subject of much gossip, causing dissonance with her family members, who object to the supposed impropriety of an older, wealthy woman marrying the hired help.

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Known for his striking compositions, Sirk's All That Heaven Allows offers both dense imagery and a swift narrative that is formally breathtaking. Even if the viewer knows where the story is headed (this is no drawing-room murder mystery, after all) there's an eagerness to see the story unfold. But this sort of impatience is simultaneously placated by Sirk's masterful craftsmanship — each scene is to be savored. Characters that get brief screen time come to life as one gets the sense — as one does when watching a great artist sketch — that Sirk's short strokes give form and shape briefly without overstatement or superficiality. It's ironic (and not in a postmodern way) to consider how many recent films have investigated the sordid underbelly of the 1950s or small-town America, perhaps inspired by David Lynch's brilliant 1986 Blue Velvet (a film that owes an obvious debt to Sirk.) But Sirk was saying and showing the same things in his own time and milieu, and he was more revolutionary about it. Rock Hudson's Thoreau-quoting, anti-classist gardener has the same strains of anti-establishment revolt to be found in Fight Club's Tyler Durden. Sirk is often emulated, but those who try usually commit the mistake of creating unsympathetic leads (something Sirk never did, and something David Lynch understands). Even the more high-pitched moments in All That Heaven Allows work on an emotional level, avoiding bombast while squeezing the pain out of Jane Wyman's plight. That Sirk was a daring filmmaker is not in question. What made him so daring was his ability to create melodrama and never wink at the audience over his shoulder. Criterion's DVD release of All That Heaven Allows features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.77:1). The film was shot in Technicolor, so there are certain moments that look a little off through bad aging, but for the most part Russell Metty's photography is radiant. Audio is in the original mono (Dolby Digital 1.0), with optional English subtitles. Supplements include the theatrical trailer, stills and posters, and essays on six Douglas Sirk films by director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But the main attraction is a 31-minute interview with Sirk conducted by the BBC in the late 1970s that covers his entire career. Sirk is a wonderful presence, and it's a rare opportunity to hear the man talk about his work. Keep-case.

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