Disillusioned World War I flying ace Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) spends his days during the Great Depression making appearances as a barnstorming pilot at rural airshows with his parachutist wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone) and worshipful son Jack (Chris Olsen) and mechanic Jiggs (Jack Carson) in tow.
New Orleans reporter Burke Devlin (Rock Hudson) is intrigued by the gypsy-like lifestyle of the former war hero, but is dismayed by his cavalier treatment of his family and soon finds himself attracted to the neglected LaVerne. Meanwhile, Roger barters with wealthy and aging business magnate Matt Ord (Robert Middleton) for a plane in exchange for a few hours with his wife. Tragedy ensues when Jiggs' anger about his employer's refusal to face family responsibilities causes him to make a rash and fatal decision. He manages to start Shumann's aircraft, with some difficulty, but the plane crashes and Shumann is killed. After rejecting and then reconciling with Devlin, LaVerne returns to Iowa with son Jack.
The Universal-International film reunited director Sirk with Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, and Rock Hudson, with whom he had collaborated on Written on the Wind two years earlier. Stack and Malone played brother and sister in their previous appearance together, with Malone's character infatuated with Hudson's.
Sirk chose to shoot Angels in black-and-white to help capture the despondent mood of the era in which it is set. Faulkner considered the film to be the best screen adaptation of his work.
In his review in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther said the film "was badly, cheaply written by George Zuckerman and is abominably played by a hand-picked cast. The sentiments are inflated — blown out of all proportions to the values involved. And the acting, under Douglas Sirk's direction, is elaborate and absurd."
Variety called the film "a stumbling entry. Characters are mostly colorless, given static reading in drawn-out situations, and story line is lacking in punch."
More recent reviews, penned after a resurgence of interest and respect for Sirk's directing, are uniformly positive. For example, Dave Kehr writes in the New York Times: "'The Tarnished Angels' is among Sirk’s most self-conscious and artistically ambitious creations.... This is bravura filmmaking in the service of a haunting vision. Yet there are moments of almost microscopic subtlety: the camera movement that expresses the moral reversal of the Hudson and Stack characters, one growing larger than the other; the infinite tenderness with which Hudson strokes Ms. Malone’s hair, helplessly trying to comfort her after a shock."
TV Guide rates it four out of a possible four stars and calls it "the best-ever adaptation of a Faulkner novel for the screen, directed with passion and perception by Sirk . . . The acting is first-rate here, and the script is outstanding, full of wit, black humor, and occasional fine poetic monologues."