Over the years, I’ve seen several movies starring Rock Hudson. The Douglas Sirk melodramas, comedies with Doris Day and the Texas epic Giant, among others. As much as I’ve enjoyed these films, it is always someone else’s performance which catches my eye. So when the opportunity arose to view Tarnished Angels I chose to watch it for Dorothy Malone. But then I got the surprise of my life – Rock Hudson can act!
Tarnished Angels is based on the novel Pylon by William Faulkner. According to Faulkner, it is the best film adaptation of all his works. Aside from perhaps Tennessee Williams, no one could write a Southern potboiler like this native author. As usual, certain plot points of the story were toned down for the screen due to the Code. The film reunited director Douglas Sirk with Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone two years after working together on Written on the Wind.
Hudson is New Orleans newspaper reporter Burke Devlin. Like most reporters in classic films, he is constantly at odds with his editor. Always one argument or bad story away from losing his job. Devlin heads down to the local air field which is hosting a barnstorming show. There he rescues young Jack Schumann who is being bullied over questions about his parentage.
Jack introduces him to his parents Roger and Laverne Schumann (Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone) and their third wheel mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson). Roger is a WWI hero obsessed with flying and taking risks. Laverne is a beautiful woman who attracts attention everywhere they go. But she is deeply in love with her husband who uses her appeal with other men to his own advantage.
Devlin quickly finds himself entangled in the lives of the Schumanns and Jiggs. Despite the rumors swirling about Laverne’s fidelity, Devlin is captivated by her. He also finds Roger’s neglect and callous treatment of his wife both baffling and repugnant. When Roger asks Laverne to barter herself to get him a new plane, she loses her last hope for her marriage. Jiggs, who is secretly in love with her says nothing. Devlin’s defense of her causes Laverne to turn to him for comfort. This incident leaves everyone questioning Roger’s humanity and doubting his care of his wife.
But when tragedy strikes, a new understanding comes to light and illuminates the truth about the Schumanns and Jiggs.
I confess, I’m not usually a fan of these types of stories or of Faulkner. But perhaps that is because I’ve never seen his stories accurately adapted for the screen. Tarnished Angels captured and held my attention from beginning to end. The dysfunctional relationships among the characters were like a train wreck I couldn’t look away from. Just like Devlin experienced, the dynamic among Roger, Laverne and Jiggs kept me guessing and curious.
Dorothy Malone plays the tortured wife almost flawlessly. The film revolves around her relationships with all the men, even though that is not the point of the plot. She is a sympathetic character especially since loving the wrong man is her weakness. Laverne sacrifices just about everything for that love even while believing that it isn’t returned.
Stack and Carson both portray the despicable characteristics of selfish, self-protective men so well. They make Roger and Jiggs so easy to despise and by comparison make Devlin look like a hero. Playing a weak man is somewhat of a departure for Carson who is better known for lighter weight roles in fluffy but enjoyable films.
Stack’s portrayal of lauded but tortured hero Roger Schumann gives us an almost inscrutable man. With a face like stone, that betrays no emotion, he single-mindedly pursues his passion with flying, ignoring the needs of those who love him. He is a very unlikeable character, almost impossible to sympathize with, yet not truly bad either.
In his role as Devlin, Rock Hudson gets the opportunity to express many emotions; curiosity, infatuation, stubbornness, perplexity among others. It is through his eyes we see the other characters. It is his perceptions which color how the audience views the relationships of the Schumanns and Jiggs. The fascinating thing about this perspective is how easily we trust and accept his judgments of the others. And yet, just like in real life, Devlin along with the audience learns how unreliable our impressions of others can be.
Along with his attraction to Laverne, Devlin is equally fascinated by her husband Roger. Devlin can’t decide whether to revere Roger for his heroic war record or despise him for his treatment of Laverne. He questions whether Roger is a decent man or a corrupt one, not able to reconcile the fact that he could be a little of both. When Devlin finally puzzles together all the pieces of the Schumann’s life the picture at long last comes into clear focus. It is then he unleashes the performance that stunned me. He summarizes his final evaluation of Roger Schumann in an emotional and powerful speech to his editor. It is a scene which still resonates in my memory months later.
Sometimes we watch films we immediately fall in love with. Others must percolate within us for awhile as the impact continues to reverberate within us. Tarnished Angels is one of the latter for me. Part of the reason for this is the exploration of dysfunctional relationships along with the public perception of a hero versus the private reality. But mostly, I will remember this film as the one that finally convinced me to take notice of Rock Hudson.
Please check out the other entries written about this under rated actor at their websites.