If Ernst Lubitsch’s cinematic interest was the door, then fellow German auteur Douglas Sirk’s own preferred frame was the mirror. In his German film La Habanera (1937) and in his Hollywood melodramas All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956), mirrors and other reflective surfaces allow characters to emote with more than dialogue or the typical revealing close-up of facial expressions.
La Habanera has a peculiar setting: the action takes place in Puerto Rico and in a single scene in Sweden, but throughout, the characters always speak German. As an UFA production, it was Third Reich propaganda for promoting German nationalism, so in a way it makes sense that the homeland’s language would always be prominent. In this scene, we see Austrian actor Ferdinand Marian as the Puerto Rican “Don Pedro,” engulfed by a mirror big enough to cover an entire wall of his home as he and his wife argue over the dissolution of their marriage. I wonder if the art direction and set decoration were at all tailored to resemble Puerto Rican culture or if they were a mimicry of Spanish style.
Here, the image of Dr. Sven Nagel (Karl Martell) is shown in the rippling waters of a pond in Don Pedro’s home as Nagel ruminates on life and death. As Nagel comments that a character has “dug his own grave,” the dialogue is paired with the aquatic imagery, bringing the phrase “watery grave” to mind.
Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), the heroine of All That Heaven Allows, contends with the opposing forces of aging, being a widowed mother in a suburban community and being in love with a younger man, gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). To the right of the mirror on the dresser in her bedroom is a clipping from a tree, given to her by Ron. There is special significance in framing her mirror with these leaves. It is more than a decoration; it is a gift from her beloved.
It strikes me as extremely clever, showing Cary’s innermost feelings reflected on a piano rather than simply in a close-up of her face. The audience can see her lost in thought but in a softer, more romantic way, echoing the beauty of Frank Skinner’s piano-infused score. There is an added loneliness in the reflection of Cary’s drawn curtains, a reminder of the unimpeded view from Ron’s cabin window (seen here and here).
My favorite use of a mirror image in All That Heaven Allows is when we see Cary reflected in the screen of a brand-new television, which her children buy her to fill her free time after they tell her that they are moving out. This is a cruel blow; her children forced her to break up with Ron on the basis of her family being the greater need, but it is all for nothing since the kids are leaving home and moving on with their own adult lives.
Literally, the scene depicts the presentation of a new, store-bought object to a customer, but symbolically, we see that Cary is only a shell of her former self. Her children have ruined her chance at happiness and they assumed that they could assuage this loss – not a big deal, right? – with a TV set. Because of our knowledge of Cary’s predicament, the scene is rich with subtextual meaning. We know the real drama that exists in Cary’s life.
Written on the Wind is perhaps more melodramatic because it is less intimate and more over-the-top, focusing on greed, impotence and other bits of scheming besides the element of love. In terms of the love triangle, the mirror in Lucy Moore’s (Lauren Bacall) hotel room shows the transition between Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) and Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) being lifelong friends and the eventuality of Mitch, seen in the mirror, coming between Lucy and Kyle during their tempestuous marriage.
After marrying Kyle and moving into the Hadley house, Lucy meets Kyle’s conniving sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone, in an Oscar-winning performance). Lucy sees Marylee in the mirror instead of herself, emphasizing the seemingly inescapable, larger than life persona of the Hadley name.
During a crucial moment when Marylee tells Kyle a lie that totally warps his worldview, the mirror on the wall is blocked so that he cannot reflect (in any way).
At the end of the film, Marylee sits in front of a painting of her father; the two images are nearly identical, the notable exception being the phallic subtext of Marylee caressing the oil derrick. Getting out from under the shadow of the Hadley legacy is a tough job when love and loyalty complicate matters. The painting is not an actual mirror, but it serves a similar purpose, further demonstrating Sirk’s eye for smart detail.