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All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk) 1955


    Cary (Jane Wyman), the widowed protagonist of Douglas Sirk’s suburban melodrama All That Heaven Allows is a bit too sexually healthy for her own good. Set in the 1950’s in the repressive, fictional town of Stoningham, New York, the film suggests Sirk, who fled Nazi Germany to begin a directorial career in the United States, found only a more subtle form of moral subjugation in America. There’s so little breathing room in the streamlined plot of this 89-minute movie that the procession of events almost feels as oppressive to us as it must to Cary. The way that she throws herself upon the hunky Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) does feel a bit shameful, if only because their relationship isn’t developed much beyond their obvious mutual sexual attraction. Sirk’s compassion for his heroine becomes contagious, however, and by the end of the film, the soap opera fodder that fuels the plot has becomes something more rarefied and moving. Much of the film’s success has to do with the way that Sirk slightly pushes his Heaven’s world into abstraction. The lush colors that surround Cary have a way of becoming blatantly expressionistic whenever her emotions heighten. Her wardrobe similarly reflects her state of mind, constraining her in a dull gray when she’s being judged by her uppity friends, and flaring red when she’s at her ripest. In a world where everyone is obsessed with “keeping up with the Joneses,” it makes perfect sense that material possessions not only show us how characters define themselves, but also how others perceive them.

    Sirk’s film is filled with such satirical barbs at the American rat race, and horrifyingly enough, most of his attacks feel unusually prescient. Cary’s children and friends implore her, asking that she buy a television so that she not be lonely, and in Sirk’s hands the purchase of the set seems equivalent to zombification. In another sharply observed scene, a doctor attempting to rattle Cary from her depression tells her that he can’t “prescribe a pill to cure life.” Of course nowadays, the wonders of modern medicine have made this scene outmoded: a modern day Cary would probably become a zombie through medicinal means. The subversive Sirk never overplays his hand, though, and these broad social observations could easily be dismissed as specifics to those not attentive to the film’s larger concerns. Thankfully, the plot is engaging and flab-free enough to entertain even those with their brains shut off. The performances aren’t exactly great, but their mannerisms only further enhance the feeling that they are emotionally inhibited. If Sirk’s achievements seem to have been somewhat inflated because they took place in the Hollywood studio system, there’s little denying that he does plenty right in All That Heaven Allows.


* * * 1/2




Jeremy Heilman