DVD Review: All That Heaven Allows

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Douglas Sirk | CAST: Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead, Conrad Nagel, Virginia Grey
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 6/10/2014 | PRICE: Blu-ray/DVD Combo $39.95
BONUSES: audio commentary by film scholars John Mercer and Tamar Jeffers-McDonald, “Rock Hudson’s Home Movies” by Mark Rappaport, 1982 Sirk interview from French television, the 1979 British TV docu “Behind the Mirror: Douglas Sirk,” French TV interview with actor William Reynolds
SPECS: NR | 89 min. | Drama | 1.77:1 widescreen | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

“You can do remarkable things with a mirror!” exclaims master stylist Douglas Sirk (Sleep My Love) in an interview included in this three-disc (one Blu-ray, two DVDs) package  that improves upon the 2001 Criterion release of this 1955 classic. All That Heaven Allows remains one of Sirk’s grandest achievements, in that he imbued what could have been a fairly routine melodrama with socio-political resonance, sumptuous visuals and, most important of all, a deep vein of genuine emotion. Foremost among his “tools” was a mastery of crafting visuals that included reflective surfaces — windows, household objects and, of course, mirrors.

The plot is thin but flexible enough that it was reworked not once but twice by Sirk cultists, first by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and then by Todd Haynes as Far From Heaven. The original iteration finds a lonely, affluent widow (Jane Wyman, Magnificent Obsession) falling for her studly (but clearly blue-collar) gardener (Rock Hudson, Seconds). The scenario is wafer-thin but rendered razor-sharp by Sirk.

All That Heaven Allows movie scene

Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows.

Sirk achieved absolutely gorgeous effects in his imagery, particularly in making studio sets stand in for the “great outdoors.” Criterion’s restoration of Heaven is absolutely gorgeous, spotlighting both the radiant camerawork and lighting of Sirk’s frequent collaborator Russell Metty (Written on the Wind) and Sirk’s skill at conveying emotion through color.

This facility is discussed at length in the audio commentary by film scholar John Mercer and Tamar Jeffers-McDonald. She refers to the “costume narrative” in the film, noting the ways in which the characters’ moods are conveyed by their clothing. The pair also discuss Hudson’s acting, acknowledging the many bad reviews he received and the evident ability he possessed as an actor.

Sirk’s own comments on his wonderfully expressive visuals appear in a 1979 British TV docu about the filmmaker. Here he openly talks about his “handwriting” onscreen (“my mirrors, my symbols, my statues…”). He also explains how he developed his style: “I was trying to give that cheap stuff a meaning.”

Sirk is also interviewed in a 1982 episode of the French series Cinema Cinemas. In the short time between the two interviews Sirk had retired from teaching, but he still held strong opinions about the ways in which a director can add “a metaphysical quality” to stories of love and emotion.

The single most entertaining supplement is Mark Rappaport’s hour-long video essay “Rock Hudson’s Home Movies.” The piece consists of clips from Hudson’s movies that now appear to “transmit” his hidden gay identity. The actor/narrator (Eric Carr) that Rappaport cast as Hudson is quite flat and sometimes detracts from the proceedings, but Rappaport’s expert assemblage of clips makes the feature imminently rewatchable.

Two essays in the accompanying booklet explore Sirk’s critical rediscovery in the Sixties and Seventies. Noted critic and scholar Laura Mulvey discusses the “complex critical afterlife” that found Sirk’s work being rediscovered by auteurists, feminists and gay critics. She also takes care to start her essay with one of Sirk’s best-ever quotes: “There is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.”

Topping off the Sirk love-fest is an article by Fassbinder, perhaps the most talented and ardent of Sirk’s supporters. Fassbinder’s oft-quoted line about Sirk’s films being “the tenderest [films] I know” comes from this essay. The true beauty of the piece emerges, however, when Fassbinder gets carried away recounting the plot of Heaven: “Then, later, Jane goes back to Rock, because she keeps having headaches, which happens to all of us if we don’t fuck often enough.”

Fassbinder also proposes the very salient, very feminist insight that in Sirk’s films we can watch “women think…. That’s something you’ve got to see. It’s wonderful to see a woman thinking. That gives you hope. Honest.”

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”