ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Jane Wyman, Rock
Hudson, Agnes Moorehead
Director: Douglas Sirk
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.75:1
Features: See Review
Length: 89 Minutes
Release Date: June 10, 2014
Cary you've come home.
I've come home.
Douglas Sirk was once considered a top name director and a master of Technicolor melodrama whose name was as big on marquees in the 1950's as those of Nicholas Ray or Elia Kazan. Today, however, while his contemporaries' reputations have sustained decades of afterglow, this once noted filmmaker seems mostly noted for having a steak named after him in Pulp Fiction.
Perhaps the melodrama tag is no longer savory, but when viewing films like All That Heaven Allows, they refuse to be categorized any other way. If Sirk's reputation has faltered over the years, it's likely because the beauty of his imagery and mastery of his craftsmanship struggle to support the weight of overly sappy stories that know no subtlety. One doesn't ponder the symbolism in a Sirk film as much as succumb to it.
This simple love story about a well-to-do woman and a poor-but-happy man seems familiar enough it's nothing that hasn't been explored before or since, even up to and including pictures like Titanic. Cary (Wyman) is a wealthy but lonely widow, who doesn't live life so much as endure it, and whose world consists of the society of her small town and her grown children who only rarely visit from school.
A new and less safe road opens before her when she casually invites her gardener for tea one autumn afternoon. Ron (Hudson) is everything her friends are not honest, earthy, fearless, and very much in touch with himself. It's no coincidence, really, that when Cary visits him and his family at their home that she finds a copy of Thoreau's Walden lying around, though she's told Ron has never read it, only lived it.
Complications ensue, most of which are entirely the work of human hands and minds. Ron is younger and lower on the social scale; how can Cary consummate her love for him and keep her status? She cannot. Not even her monstrous children support her.
What's left unexplored by most modern critics, I think, is that Ron has a certain selfishness of his own in this scenario. He's treated like a romantic ideal, but his refusal to change his way of living, or even to take up residence in Cary's home, basically forces the choice on her. If she doesn't change herself, there can be no future between them. While one can rightly argue that it's probably her life that requires the change, that's still a facet I found hard to overlook.
The symbolism is blunt throughout, from a tree in Cary's front yard that only blooms when there is love, to an antique vase that gets shattered at an opportune moment, to the deer that represents nature-boy Ron, to the greatest of all symbols in the film, television, which is described over an over again as company for old lonely women. It's not very subtle when that very object becomes Cary's Christmas gift from her children near the end. Consider also that in 1955, the movies looked on television with great scorn and derision. Cary's colorless reflection in the blank screen would probably have been considered the ugliest possible symbol of bleakness and artificiality, at least from a filmmaker's point of view.
Cary is the only real character in the film for me. She's the focus, and the one who's forced to make the choices that alter the outcomes of the story. Her world is a somewhat sad one, as the autumn colored setting of her town probably only served to remind her of her age and loneliness and the succeeding winter only seems all the more hopeless. Jane Wyman's performance here is terrific.
She's surrounded, however, by colorless and flat characters that at best, fail to win our interest, and at worst, inspire hostility. Some of this is intentional, of course. I don't think we're meant to like her children at all, or the so-called society people, who, even when friendly, seem a bit too leering and chop-licking for comfort.
Ron, for all his emphasized qualities, remains something of a disappointment. Rock Hudson may have been the right physical specimen for this role, but apart from comparison to the other people in Cary's life, he never really seems to take a full life of his own.
But the weak story is only secondary enjoyment, at best. All That Heaven Allows succeeds not on the basis of plot or character, but Sirk's wonderful visual style, which is fluid, colorful, and rich in texture. He uses contrasts between natural and artificial colors to create exposition, and his framing and depth of images are decidedly beautiful. Sometimes the way he composes a shot says as much about what's going on as the dialogue does, if not more. Notice, for example, his use of mirrors, and ponder the concept of a reflection. It matches the appearance of reality almost perfectly, except it's completely flat and has no life apart from what it reflects.
Some have claimed Sirk has undergone a resurgence in popularity in recent years maybe to a certain extent, but not fully. At least not to the point of, say, the Renaissance of the silent film comedians during the same era as Sirk was crafting his movies. The problem is, even though there is much to admire in his work, stories like Heaven just don't hold up well they come across a bit cheesy and overdone, and probably tend to wear on modern moviegoers' patience.
But Sirk has been an inspiration to many modern filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese to Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who later remade Heaven as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) yes, even to Quentin Tarantino, who managed a tip of the cap to the influential director by serving up a steak bloody as hell in his own movie. All That Heaven Allows deserves to be studied as a movie and not a script; as a film that relied more on visuals than the written word to convey information as well as entertain.
Video *** 1/2
Overall, this is a very pleasing high definition offering from Criterion. As is the case with most Technicolor films from the 50's, the colors are bright, vivid, and beautiful, but rarely natural looking. Most of Sirk's images are masterfully conveyed, from his wide palate to his carefully constructed close-ups and deep, wide shots, with good detail and very little noticeable scars or imperfections in the print. One or two darker scenes show some softness and muddled detail, but only briefly. For the most part, the beauty of Sirk's compositions render without complaint in this transfer.
The single channel mono soundtrack is remarkably clean for its age, hence the extra half-star. As with most monaural tracks, though, dynamic range is limited, though dialogue comes across cleanly and clearly throughout.
The disc contains a few nice extras, starting with a half hour's worth of clips (not an hour, as the box says) from the documentary Behind the Mirror, featuring rare interview footage with Douglas Sirk. There is a text essay by Fassbinder on Sirk, Imitation of Life, that's an excellent read. There is also a stills/promotional gallery and a trailer.
Though burdened by melodrama and heavy-handed symbolism, All That Heaven Allows still merits consideration from a purely cinematic point of view. Director Douglas Sirk uses color, movement, composition and lighting to create unique and memorable visuals that tell the story better than the spoken words do.