Newspaper reporter Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) is an alcoholic, he knows that, but does that mean he is washed up? He would like to think not, and as he visits the carnival which is in town he hopes to sniff out a story, merely by wandering through the crowds and keeping an ear out for anything that might sound interesting. He gets his wish when he sees a young boy, Jack Shumann (Christopher Olsen), being picked on by some of the mechanics: the kid is in tears, but it makes no matter to these men, they are enjoying the sport until Devlin intervenes and takes him under his wing and buys him an ice cream, then takes him to his parents. Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) is a daredevil stunt flyer, and his wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone) has a parachute act...
There's a scene late on in The Tarnished Angels, which director Douglas Sirk considered his best work, where Hudson has a big speech which wraps up what we've seen in all its bleak detail and fragile hope. It's dialogue that doesn't sound natural, it sounds like screenwriter George Zuckerman was attempting to capture the lauded literary spirit of William Faulkner who penned the novel Pylon this was based on, maybe something to keep the star sweet in that he had the centrepiece monologue that would tie it all together, but after everything presented to us it comes across as highly necessary. It was one of many highlights here, and though Hudson was regarded as a lightweight, the soul he placed in his delivery matched the material perfectly.
Everyone was on very good form in this, as if they were all on their best behaviour to ensure the appropriate gravitas of the book was brought to bear, though funnily enough Pylon is not one of Faulkner's best remembered novels, and the film version has outlasted it as at least a cult favourite among those who like to watch stars suffer in the melodrama of the nineteen-fifties, possibly Hollywood's greatest era for such affairs. Hudson and Sirk were an ideal match for that, and they brought with them some of the people behind Written on the Wind, which may be Sirk's most melodramatic of his melodramas (and that's saying something), including Stack and Malone who were each awarded a similarly meaty role, though here they were less over the top.
It was interesting to compare the two, as while the former movie has gathered for itself a reputation for camp that nevertheless meant every word of its overwrought nature, the latter demonstrated that everyone involved could dial that back for something more heartfelt for the lives of the losers, and these Depression-era characters were never going to be winners. Roger may have tasted success, but it was in the skies over the battlefield, and the film is sceptical that shooting down planes is quite the noble act that his grateful nation would have him believe, thus he is reduced to flying races for the prize money which is enough to keep him and his thankless family going for a while. These races were flown between three pylons, and if that comes across as a dangerous method of making a living, reckless even, The Tarnished Angels agreed with you.
There were two major action setpieces here, showing the aerial race in pulse pounding energy as we can tell nobody here is going to escape unscathed, there is always a price to pay in a landscape where innocence was battered out of you by life, and the cynicism was something you were forced to exist with since hope made you so vulnerable. Every so often we see the public interrupt the main characters, and they are either crazed with hedonism or taking an unhealthy interest in the misfortunes of others, utterly lacking in compassion, purely with sights set on the next drink or meaningless encounter for sex. Devlin finds his emotions unexpectedly stirred by the sad-eyed LaVerne, and slips into "let me take you away from all this" mode, but his romantic ideals can only stretch so far and when the worst happens he recognises the rest of us must blunder through as best we can. Yes, this was noticeably self-conscious in its aims for greatness, which would sabotage many a lesser film, but in spite of its flaws it was compelling thanks to the fascination it conveyed with the desperate, something it tells us we all share, like it or not. Music by Frank Skinner.