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Trouble the Water: Douglas Sirk’s Interlude

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Trouble the Water: Douglas Sirk’s <em>Interlude</em>

In the recent John Stahl versus Douglas Sirk smackdown at the Anthology Film Archives, which included their respective versions of Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, the only movie I hadn’t seen was Sirk’s Interlude (1957), a remake of one of Stahl’s best movies, When Tomorrow Comes (1939), which starred Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, both at their considerable best. Without having seen Interlude, I was willing to guess that the Stahl version had to be far superior, if only because Interlude stars June Allyson, one of my least favorite film performers. The still-neglected, misunderstood Stahl has a sober, straightforward style; he favors long takes that concentrate your attention on the faces and movements of his performers and he uses very little background music in his thirties films, as if he’s intent on stripping his melodramatic stories of anything extraneous, fancy or absurd. In that way, Stahl’s method of dealing with melodramatic material couldn’t be more different than Sirk, who loves to set bells and whistles off visually while at the same time viewing his characters with a cool, Thomas Mann-style irony.

Sirk’s frequent producer Ross Hunter, a “production values” queen with a cheerful lack of discrimination, was uncharacteristically derisive when he spoke about Interlude, which he and Sirk reportedly called Inner Tube. There isn’t much Sirk can do with the first scenes, where Allyson’s working girl comes to Munich looking for a little excitement; he views the film’s travelogue aspects with a jaundiced eye, and surely it was a melancholy experience for him to return to Germany with this story of tourist romance, filming hordes of American women blithely seeing the sights of a homeland he had lost. In the Stahl version of this material, Dunne played a waitress and union organizer, which marks it as a typical 30s work; though Allyson and Dunne were both around the same age (40) when they played this role, Dunne seems like a sophisticated, complex woman while Allyson looks and sounds like what she is, a middle-aged girl, hemmed in by her all-white clothing and little white kid gloves. She’s always boasting about how uncomplicated she is to the two men in her life, a stormy conductor (Rossano Brazzi) and a doctor (Keith Andes) so conventional and All-American that he begins to seem rather sinister.

Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes is dominated by a lengthy storm sequence where Dunne and Boyer grow to love each other as they run from a flash flood; they finally end up in a church with the water steadily rising. The last half hour introduces Boyer’s mad wife, Barbara O’Neil, who throws a monkey wrench into their rapture; it’s not a particularly convincing development (O’Neil’s performance is clichéd), but the film has built up so much good will during its first hour that it survives this plot turn unscathed. There’s no flooded church in the Sirk version; a storm rages prettily in Interlude for a few kisses and then sputters out by morning (otherwise, the lovers would have needed an Inner Tube, wocka, wocka, wocka). The prospect of Charles Boyer making love to Irene Dunne causes nature’s floodgates to open, while Rossano Brazzi doing his Summertime (1955) lover act for June Allyson gets and deserves only a light overnight shower.

Sirk can’t get the film going, really, until the mad wife (Marianne Koch) of this version takes over. Koch is introduced with a pan from a painting of a beautiful woman to her rapt, suffering face, listening to Brazzi playing the piano. It turns out that Koch isn’t crazy in O’Neil’s paint-by-numbers manner; she’s passionately in love with her husband, so in love that she’s obsessively afraid of losing him, and it’s suggested that Brazzi feels responsible for her unstable condition. Gradually, Sirk sets up a dichotomy between Allyson’s Main Street America “normality” and the dark, self-indulgent (European?) feelings of Koch. Allyson smiles constantly, whether she feels like it or not, and this mannerism looks awkward and desperate in some scenes; she’s an inexpressive actress who got by on sheer cuteness when she was younger, but now her time is running out, and Sirk makes her discomfiture somewhat touching, just as he used the limitations of Jane Wyman and Lana Turner to his advantage.

During the last twenty minutes of Interlude, Sirk goes in for the kill. Koch confronts Allyson during one of Brazzi’s concerts, and our heroine leads her into a back room to calm down. Allyson is dressed in white, as she has been throughout the film, while Koch wears dark brown; this visual contrast becomes more marked when Koch starts to talk about her all-consuming love for Brazzi, walking toward the camera until her whole face is covered in shadow. Sirk emphasizes their separateness visually to land his first emotional punch, then, after Allyson drives Koch home, he lets us see how the other woman’s distress has begun to color our aging American girl’s character. At a certain point, Allyson looks for Koch and can’t find her; there’s a cut to an open window with curtains billowing in the breeze, then a cut to outside, where Allyson sees a single white woman’s shoe on the ground (I almost shouted, “Yes!” at this it-hurts-so-good image). She sees a faraway Koch running toward a lake, in a white nightgown; we cut back to Allyson, then Sirk uses the same long shot as Allyson herself runs down the same path to the lake.

Both women are now blurs of white material in the night; the rhyming visuals and dynamic editing are like a piece of dreamlike music building steadily. Koch wades into a dirty, cold-looking body of water, an image that packs a lot of raw emotion after the dusty candy/picture postcard look of the movie’s first hour. Sirk cuts to Allyson at the water’s edge; she sees that Koch is drowning herself and she hesitates ... not for long, but just long enough to be shocking. After all, this is June Allyson, the perfect 50s wife, the barbecue loving, sports-playing, husky-voiced sweetheart of the age, and she has a moment in Interlude where she actually seriously considers letting a woman die because it would be convenient for her; besides, saving this woman in that filthy water will ruin her white lace dress ... but ah well, she seems to think, taking her shoes off and wading in after her.

Allyson does the right thing (the only thing?), but we’ve seen her waver; we’ve caught her out, and it gets even worse in the water. You know how you can tell sometimes that a particular scene was hellish to shoot for everyone involved? This nighttime water scene, with the two women grappling, looks like it was a real horror to get in the can, and that sense helps Sirk go even further with Allyson, who looks miserable as Koch dunks her and shouts about how she wants to die. The heroine’s goody-goody character is complicated by this other woman’s harrowing, extremely adult despair, just as Allyson the actress is stretched and even tainted by the need to get into that murky water.

This sequence of events, starting at the concert hall and ending in the lake, is so superbly directed that it alone would make Interlude at least the equal of When Tomorrow Comes, which means that Sirk and Stahl are now three for three, at least by my lights, but it gets even better after we leave the lake: Allyson actually acknowledges her moment of hesitation in her last scene with Brazzi, not in any sledgehammer way, but in a quiet, clearly ashamed manner. In Sirk’s Summer Storm (1944), George Sanders ends the film on an action of total moral bankruptcy, and it makes a big impression, but that’s expected behavior from Sanders; in a way, the mere moment of moral bankruptcy for June Allyson at the end of Interlude makes a more powerful impact because it is so unexpected, and handled with the magician’s calm that made Sirk such a noted artist and alchemist.

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.