Raising Cain: Setting the Record Straight

Douglas Sirk shot Interlude in 1956, between Battle Hymn and The Tarnished Angels. Starring June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi and implicitly acknowledged in the credits as a remake of John M. Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes (1939), it’s rarely discussed in critical commentaries about the director’s work. Michael Stern’s Douglas Sirk (1) doesn’t give it a single mention, aside from a notation in the listed filmography. Ditto in Barbara Klinger’s Melodrama & Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk (2). In fact, in my research on Sirk’s career, I haven’t found anything more than a passing reference to it in the books and numerous journal articles written about the filmmaker.

June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi in Interlude

June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi in Interlude

Two of those passing references are the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s contribution to the 1972 Edinburgh Film Festival book (3), published to complement the festival’s Sirk retrospective, and Jeffrey Wise’s notes in the University of Connecticut Film Society’s booklet accompanying its 1974 Sirk season (4).

Fassbinder observes that it’s “hard to get into” and essentially ignores the particulars of the film in order to insert more general perceptions about the director’s concerns. “After seeing Douglas Sirk’s films,” he writes, “I am more convinced than ever that love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression.” He doesn’t explain how Interlude might have further persuaded him about the dark side of love. For his part, Wise appears to have had a happier time with the film, describing it as one of Sirk’s “prettiest” and going on to refer to a couple of powerful images, but otherwise offering little beyond a plot outline.

So, in comparison to Sirk’s generally acknowledged major works – All That Heaven Allows and There’s Always Tomorrow (both 1955), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels and A Time To Love and A Time To Die (both 1957), and Imitation of Life (1959) –Interlude effectively exists in the shadows of his oeuvre. Jon Halliday’s Sirk on Sirk (5), an irreplaceable book-length interview with the director, doesn’t help the situation by mistakenly describing it as an adaptation of James M. Cain’s undervalued 1937 novel, Serenade (6). In his notes in the filmography, Halliday claims that “Sirk shot from a script itself derived from Dwight Taylor’s loose adaptation of James Cain’s Serenade for John Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes(7). The error is repeated in Richard Brody’s brief celebration of the film in his blog for The New Yorker in February last year (8).

In fact, When Tomorrow Comes is based on The Root of His Evil (9), a short novel of Cain’s which he had, according to a book by David Madden and Kristopher Mecholsky (10), dreamed up over a lunch in 1928 with Kenneth Littauer from Collier’s Magazine who’d said he wanted “a modern Cinderella story”. It was originally to have been serialised for the magazine, but that never happened. In “Tough Guy”, Peter Brunette and Gerald Peary’s interview with Cain, published in Film Comment in 1976 (11), the novelist explains that he didn’t get around to writing the story until 10 years later, under the working title of The Modern Cinderella, and that it was then sold to Universal by his agent “for a nice price” (reportedly $17,500).

In his cited comments to Halliday about Interlude (12), Sirk appears to know nothing of this history. “I was given an outline based on the Stahl picture, which had originally been extremely loosely based on Serenade by Jimmy Cain,” he remembers. “The Stahl film had already gone a long way from Jimmy Cain’s story, and at the time I was making Interlude, I did not know that Serenade was anywhere behind it at all. I only found out afterwards that Universal had owned Serenade for years, and that the Stahl picture, too, had been based on it.”

In fact, the rights to Serenade were held by Warner Bros., which had purchased them when the novel was first published in 1937, two years before When Tomorrow Comes was released. Halliday is correct, though, when he says in the filmography in Sirk on Sirk (13) that Cain’s novel was the source, loosely speaking, for Anthony Mann’s Serenade (1956), which stars Mario Lanza, Joan Fontaine and Vincent Price.

And Sirk’s comments to Halliday also reveal that he had actually read Cain’s Serenade. “If conditions had been different, and especially if I had had a different script based on the original James Cain novel, I think it could have been a terrific picture – at least a very unusual one. The original Jimmy Cain story is a cruel story, partly set in Mexico. It is a very personal story – and, of course, it is about homosexuality. All that had to go, and in the process the story lost its bite.”

Given the gay abandon with which film adaptations routinely break down and reassemble their sources’ details of plot, character and tone, the ascription of When Tomorrow Comes to the wrong Cain story could be regarded as understandable. And, as we will see, the complicated backstory to the making of When Tomorrow Comes only further underlines this point. Furthermore, the subsequent transformation of the details of Stahl’s film in Sirk’s remake, and then in Kevin Billington’s unacknowledged version in 1968, reveal much about the ways in which different filmmakers go about remoulding the same source material to fit with their contrasting styles and concerns and with the conventions governing the genres in which they’re working.

The Novel: The Modern Cinderella / The Root of His Evil

Divided into four parts and 18 chapters, Cain’s hard-edged 168-page novel features as its untrustworthy narrator a twentysomething working-class woman. “I am Carrie Selden, the Modern Cinderella,” she announces on the first page, before outlining a series of events that chart her rise in social status.

The first is a chance meeting with the initially mysterious Grant Harris at Karb’s Diner, a customer at the Lower Broadway restaurant where she works. He turns out to be something of a poor little rich boy with a mother fixation that is reciprocated. The second is an equally chance meeting with Evan Holden, a charismatic union leader who praises the speech she gives inspiring her sister waitresses to go on strike and becomes Grant’s rival for her affections. After she unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the forefront at a waitresses’ strike meeting which he is addressing, this man who seems to be much wiser than her in the ways of the world forcefully sets out to woo her.

At the same time, Cain economically establishes her as a young woman with her eyes firmly on the prize and with a carefully calculated strategy about how best to acquire it. All that she explains to the reader, though, is that she’s a hard worker and a planner: “When I came to New York and saw the night deposit boxes maintained by the banks there,” she tells us, “I came to the resolution that has been an important part of my life: Let no working day go by which does not represent an amount saved.” But there are hints along the way that she’s not quite the conscientious innocent making her way in the world that she presents herself as. “Everything about you seems delicate and flowerlike,” Grant tells her early on, “except that really you’re very cold and knowing.”

She proves to be alert to the nuance of a situation and well-equipped to take advantage of it. As she commences her climb up the social ladder, Cain shows her ability to turn even unexpected circumstances to her advantage. He presents the unfolding events through her eyes, but also points to the rules governing the world of money and class that she has entered and her increasing awareness of how to turn them to her own advantage.

Cain highlights the contrast between her more socially polished methods of getting ahead and her waitress friend Lula’s crass manipulations. And, in the ways both women grapple with their social circumstances as well as through the complications of Carrie’s personal life and her thoughts about it, the novelist is able to filter an incisive commentary about the workings of capital in the 1930s.

It also becomes clear before the end of Part One that, while Carrie might be a canny operator, events are controlling her rather than the other way around. Only when Grant takes her boating on Long Island does she come to recognise that he might be out of her league, socially speaking. Evan tells her later, “You can’t get away with it. You aren’t of his class,” but she’s already aware of the risks she’s taking, even if, as the story’s narrator, she hasn’t kept us fully abreast of them. She’s willing to allow her aspirations to take precedence over her insights.

Grant understands the lie of the land in a way that she can’t. Just as he’s able to identify the squall that arises when they’re out on the Sound long before she has any sense that something is amiss, he also sees the way that both of them are slaves to a “system” that determines their social place. And the metaphorical implications are immediately clear.

Like Mildred Pierce (1941), Cain’s more fully fleshed-out novel about a woman attempting to rise above the social station the world has determined for her, The Root of His Evil deals with its protagonist’s dawning awareness of the struggle against the odds confronting her. Carrie’s chief rival for Grant is his mother and the “silver cord” that binds them, which a sympathetic ally from the opposing camp explains to her is “an intangible but terrible bond, that sometimes exists between mother and son, and invariably spells trouble for them both”. But an even more insidious threat to her well-being is the class system whose rules Grant outlines to her and which defines her as an outsider in his world.

Carrie’s quest is to find a way to unravel the secrets of this world and to find her place in it. She makes discoveries, but her understanding of them is limited. And any victory she might think she has achieved as she ends her story is qualified by the cold-bloodedness of the methods she’s used to achieve them. She might cast herself as a fairytale heroine in modern dress, but Cain makes us see her reflection in the mirror very differently from the way that she does. “You take things any way you can get them,” she tells Grant on the last page of the book. “That’s what I always do.”

The Adaptation: When Tomorrow Comes (1939)

“This movie bore no relation to the original story,” Cain tells Brunette and Peary. And it’s not hard to see why he’d make such a claim. In Stahl’s film, Carrie Selden becomes Helen Lawrence (Irene Dunne), still a working girl and a leader among women, but any ambiguity about her character and the way she moves into a more glamorous world has been methodically stripped away. Alongside her, poor little rich boy Grant has become famous classical pianist Phillipe Andre Pierre Chagal (Charles Boyer). (14)

When Tomorrow Comes

When Tomorrow Comes

The renovation the character has undergone is in line with the Hollywood romantic melodrama’s commitment to the notion that classical musicians automatically exude a charm other men lack, especially when they have a foreign accent (15). Furthermore, the film replaces the “silver cord” elements of Cain’s plot – which would never have found approval under the Production Code in place in 1939 (16) – with a different kind of female problem for Chagal.

Here the woman in question is his wife, Madeleine (Barbara O’Neil), rather than his mother. Although the Code routinely forbade any sympathy for men engaging in extra-marital affairs, the film structures the scenario so that any condemnation of his adultery is at least partially qualified by the fact that – in a variation on the mad-woman-in-the-attic plot device in Jane Eyre – Madeleine is presented as psychologically disturbed. Unofficially at least, this apparently provides proper cause for some flexibility regarding the “for better or worse” clause of the marriage vows.

The source of Madeleine’s problems, it’s proposed, is that, five years earlier, their baby had been born dead and, according to her mother (Nella Walker), “she never got over it” (17). As a further buffer to any hasty condemnations of his infidelity, the film has Chagal go on to explain how it is for Madeleine: “Doctors say she’s not unhappy,” he tells Helen. “She lives in a world of her own.” However, a later scene where an almost sinister Madeleine pays a visit to Helen and warns her to stay away from her husband suggests that the diagnosis by Chagal and her mother might not be entirely accurate.

In Cain’s novel, union leader Evan Holden is Grant’s rival for Carrie’s affections. In the film, he becomes Jim Holden (Onslow Stevens) – I would love to have been a fly on the filmmakers’ wall when they discussed this name change – and is relegated to the margins by the plotting. It’s clear that he is interested in Helen, but, in a divergence from the set-up in the novel, he’s never depicted as a serious rival to the charming Chagal. And after she agrees to go out to dinner with him but then finds herself otherwise occupied, with Chagal, he disappears altogether from the film.

Finally, Carrie’s friend Lula here becomes Helen’s good-natured workmate and flatmate, Lulu (Nydia Westman). A ditzy blonde along the lines of the characters played by Billie Burke or Judy Holliday, she’s the one Chagal doesn’t choose, serving as a comic foil to the much smarter and more glamorous Helen.

All this said, though, even if it is understandable that Cain saw nothing of The Root of His Evil in When Tomorrow Comes, it’s also clear that the film’s screenwriter, Dwight Taylor, has drawn heavily on it (18). The fluidly directed opening sequence, set in Karb’s Kitchen where Helen works, presents her and Phillipe’s “meet cute” (19), provides the foundation for a supportive depiction of the waitresses’ strike for better wages and work conditions, and proves to be a reasonable match for Cain’s novel in its introduction of a critique of a heartless capitalism. A strike is the only option, Jim explains, when workers feel “crushed and helpless”.

The "meet cute"

The “meet cute”

Furthermore, in a telling scene, after the strike meeting where the women have delivered a rousing rendition of the union anthem, “Solidarity Forever”, Helen and Chagal are walking along a street filled with signs of urban impoverishment when they’re passed from behind by two young boys. One is seated on a cart, the other is pushing it along with one hand and holding his pants up with the other. She turns their activity into an acerbic metaphor, likening it to “capitalism taking a ride and labour pushing with its pants falling down”.

After this, however, the film turns its attention to the romance between Helen and Chagal, which largely displaces any further concern with the strike. Aside from a brief scene towards the end of the film establishing its success, it’s effectively excised from proceedings. Only a gentle hint of the class differences between the two lovers remains.

Following the plotline of the novel, the film has Helen discovering when she goes boating with him on Long Island that the charming Frenchman who’s been serenading her isn’t just any old piano player. After the squall that finds them fleeing for shelter, like Carrie and Grant in the novel, they take refuge from the storm in his mansion, which is where she learns his true identity. But while the dialogue suggests she’s thunderstruck by her surroundings, she seems very much at home in them. I suggest that it would be unlikely, given Dunne’s self-assured persona and her ease in the chic settings of many of her films of the 1930s (20), for any character she played not to be.

This is in sharp contrast to the ways in which the class question is sustained throughout the book. Even if the social differences between the working woman and the man she falls in love with remain in play here, they’re de-emphasised, replaced by other more immediately personal obstacles.

When Tomorrow Comes is widely referred to as an attempt to cash in on the successful pairing of Dunne and Boyer in Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939), which was released shortly before Stahl’s film went into production. Reports suggest that shooting began without a completed script, indicating that it was made in a rush and, perhaps, explaining its failure to follow through with some of the plot details and themes that it introduces.

Nevertheless, in line with motifs in other romantic melodramas of the era (and beyond), the film consistently draws attention to the way in which the passage of time seems to be forever ruling the characters. The first words uttered in the film underline this via a message being passed around the team of waitresses at Karb’s Kitchen, summoning them to a strike meeting: “Eight o’clock tonight at Unity Hall.” Soon afterwards their boss is bustling them back on to the job, reminding them that everyone’s day is arranged according to time: “Space is money at lunchtime,” he barks.

Not long after Helen meets Chagal, he tells her that he has to go back to France in 72 hours. Even before she knows about Madeleine, the limit on their time together serves as a reminder of the transience of anything that might occur between them. The film’s title, effectively a declaration that tomorrow always comes, underlines her understanding of this in the sequence where he takes her to Long Island. With the storm raging outside his house, their tryst becomes an escape from reality, as both of them understand, even if they have different attitudes towards it. At first.

“I’d better be getting back to town,” she tells him. “By the looks of the storm, it’s now or never.” Kissing her at the door, he says, “Let’s make it never.” She kisses him back, then replies, “Let’s make it now,” pulling away from their embrace and indicating that the time has come to leave.

On the drive back to New York, they find the highway has been washed out. A roadblock diverts them on to a side road and it seems as if destiny is guiding them to the refuge of a church. There she falls into his arms, and everything is set up to indicate that they should be together, the deft use of two-shots, the cutting and the setting itself conveying their increasing sense of togetherness and lending a special transcendence to their union. Stahl’s direction of the actors and the conviction they bring to their roles in this unofficial wedding scene persuasively suggest that fate has guided these two people towards each other. For various reasons, as we will see, it’s not an impression that one gains at all from the remakes to follow.

When Phillipe pauses, announcing that there’s something he has to tell her, she stops him, having already become aware that he’s been hiding something from her. She’s seen the photograph of the woman we subsequently learn is his wife in the Long Island house and wants to ensure that, at least for one night, the cruel passage of time is not going to get in the way of their happiness.

When Tomorrow Comes

Intriguingly, the sequence in the church, so central to the film, led Cain to take the filmmakers to court in 1942 for infringement of copyright. The incident doesn’t appear in A Modern Cinderella and, it was alleged, had been borrowed by the writer(s) of When Tomorrow Comes from Cain’s Serenade. Since Universal had only paid Cain for the rights to A Modern Cinderella, he sued Stahl, Taylor and the production (21). The court eventually decided in favour of the defendants, District Judge Yankwich drawing a sharp contrast between “the chaste, idyllic church sequence” in When Tomorrow Comes – clearly he was not prepared to consider anything not directly represented on the screen – and its deeply unsettling equivalent in Cain’s novel (22).

Nowhere is the difference between Cain’s sensibility and the one on display in the film, a well-made if rather conventional romantic melodrama in the tearjerker mould, than in the tone of these two church sequences. Whereas, in Serenade, Cain depicts what takes place between his two characters as a brutal act of violation by a man in denial about himself, an act of sacrilege, Stahl and Taylor (and whoever else was responsible for the film) cast their lovers’ embrace as sacred.

Furthermore, although this appears not to have been raised in the court case, Taylor’s construction of the sequence of events from the squall to the scene in the church – more than 30 minutes of screen time – is likely to have been influenced both by the boating scene in A Modern Cinderella and, as Madden and Mecholsky point out (23), the hurricane of 1938 which had hit the country’s northeast coast. Another variation on the scene appears in Sirk’s Interlude, but it all but entirely disappears from the third screen adaptation of Cain’s original story.

Adding further fuel to the all-round confusion about the source(s) for When Tomorrow Comes, Helen/Irene Dunne sings Franz Schubert’s “Serenade”, accompanied by Phillipe/Boyer on piano, during the time they shelter together from the storm on Long Island. More substantially, however, beyond any specific borrowings from Cain, one could argue that the chief inspiration for the film is the set of conventions by which the Hollywood romantic melodrama operates. And, moreover, that the choices made by the filmmakers – from the casting of the leads, through the plotting to the soft lighting, methodical framings and use of music (surprisingly the score is especially restrained) – are dictated by their flair for the rules of the genre and the intelligence that informs their response to it.

The Remake: Interlude (1957)

The same point applies to Sirk’s film (aside from the deliberately florid score Frank Skinner composed for it). Made almost 20 years later, it was, according to the credits, adapted by Inez Cocke, “based on a screenplay by Dwight Taylor and a story by James M. Cain” and written by Daniel Fuchs (Love Me or Leave Me, Jeanne Eagels) and Franklin Coen (Johnny Dark, Alvarez Kelly). But while Cain is still acknowledged, the connection with A Modern Cinderella/The Root of His Evil has become even looser than it was in When Tomorrow Comes.

The film is set in and around Munich and Salzburg rather than New York and Long Island, the shoot providing Sirk with the opportunity to revisit some of the places of his earlier years for the first time since the end of World War 2, albeit with his leg in a cast after an accident during the closing stages of the production of Battle Hymn. The plot pivots on an affair between Helen Banning (June Allyson), a young American woman working as a librarian at Amerika Haus, the US information agency in Munich, and a famous conductor, Tonio Fischer (Rossano Brazzi), who is married to the psychologically disturbed Reni (Marianne Koch).



Dr. Morley Dwyer (Keith Andes), an old family friend of Helen’s who has been doing an internship at a Munich hospital, is also romantically interested in her, but she regards him without passion, as more of a friend and confidant than a lover. He’s the equivalent of both union leader Jim Holden in When Tomorrow Comes and the decent but dull Harvey (Conrad Nagel) in Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1954), who’s summoned into service to play second fiddle to the gardener (Rock Hudson) with whom widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) has fallen in love.

The equivalent here of Carrie’s Lula in The Root of His Evil and Helen’s Lulu in When Tomorrow Comes is Helen’s female friend, Gertrude (Frances Bergen), a neighbour in her apartment block who also works alongside her at Amerika Haus. Much more knowing in the ways of the world than Helen, Gertrude takes it upon herself to counsel her friend not to expect anything serious to come of her relationship with Tonio. “This is Munich, not home,” she reminds her. “Men act differently here.” Another American living abroad, she represents Helen’s opposite in her free-wheeling approach to the opposite sex, her expectations and flamboyance in marked contrast to Helen’s self-effacing modesty.

The sexual triangle linking Helen, Tonio and his wife in Interlude is more or less identical to its equivalent in When Tomorrow Comes. However, the film as a whole has moved far from Cain’s original design: that can be glimpsed (like a palimpsest) through the structure and plotting of When Tomorrow Comes, but is barely discernible at all here. The union business of A Modern Cinderella/The Root of His Evil and the notion of its characters as “slaves” of a system have been entirely done away with. Cain’s Carrie Selden and Grant Harris have, instead, been transformed into an American innocent abroad and an allegedly charming European musician who sweeps her off her feet.

It’s not difficult to identify how the thinking underpinning this shift was determined by a longstanding recipe for screen romances in general. In fact, Interlude has just as much, if not more, in common with David Lean’s 1955 Venice romance, Summertime, than with Stahl’s film. In the Lean, a middle-aged English visitor (Katharine Hepburn) is drawn out of her solitude by a charming antiques dealer (Brazzi again, much more effective this time), only to discover that he already has a wife and children (24).

And, more broadly, Sirk’s film is a generic relative of an abundance of other sexual-triangle films about travellers finding romance away from home, away from what they know as “reality”: from cruise-ship romances like The Lady Eve (1941) and Love Affair, remade as An Affair to Remember (1957) and then again under its original title (1994), to tales about travellers abroad such as Before Sunset (2004), Vicki Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Midnight in Paris (2011). Halliday is also right to observe that, thematically, “there seems to be a good bit of Henry James in Interlude(25).

So, instead of a drama about the workings of capitalism and the class divide, Sirk’s film – like Stahl’s before it – focuses primarily on the romantic (and, implicitly, sexual) triangle. Its lead is followed by the 1968 remake of Interlude by British director Kevin Billington, even if its only acknowledgement of Sirk’s film is that it shares its title. Cain’s name has totally vanished from the credits for this version, which goes so far as to nominate its source as “an original screenplay” by Lee Langley and British TV writer Hugh Leonard.



Like When Tomorrow Comes, Sirk’s Interlude is only nominally “based on a story by James M. Cain” anyway because so little remains of the actual detail and the tone of Cain’s work. And, as always, the director goes his own way with the material, “bending” it according to his particular inclinations. Yet, at the same time and despite the very different surfaces of their works, it’s possible to see Cain and Sirk as kindred spirits in their subversions of genre. Rather than simply inviting us to go along with the events they depict, both create an ironic distance between their protagonists and their readers/viewers. This is not to say that Cain’s Carrie and Sirk’s Helen are cut off from our sympathies, only that they don’t know themselves as well as we come to know them.

Time after time in Cain’s novels, the protagonists’ moral compromises and self-deceptions only gradually become apparent, by which time it’s usually too late for us to step back from our empathy for them and avoid being implicated in their actions. Unreliable narrators are everywhere in his work, from The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) through Serenade (1937) and Double Indemnity (1943) to Rainbow’s End (1975). His description of his prose style is disarmingly simple: “I merely try to write as the character would write.” But only when it’s linked to his interest in “the art of letting a story secrete its own adrenalin” (26) does one gain a more precise impression of the way his novels work on the page.

Sirk’s films, as I have argued elsewhere (27), are much warmer in the way they embrace their characters’ yearnings at the same time as they scrutinise the circumstances that provoke those yearnings more knowingly than the characters are able to. Of course, this warmth is to a degree enabled by the fact that, unlike most of Cain’s protagonists, they’re generally trying to do the right thing.

Along these lines, even if she’s not always the best judge of what might be good for her, Helen is depicted as honest, decent and likeable. She’s certainly not a user like Carrie. She’s an individual who unexpectedly finds herself swept along by the romance of the moment rather than a woman with her feet placed firmly on the ground. Tonio tells her that she’s “so sure of (her)self, so direct”, to which she adds “so uncomplicated”, by way of rejecting the cliché about her American straightforwardness. But she believes she’s not like this at all.

In fact, everything we see of her after her arrival in this unfamiliar city far from her Washington home points to how unsure of herself and complicated she actually is: entranced by his otherness, yet also fearful of where their relationship is leading her; in awe of the grandeur of her surroundings, yet also dwarfed by them and the sense of history they embody. As her friend Morley tells her, she’s “on foreign soil in more ways than one”.

Soon after Interlude begins, the picture postcard montage that accompanies Helen’s taxi-ride from the train station after her arrival in Munich to the apartment where she’s staying is a familiar setting-the-scene trope for films of this ilk. Nonetheless, in the context Sirk’s film provides for it, it also serves as a precursor of what’s to come, providing a hint about how she’s about to be smothered by the unfamiliar place she’s entering, a bewitching emotional trap that will take her breath away but also threaten her sense of who she is.

When Tonio drives her to Salzburg later in the film, the couple go sightseeing, pausing on a stone bridge overlooking the city and the mountains and castles beyond. “It’s just like a fairytale!” she exclaims. She’s referring to the setting, but the line also applies to the entire image Sirk has composed, which includes her and her Prince Charming in the foreground.

On the one hand, Sirk is working to immerse us in the romance, while on the other he’s deconstructing it for us with his CinemaScope compositions. While Helen is torn between her desires and her perception of the constraints imposed by her reality, the film’s mise-en-scene, full of mirrors and reflections, proposes that what is real can be difficult to differentiate from an illusion.

Furthermore, Sirk’s cutting and compositions constantly evoke the sense of life as a performance in which it becomes impossible to distinguish between when the characters are playing themselves and being themselves: the sequences of Tonio at work as a conductor, both in rehearsal and in concert, are cross-cut with and implicitly connected to events involving Helen in the auditorium or back-stage; otherwise straightforward dialogue scenes are repeatedly framed so that doorways and other items of architecture suggest a proscenium arch.

Much in Interlude can be seen to have drawn its inspiration from When Tomorrow Comes: the couple who come from different worlds; the mentally ill wife (revealed much earlier here); the lovers who find themselves trapped in the aftermath of a storm and drawn together, almost as if they’re the last two people on earth; the unsettling confrontations between the wife and her rival; the characters’ expressed wishes to escape the realities that oppress them; the broken dinner date; the references to time constraints that underline the transience of their lives.

What makes the Sirk film different from, if not, finally, more successful than its predecessor (28), however, is the delicate and immensely poignant balance it sustains between what the characters believe about themselves and what the audience knows about them. As always, Sirk skilfully moulds the material to his purpose, to the wider vision that informs most of his work. As he put it, “Your characters have to remain innocent of what your picture is after. . . (They) shouldn’t be what in German is called eindeutig (ed. having only one meaning).” (29)

Footnote – Breaking the Rules: Interlude (1968)

Set in London, Kevin Billington’s uncredited remake of Interlude is a romantic melodrama about an ordinary working woman who falls in love with a married musician with a foreign accent. Sally (Barbara Ferris) is a journalist who’s assigned by her editor to report on a conductor, Stefan Zelter (Oskar Werner), who has inexplicably walked out on a forthcoming opera season and, equally inexplicably, is prepared to do the same thing to his wife, Antonia (Virginia Maskell).

Virginia Maskell in Interlude

Virginia Maskell in Interlude

Echoes of the earlier films and their original source abound: the sexual triangle, the working-girl protagonist, the social settings, and so on. Sally’s female friend here is Natalie (Geraldine Sherman), who’s first introduced borrowing the keys to Sally’s flat in order to continue her affair with a married man whose wife has discovered his infidelity. “Oh, Natalie,” sighs the far-too-sure-of-herself Sally, soon to find herself embroiled in exactly the same kind of situation, “I don’t know why you get yourself so involved.”

There’s little sign in Billington’s film of any concern with the class differences between the lovers, but the key shift from the path followed by its predecessors is in its depiction of Antonia. Instead of being depicted as unbalanced, sinister, pathetic and/or lost “in a world of her own”, she is elegant, beautiful and a good mother not only to their two children but also, it would seem, to her errant husband. Since he’s unable or simply unwilling to talk to her about the increasing distance between them, she tells him that it might help if he took a break from his life and went away to the coast for some “sea air”.  Of course, instead of seizing the time she has offered him for some badly needed introspection – his behaviour is classically narcissistic, his attraction to Sally unfathomable – he takes Sally along. In a sequence that vaguely echoes the storm scenes in the earlier films, their tryst is largely reduced to a reading of John Donne’s “On His Mistress” (instead of a private piano recital) and a montage of the couple visiting various picturesque sites together.

While the events of the film unfold through Sally’s eyes and the plot structure remains more or less the same, the change here has far-reaching consequences for the film’s division of sympathy for the three characters. In the absence of any scenes establishing a romantic spark of some kind between Sally and Zelter – in contrast to the meeting between Helen and Chagal in When Tomorrow Comes – it becomes difficult to understand why they might want to be together. And, largely against the grain of the filmmakers’ intentions and certainly against the inclinations of the genre in general, the balance of sympathy shifts firmly on to Antonia, even as Sally and Zelter remain foregrounded by the plot.

This apparently inadvertent reversal is equally a consequence of Maskell’s magnificent performance. In what turned out to be the actress’s last role (30), she lends Antonia a dignity and an intelligence that move her trauma into the spotlight and displace the lovers’ problems to the wings. One finally comes to see the affair between Sally and Zelter as a case of foolish philandering rather than love against the odds.

In this light, the scenes which conspire to push Antonia to the margins of the story gain a poignancy they otherwise might never have acquired: her final appearance in the film – at the restaurant dinner to which she’s summoned her errant husband and his accomplice – simultaneously makes her the strongest character in the film and renders her vulnerability heartbreaking.

The interest to be found in Billington’s otherwise pedestrian film stems from this shift away from the dramatic priorities that drive its predecessors and the conventions of the romance genre as a whole. Lacking the wit and emotional urgency of When Tomorrow Comes and the sharp ironic edge of Sirk’s Interlude, it also points to the dangers of breaking the unwritten rule of this sub-group of the genre, even if the filmmakers didn’t intend to. That the forbidden love is always the one that matters; that, however much a storyteller might wish to cast a shadow across the lovers’ desires –as Stahl does with his stress on the transience of things and as Sirk does with his subversive ironies – the wronged wife (or the wronged husband) is supposed to be the obstacle to the lovers rather than the main attraction (31).


  1. Michael Stern, Douglas Sirk, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1979
  2. Barbara Klinger, Melodrama & Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1994
  3. Laura Mulvey and Jon Halliday, eds, Douglas Sirk, Edinburgh Film Festival, 1972, pp. 101 – 102
  4. Jeffrey L. Wise and Robert E. Smith, eds, Douglas Sirk – The Complete American Period, The University of Connecticut Film Society, 1974, pp. 45 – 47
  5. Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk, Faber and Faber Limited, London, 1997 (new and revised edition of a book first published in 1971 by Secker & Warburg)
  6. James M. Cain, Serenade, Penguin, Great Britain, 1953 (first published in 1937 by Alfred A. Knopf)
  7. Halliday, op. cit., p. 209
  8. Richard Brody, “Douglas Sirk’s Interlude, A Hidden Masterwork”, in The New Yorker, February 12, 2013 http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2013/02/douglas-sirks-interlude-a-hidden-masterwork.html#livefyre
  9. James M. Cain, The Root of His Evil, Black Lizard Books, California, 1989 (first published in 1951 as an Avon paperback)
  10. David Madden and Kristopher Mecholsky, James M. Cain – Hard-Boiled Mythmaker, Scarecrow Press, Inc., USA, 2011, pp. 142 – 14
  11. Peter Brunette and Gerald Peary, “Tough Guy: James M. Cain Interviewed”, Film Comment, May-June 1976, pp. 50 – 57 (also in Patrick McGilligan, ed., Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age, University of California Press, 1986,  pp. 110 – 132)
  12. Halliday, op. cit., pp. 127 – 8. It should be noted here that, as Halliday reveals in the introduction (page 6), his interviews with Sirk weren’t recorded but were, rather, written up from notes taken during their exchanges. It’s possible that Sirk’s mistaken observation was the result of a transcription error.
  13. Ibid, p. 209.
  14. His name is misspelt – as Phillipe rather than Philippe – on the concert invitation Helen glances at in his Long Island mansion. The closing credits reduce him to a more manageable but much less exotic Philip Chagal.
  15. As in Intermezzo (1939) with Leslie Howard (violinist), Love Affair (1939) with Boyer (violinist), The Constant Nymph (1943) with Boyer (composer), Deception (1946) with Paul Henreid (cellist), Song of Love (1947) with Henreid again (composer), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) with Louis Jourdan (pianist), and Lady Possessed (1952) with James Mason (pianist).
  16. It’s worth noting here John Cromwell’s The Silver Cord (1933), adapted from the play by Sidney Howard, made before the official enforcement of the Code in 1934 and, coincidentally, also starring Irene Dunne.
  17. That this remains a convenient dramatic device to evoke a woman’s trauma is underlined by its deployment in Labor Day (2013).
  18. According to a website dedicated to Irene Dunne and citing a Hollywood Reporter news item – http://www.irenedunnesite.com – shooting began on the film without a completed screenplay, and a grand total of 21 writers are reported to have contributed to it to it at different stages. The Internet Movie Database – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032124/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm – mentions four uncredited writers on the film: Herbert J. Biberman (later to be one the Hollywood Ten), playwright Aben Kandel (who had also worked uncredited on Stahl’s Magnificent Obsession, also subsequently remade by Sirk), Charles Kaufman and John Larkin.
  19. Which includes echoes of the scene in Five Easy Pieces (1970) where Jack Nicholson’s character tries to order an omelette with toast.
  20. From the high society worlds of Roberta (1935) and The Awful Truth (1937) to the glamorous settings of Theodora Goes Wild (1936) and Love Affair (1938).
  21. Brunette and Peary, op. cit. pp. 54 – 55. Here Cain tells his side of the story, damning the film’s writer and declaring his admiration for Stahl in the process.
  22. The complete judgement can be found at http://scholar.google.ca/scholar_case?case=5293541731877026047&hl. The church scene in Cain’s Serenade includes a rape about which Judge Yankwich says in his finding, “If it stood alone, it could be considered not only indecent and vulgar, but immoral and sacrilegious.” He later declares, remarkably, that “whatever immorality or sacrilege there be in this scene is cured by the last scene in the book” in which “the author makes the Mexican girl, Juana, pay for her crimes with her life”.
  23. Madden and Mecholsky, op. cit. p. 143
  24. Coincidentally, the set-up also closely resembles the one for yet another Brazzi film, Dark Purpose (1964). Set on the Italian Riviera, it has an American tourist (Shirley Jones) falling for Brazzi’s Italian Count, only to discover that there’s another mentally ill wife in the wings.
  25. Halliday, op. cit., p. 69
  26. James M. Cain in the Preface to Double Indemnity, Corgi Edition, London, 1965, pp. 10-11 (first published in 1945 by Robert Hale, Ltd., this is a collection of three Cain novels: Double Indemnity, Career in C Major and The Embezzler).
  27. Senses of Cinema, No. 30, February 2004 (“Great Directors: Douglas Sirk”) & No. 66, March 2013 (“Sirk, Hollywood and Genre”).
  28. Interlude’s flaws, I believe, have to do in large part with the casting. Both Allyson and Brazzi play it straight, but seem to have little emotional investment in their performances. They embody the same opposition as Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer – setting American ordinariness opposite European allure – but do it much less effectively. Even if she seems to be going through the motions, she is suitably earnest, but he simply seems uncomfortable.
  29. Halliday, op. cit. p. 77
  30. Possibly suffering from undiagnosed post-natal depression, she died of acute hypothermia after an overdose of anti-depressants in January 1968, shortly before the film’s release.
  31. The same rules are applicable whether the focus is on melodramas or comedy, even if in films such as My Favourite Wife (1940) the lines can become a little blurred.

About The Author

Tom Ryan’s most recent book is The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions (2019), published by the University Press of Mississippi. His Alan J. Pakula: Interviews will be published in September this year.

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