A well-known intellectual in Germany before he fled the Nazis, Douglas Sirk came to Hollywood where he worked as a director for hire until he an Ross Hunter developed a kind of high class soap opera that made a fortune for Universal in the 1950’s and in later years made Sirk an inspiration to such directors as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Quentin Tarantino, John Waters and others. In the 1950’s, critics largely dismissed Sirk’s work because the stories revolved around female and domestic issues (something deemed unimportant at the time), and through the use of subtext, often dealt with social issues considered taboo.
All That Heaven Allows takes places in the fictional town of Stoningham, New York. Jane Wyman stars as Cary Scott, an upper middle-class widow with two children in college. She lives in a large house, has a group of socialite friends, and goes to dinners and parties at the local country club. Everything in her life appears “perfect” and conventional. Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) is the handsome young gardener responsible for keeping the yard neat.
Cary children, Ned (William Reynolds) and Kay (Gloria Talbot), want their mother to be happy and stable. They don’t mind her remarrying once they get used to the idea. According to them, Harvey (Conrad Nagel), a decent, older man, simply looking for companionship would be the perfect match. Kay remarks that “…as Freud says, when we reach a certain age, sex becomes incongruous. I think Harvey understands that.”
The contrast between what Cary’s children want for her and what Cary wants for herself, is severe. She is clearly too young to want to marry a sexless old “companion.” Instead, she finds herself falling in love with the handsome, young gardener, Ron Kirby. Just the way they look at each other makes it clear they are physically attracted to each other. Kirby is a Thoreau-esque individualist, an outdoorsman who doesn’t take much stock in material things. He lives in a greenhouse outside of town, near an old mill. He has the countryside all around him and he can hunt until his heart’s content. Kirby’s friends are fun and expressive. Once Madison Avenue money chasers, they’ve left that behind for a simpler life. Now they focus on spending time with their family and friends and enjoying life, with little regard for what other think.
As expected, Cary’s children strongly object to her relationship with Ron. He’s a gardener; not their type of people. But far worse, he’s young and muscular inviting disturbing thoughts about their mother as a sexual being. The even bigger problem though, is the very thing that had been a great source of comfort for Cary her group of friends, and social circle. Although Cary’s best friend, Sara (Agnes Moorehead), is cautiously supportive of her relationship with Ron, the rest of the social scene in Stoningham (the name of the town brings to mind the ancient, humiliating punishment of stoning someone to death, a fate often reserved for “social deviants”) turns their back on her.
Throughout All That Heaven Allows Sirk manages to offer some rather stinging critiques regarding morality of the day and middlebrow culture. He and cinematographer Russell Metty use Alexander Golitzen and Eric Oborn’s meticulously decorated sets to metaphorically trap ‘trap’ Cary in the apparently perfect lifestyle most 1955 audiences would have aspired. Further, by using several lingering shots, Sirk reinforces the emptiness that exists in Cary’s life behind the carefully constructed façade of contentment. He then employs long shots when she has expressed her love for Ron to show how she changed—the excitement, the blush of new love. While Douglas Sirk certainly could be overly dramatic on occasion, his desire to peel back the layers of 1950’s convention makes for unforgettable viewing.
Presented in the 1.77 aspect ratio, the depth of colors is stunning. There are a couple of scenes that exhibit some slight damage and take on a bit of a teal hue, but those don’t ruin the overall viewing experience. Contrast is consistent throughout. All and all, Criterion has offered up another fine transfer.
Criterion has offered up a mono soundtrack that faithfully reproduces the film’s original sound design. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout. The score by Frank Skinner (Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind) sounds wonderful, though the design doesn’t allow for any separation.
English subtitles are available.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Film Scholars John Mercer and Dr. Tamar Jeffers-McDonald: Recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2014, Mercer and McDonald offer an extremely informative discussion, analyzing the film from several different perspectives and providing interesting background information. This is highly recommended for fans of the film.
- Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (HD, 103:42) Produced in 1992, filmmaker Mark Rappaport explores Hudson’s sexuality and career through a series of provocative film clips, live action and voiceovers. This will likely give viewers a whole new perspective on every part the actor ever played.
- An Interview on French TV with Douglas Sirk: (HD, 15:53) Recorded in April of 1982 on the French TV show Cinema Cinemas, Sirk discusses his work, its themes and more.
- Excerpts from Behind the Mirror: A Profile of Douglas Sirk (HD, 57: 15) Produced in 1979 by the BBC, this includes rare footage of the director and provides a nice overview of his life and work.
- Contract Kid: William Reynolds (HD, 23: 07) In this 2007 interview, William Reynolds, who co-starred in three Sirk films—All That Heaven Allows, There’s Always Tomorrow, Imitation of Life—discusses what it was like working with Sirk and compares his style to other prominent directors of the era.
- Trailer (HD, 2:32)
- Booklet: Features an essay by film scholar Laura Mulvey and an excerpt from a 1971 essay on Douglas Sirk by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
- 2 DVDs: They contain the film, and all the extras on the Blu-ray.