The Details: Douglas’s Dissolves

An exploration of the use of dissolves in Douglas Sirk's lean and dense 1955 melodrama, _All That Heaven Allows_.
Carson Lund

If the dissolve has traditionally been thought of as little more than a glue connecting scenes in a conventional dramaturgy, a functional symbol of time’s passage, the technique’s employment by Douglas Sirk always aimed at a more complex dimension. In Sirk’s films, the moment of the dissolve—often suspended for three or four seconds—becomes a composition in itself, a vital carrier of subtext. Less about division (1 happens, then 2 happens) than unity (1 affects or produces 2), Sirk’s dissolves—so tinged with import that they must have been the product of close collaborations with his editors and his regular cinematographer Russell Metty—reveal the psychological connective tissue that spreads across the course of a narrative. Temporal expanses have little relevance in this context; the dissolve becomes a way of demonstrating the coexistence of the past, present, and possible futures.

All That Heaven Allows (1955), simultaneously one of the leanest and densest melodramas Sirk directed in the 1950s, provides a rich case study in his singular knack for transitions. The film, which chronicles the passionate love affair of an older, upper crust woman (Cary, played by Jane Wyman) and a younger, working class backwoodsman (Ron, played by Rock Hudson) as well as the corresponding conformist pushback of the woman’s suburban milieu, unveils a series of scenarios in which the censorship of one’s own id becomes an existential obstacle. This censorship is imposed externally as well as internally, from circumstance and from within. Though the former is dealt with via a scathing condemnation of the pettiness of normative social mores in the 50s, Sirk’s primary interest lies in the latter. To continually deny the acting out of one’s own impulses is to enforce a suffocating mental imprisonment. Barriers—doors, walls, window frames, a fold-up grate in Cary’s living room—are consistent in Sirk’s mise en scène, gaining additional resonance when overlapped in scene transitions, or otherwise visually blocking characters on either side of the dissolve. 

Sturdier barriers, however, come in the form of people. In one of the script’s more heavy-handed discourses, Ron (a self-confident free spirit) tries to convince Cary (a timid widow submerged in her social circles) to follow her heart. The scene, set in Ron’s car, plays out in tight close-ups and culminates in a two-shot of the lovers’ embrace. Even as she half-heartedly questions Ron’s argument, Cary’s affection for him is obvious enough in the cozy framing, not to mention in the look of eye-opening wonder that defines Wyman’s performance every time Cary’s in the presence of her love interest. The subsequent fade, however, leads to a medium shot of Cary alone in her kitchen, shoulders slouched and head facing the ground, an overt manifestation of the uncertainty buried within Cary’s questioning in the preceding interaction. Significantly, her body emerges at the meeting point of the prior embrace so that in the composition she seems to be blocking her and Ron’s bodies from touching. This marks one of the more direct illustrations of Cary’s negative influence on herself and the relationship.

Later, a close-up of Cary’s daughter (Gloria Talbott)—ashamed of her failings as a psychoanalyst and of her inability to sacrifice for her mother—bleeds over into a shot of Cary, now growing numb from her forced emotional restraint, driving into the countryside. Just as the prior shot evaporates from vision, Cary leans her head backwards and for a split second it merges with that of her mother. Here we see the two-way burden of the mother-daughter relationship, literalized as a vision of cranial overlap—not so much two minds becoming one, but two minds weighing on one another.

Shortly after, the lingering burden of Ron is made concrete in a similar fade. This time, a sulking close-up directly following Cary’s decision to call things off melts into a wide shot of Sara’s (Agnes Moorehead) living room, the snobby friend fitting cozily for a suspended moment in the compositional space of Hudson’s head. As if preternaturally cognizant in this moment of her and her social circle’s nagging impact on Rob’s psyche, Moorehead’s hand is placed on her brow in a gesture of long-distance observation, only here she seems to be peering across time and space at the eyes of the victim of her pettiness.

Living constantly with this burden—the burden of not following one’s instincts, of living with and through regrets—is, Sirk suggests, its own kind of death, or that it at least constitutes a death-haunted existence. Clocks are called upon to remind of this imminent doom; master shots in domestic spaces often feature time-keepers in the background, but even more of a crucial recurrence is a clocktower lofted above the town center, frequently shot surrounded by nocturnal darkness. Together, these gloomy intimations of time’s passage create a deadline-driven atmosphere in which the stakes are inscribed with the threat of death. In a few key instances, Cary moves in the direction of the menacing clock at the fulcrum of the dissolve, one possible implication being that, without timely action, she is approaching a metaphorical demise.

As the film reaches its swelling climax, Sirk extends this death metaphor to a pictorial extreme. Having finally developed a sense of immunity to the cackling gossip of her peers, Cary attempts to reconnect with Ron at his rural home, but just as she approaches her door, her mechanism of self-repression sets back in. Ron, returning from an afternoon hunt, witnesses from afar Cary storming back to her car, at which point he slips on a precipice and falls 30 feet into a pile of snow. The following scene transition connects Ron’s limp, fallen corpse to a shot of the clocktower’s roof—at this point, the architecture’s so familiar that a shot of the actual hands of the clock is not needed, not to mention potentially heavy-handed. The implication, as it is, is clear enough: though ultimately salvaged in a last-ditch effort, Cary’s penultimate inability to embrace her inner desires triggers the film’s most sinister omen of the dangers of self-denial.

Part of our on-going series The Details, a column that catches the small within the big, focusing on the individual elements that make cinema so expressive.

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