A powerful anti-war narrative and a female lead with more than a hint of The Hustler's Sarah Packard about her make for a potent mix in Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels, a film released some four years before the more famous pool narrative and featuring a smattering of similarities.
Where it was the thrill of the game that drove Fast Eddie Felson, it is the thrill of flight that drives Roger Shumann (Robert Stack), an ex-fighter pilot now performing in fairground air races with his motley crew of son Jack (Christopher Olsen), mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson) and beau LaVerne (Dorothy Malone). Into their lives comes the imposing Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson), a man with a Mr. Smith Goes To Washington grasp of morals but a formally equally tight one on a bottle of whiskey.
The tragic slide of all involved revolves around Shumann's inability to leave a life he has formally known; one full of risk and daring do and attention from all and sundry. Shumann treats his life with reckless abandon, alienating both Jiggs and LaVerne even further than he already has in his pursuit of another plane, through which he can feed his habit.
The worth structure of the world Shumann inhabits is established early on, as an early crash leads to the death of a fellow pilot and the destruction of Shumann's plane. The man is mourned little but Shumann attempts to dash back towards, possibly into, his damaged plane, spending the rest of the film trying to find an alternative, whilst the deceased pilot gets barely a second thought.
Whilst all of that may point to this film being essentially Stack's, it is at least equally Hudson's and certainly belongs solely to him at the point late on when he gets a wonderful jaw-shaking speech of truly memorable proportions. Whilst Stack is playing the quiet man in chaos, Hudon is the literate man without a page on which to write his story and when he finally gets to tell it, through vocalising, rather than writing, the effect is magnificent.
Dorothy Malone wears the character of LaVerne with a tragic inevitability only fractured slightly by Sirk's conclusion, which breaks the dramatic arc she seemed to be heading for. Her confession to Devlin can be read multiple ways; as brute honesty, a plea to be saved of the fracturing psyche of a damage woman.
The similarities with The Hustler don't extend to this being of such high value but certainly it is similar, at least in its characters, themes and post-war view of thrill seeking men, bent on self-destruction, sometimes taking out those who try to stop them along the way.
Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.
The Tarnished Angels is released in the UK on Monday 19th August 2013