Sirk in the Sun

One of my absolute favorite quotes from Douglas Sirk—and he has a million of ’em—was made in reference to Magnificent Obsession. “It is a combination of kitsch and craziness and trashiness,” he said (this isn’t the quote quite yet). “But craziness is very important, and it saves trashy stuff like Magnificent Obsession.” (Okay, here we go.) “This is the dialectic—there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” I swoon every time I revisit these words.

The story told in Magnificent Obsession is, without a doubt, total trash. Based less on the source novel by Lloyd C. Douglas and more on the screenplay for John M. Stahl’s 1935 film adaptation, the plot careens from one implausibility to another. The film opens with millionaire playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) recklessly jetting around a lake on his speedboat until he suffers an almost fatal crash. The nearest resuscitator belongs to a beloved local surgeon, who coincidentally is suffering his own medical emergency at exactly the same time as Bob’s life is being saved. Without access to the life-saving device, the surgeon dies, and Bob tries to buy the sympathy and affection of his widow, Helen (Jane Wyman), with a check. But she wants nothing to do with the man who inadvertently caused her husband’s death. As she avoids him one day, she ends up in an accident of her own, struck by a car that gives her “an inoperable lesion” that causes her to go completely blind. Bob, who has by now fallen head over heels in love with Helen, tries to contact her to make amends, but she sends him away. (The dialogue, which could have been “She wants to be left alone,” is instead much more pointed: “She won’t see you.”)

This screenplay may be a mess of kitschy histrionics, but Sirk subverts it with thoughtful, melancholy performances and his usual top-notch mise-en-scène, which is as close to “high art” as anything else in cinema history. These elements can all be found in one aching little scene in the dead center of the movie. Helen makes the journey to the beach below her house alone, where she meets a wisecracking little tomboy named Judy. After some affable banter between the two, Helen asks Judy to describe what’s happening on the lake. As the child goes to get a closer view, she walks past Bob, sitting in a tree and smoking a cigarette. At first he doesn’t say anything; he just watches Helen and Judy. But then the child has to leave, and she asks Bob (“Hey, handsome! Yeah, you, Tarzan!”) to help her push her little boat onto the lake. He obliges, and Helen acknowledges Bob and introduces herself. She asks his name and he lies, replying, “Rob . . . My name’s Robinson.” It’s chilly on the beach, and she asks him to help her find her shawl. He does, and this simple gesture opens up a world where a relationship can finally bloom between them. He asks if he can come by from time to time, and she says, “We’ll hope to see you again very soon.”

When I think about Magnificent Obsession, who often has too much happening in it, I think about this moment the most. There are moments throughout the film where the director tips his hat to the silliness of the proceedings, but the performances in this scene are played with the utmost sincerity. Sirk is a master withholder, and here he presents two characters with opposite restraints imposed on them. Helen can be herself but cannot fully experience the world. Bob cannot be himself, but there is so much he wants to say to Helen that he can’t, and it is the very act of not saying those things that allows him to be the man for her that he truly wants to be. The movie is about Bob and Helen, but we are really watching Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, and we have been waiting patiently for half the film’s runtime to see these actors be tender with each other.

Sirk is often lauded for his design of interior spaces and his use of the objects within them. (“In Jane’s house, you can only move a certain way,” wrote Rainer Werner Fassbinder of All That Heaven Allows, the second of Sirk’s films to pair Wyman and Hudson, and his greatest film.) But in Magnificent Obsession he proves himself to be just as masterful with exteriors, with many of the movie’s most indelible images taking place in broad daylight. The color green is everywhere in this scene, from the stripes on the beach chairs to the evergreens that tower above Helen in the first shot. Throughout the film, Bob is repeatedly associated with nature in general and evergreens specifically. We find him sitting in a tree here, and when he speaks to Helen and we get a proper close-up of him, the only thing we see in the background are those evergreens. His love for Helen is like the evergreens—it will stay the same until the end of time.

Helen isn’t in love with Bob yet, so Sirk doesn’t associate her with nature. She wears pink and sits in a chair. When Judy asks Bob to help with her boat, they are framed in a striking shot that faces the lake, the tree trunks holding them in separate frames like so many screens and doorways do inside the houses in Sirk’s oeuvre. The trunks aren’t unlike the bars of a prison, one that Bob makes for himself with the lie about his identity. The next time we find these three characters on a beach, Helen has fallen in love with Bob, or rather his alter ego, “Robinson.” Sirk revisits the same tree-trunk image but stages the trio on a blanket together, not split off in their own frames within the frame. Now they’re all stuck in Bob’s little prison, and Helen is wearing green.

While the emotions here are raw and heartfelt, there are also outré flourishes that echo the outlandish design in the rest of the film. Helen’s glittery, cat’s-eye sunglasses might be the most glamorous pair worn by a blind character up to that point in film history. They call attention to her blindness, in a setting where simpler shades would go unnoticed. The dreamlike camera direction also points to, and plays with, our leading lady’s absence of vision. Sirk frames a few shots in the scene more or less from what would be Helen’s point of view were she able to see, but he also withholds this perspective in other moments.

As Judy walks toward the shore and describes the revelry happening on the lake, we do not see what Helen would see. Like her, we must take the child’s words at face value. When Bob helps Judy push her boat out into the water, we see none of the people that she described just a few moments before. We never learn who Judy’s parents are, or how she and Helen know each other, and now she’s being sent off on a boat alone, headed toward the fog-shrouded mountains across the water. After Bob leaves Helen alone at the end of the scene, she removes her sunglasses and appears to look into the distance. At what is left to our imaginations.

The deprivation of sight would continue to be a theme in both Sirk’s work and life. “One of my dearest projects was to make a picture set in a blind people’s home,” he reminisced to author Jon Halliday. “There would just have been people ceaselessly tapping, trying to grasp things they could not see . . . I did in fact write a screenplay on the subject for Columbia, but it never got made into a picture.” While I won’t say I wouldn’t want to see literally any Douglas Sirk dream project magically turn up somewhere, it’s hard to imagine him depicting blindness more beautifully and painfully than he did in Magnificent Obsession. This film is full of characters grasping at things they cannot see—Helen literally (there’s an especially moody and heart-wrenching scene of her wandering around a room at night later in the film), and Bob in his striving to be a better person, living in the shadow of the man whose death he accidentally caused. Sirk lost his own vision later in life, and the specter of Magnificent Obsession was not forgotten. “Years ago I made that picture about blindness—and now I’m blind,” Sirk said. “It’s goddamn ironic.”

You’d know better than any of us, Doug.