A few weeks ago, I posted an article on Medium about my 30 favorite Cold Case episodes of all time and, coming in at number 30 was The Brush Man (Season 6, episode 14), in which I referred to its main plot device as my favorite film and TV trope: the perfect suburban neighborhood with its dark secrets lurking underneath. This is, of course, an almost tired trope at this point, but it still stands.
Dark Suburbia began making itself known in the 1940s and 50s and there was, of course, a very good reason for it. The war had just ended and people wanted to get back on their feet. The devastation that came with it, on so many levels, was enough for people to want to try and rebuild themselves as well as their society, economically, socially and emotionally. And nothing proved to be easier or more appealing than moving to the beautiful green suburbs in order to make a life for themselves with some semblance of control over their image and welfare. And in the hands of, most prominently, director Douglas Sirk, this seems like a never-ending vacation, with Jane Wyman’s beautifully lit face guiding us through her hopes and dreams as a middle-aged widow who falls in love with Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows (1956), or… the exact same thing in Magnificent Obsession (1954). But more than the stunning cinematography or Wyman and Hudson’s stunning faces or indeed Lana Turner’s in Imitation of Life (1959), Sirk’s films told a deeper story than they seemed to let on. The fluff around them wasn’t so much style over substance as it was style on top of substance, you know, to get the point across. The futility, insipidness and impossible standards of the perfect life in the perfect neighborhood could only go so far before it all starts to fall apart: friendly neighbors become enemies, secrets come out, mistakes get scrutinized, you name it. What better way to make your point about society’s shortcomings than by showing its superficiality unashamedly? And the audience, to a certain extent, seemed to understand this. The critics, for the most part, didn’t. Sirk’s films were big box office draws, yes, but gorgeous melodramas with a message and ‘female-led’ plots – though everybody could relate to them, which was very much the point – weren’t big with critics. Which is ironic, in and of itself… The point is, Sirk didn’t deserve it. If Frank Capra can tell the same story about the everyday man caught up in a world too big for him time and again and be poignantly relevant, then Douglas Sirk can hold up a mirror to society with Russell Metty’s over-the-top cinematography to back him up.
These days, Dark Suburbia is still one of those ‘go to’ tropes. Because it works. The suburbs are the perfect backdrop to all that the human heart desires. They are the perfect tool for the necessary conflict and the perfect contrast to the ugliness of man. If done correctly, it is one of the most endlessly fascinating plot devices, with so much in it, so many angles, so many possibilities… Take 1940s noirs like Fallen Angel (1945) or The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), nearly every horror film from the 70s onwards, Todd Haynes’ filmography, or the premise of Twin Peaks and Stranger Things. They all have a different take on it, but all of them come from the same place. And all these years later, Douglas Sirk’s original Dark Suburbia is still the purest and most straight-forward use of the trope in film, its message still resonating with audiences to this day. Of all the misunderstood directors of yesteryear who are finally getting their due amidst the onslaught of new film critics, bloggers and reviewers, Douglas Sirk makes the most sense.