Currently I’m watching through a list of 85 films mentioned by Martin Scorsese during an interview. The movies are a random assortment of movies that Mr. Scorsese just happened to talk about during the course of the lengthy interview. It’s not a “list” which he purposefully curated or anything like that, and yet these are 85 movies which he felt compelled to speak of. I’ve seen quite a few of the films on the list (An American In Paris, Apocalypse Now, and Arsenic and Old Lace just to name a few from the “A”s), but there are quite a few which I’ve not seen. So far, of those films which I had never seen before, I’ve watched Ace in the Hole (1951, dir. Billy Wilder), Stromboli (1950, dir. Roberto Rossellini), and last night I watched All That Heaven Allows (1955, dir. Douglas Sirk). It is that last film which I want to talk about today.
Before watching this movie I had never seen a single Douglass Sirk film, so I had no idea what to expect from it. As the film begins it seems to be a simple story of a small town widow and her dealings with society after the death of her husband. But the film quickly evolves into a melodrama for the ages as the older Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) and the younger Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) fall in love despite their social standings. Cary, the wife of a late socialite, lives in a fairly large, decorative home, meanwhile Ron lives in a greenhouse tending to trees. This is actually how they meet as well, as Ron comes by twice a year — once in the spring and once in the fall — to tend to the trees around Cary’s house.
This social and age difference are the main point of contention between Cary and her high society friends in town, and yet Cary is certain that she loves Ron. Their relationship goes through the typical ups and downs of such a movie, and yet the acting is always exquisite and delicately maintains the balance between melodrama and camp. This material in the hands of an inferior director would be a camp mess.
The main topic I want to discuss about this film, however, has less to do with the plot or even performances (although the performances are terrific), but rather to do with the film’s production. This film was shot in Technicolor, and as a friend of mine said, “You don’t know Technicolor until you see one of [Douglas Sirk’s] movies.” The colors are just incredible. A real punch in the gut. In the very opening scene, as the camera pans across the town and eventually settles on a blue car driving down the street, the colors just pop. I hesitate the say the color is particularly saturated, as that doesn’t quite seem to be it. The color is not overbearing and certainly does not have the awful look of a photo in which the colors have been tampered with. In this case it’s just that Technicolor captured those blue/purple/red tones unlike any other color system has ever managed since.
Next comes the lighting, which is actually a part of the color equation, and how it elevates the performances and their emotional weight. At times the film looks incredibly modern in the way it tosses shadows across the screen and the actors. Sometimes entire action is shown in shadow, and other times particular parts of an action or movement will be cast in shadow. This draws our attention to particular parts of the frame but also adds to the visual dramatic weight. At one point in the story, during a time when the continuance of Cary and Ron’s romance is in question, Cary is cast in full light meanwhile Ron is cast completely in darkness. At other times the cool light of the moon is contrasted with the warmth of a fireplace, or the interior of a house with the snow-covered street outside.
Another point, which is my final one, that surprised me was the unconventional blocking and staging. Very rarely is the classic two-thirds two-shot found in the film. Instead the staging tends to favor realistic spatial relationships between characters as they converse with one another. This means that a lot of times the main characters have their backs to the cameras during group conversations. This is extremely unconventional by Hollywood standards of the day. The movie is not devoid of those beautiful close-ups and medium shots used to show off studio stars, however, but these close-ups always serve the narrative, drama, and artistic style of the film as a whole. It’s truly marvelous.