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Written on the Wind

Written on the Wind(1957)

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teaser Written on the Wind (1957)

SYNOPSIS

Mitch Wayne is a simple country boy who has more or less been adopted into the wealthy, troubled Hadley family, Texas oil barons. He is the constant companion and caretaker of the alcoholic, irresponsible Kyle, an object of lust for Kyle's sister Marylee, and the one their father, Jasper Hadley, most often turns to and favors above either of his own children. When Mitch falls in love with Lucy Moore, a woman he meets in New York, he is crushed when she is easily swept off her feet and into a marriage with Kyle. Being a highly moral fellow, Mitch buries his feelings and tries to respect a marriage that at first appearances seems to be working better than anyone expected. Under Lucy's influence, Kyle gives up drinking and stops sleeping with a pistol under his pillow. But when he discovers he may have a medical problem preventing him and Lucy from having children, his life begins to unravel. The situation is not helped by Marylee, whose jealousy of Lucy and frustration over Mitch's repeated rejection of her advances, lead her to poison Kyle's mind against his wife and best friend. When Kyle's father is driven to a heart attack by Marylee's wild behavior, Kyle becomes further unhinged, leading to tragedy and a scandalous public trial that exposes the family's dark secrets.

irector: Douglas Sirk
Producer: Albert Zugsmith
Screenplay: George Zuckerman, based on the novel by Robert Wilder
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Editing: Russell F. Schoengarth
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Frank Skinner, title song by Victor Young, lyrics by Sammy Cahn
Cast: Rock Hudson (Mitch Wayne), Lauren Bacall (Lucy Moore Hadley), Robert Stack (Kyle Hadley), Dorothy Malone (Marylee Hadley), Robert Keith (Jasper Hadley).
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Why WRITTEN ON THE WIND is Essential

When it was released at the end of 1956, Written on the Wind became director Douglas Sirk's most successful picture. While popular with audiences, this lush, over-the-top melodrama suffered the same critical fate as all his work in that genre. Generally dismissed as a stylish purveyor of big budget trash, no one would have suspected at that time that one day Sirk's films would be considered essential viewing. From his early discovery by the critics and the future filmmakers of Cahiers du Cinema (particularly Jean-Luc Godard), to his rediscovery by the pioneers of feminist and psychoanalytic film theory, to the obvious and often-stated impact he has had on such directors as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes, to the admiration he engenders in contemporary film artists, Sirk is a creator of unique and visually baroque movies.

Many postmodern theorists and those responsible for the resurrection of Sirk's reputation in the 1970s see in Written on the Wind a brilliant example of how, through the visual codes and mise en scene, Sirk subverts the intentions of the melodramatic form, suggesting a bitter irony behind the apparently "happy" endings in which the destructive elements are tamed or destroyed and order seems to be restored. Other critics reject this type of analysis as an attempt to force meaning on a visual artist whose style is the meaning. You may also choose to take the word of the artist himself: "It was a piece of social criticism, of the rich and the spoiled and of the American family, really. And since the plot allowed for violence, it allowed for power of presentation also....A condition of life is being portrayed and, in many respects, anticipated, which is not unlike today's decaying and crumbling American society....Written on the Wind is the ultimate degeneracy of the system. The kaput superstructure...."

The film's style is excessive in every way, from the garish lighting to the blaring music. The whole film is a flashback, and by showing the viewer Stack's violent death at the beginning, we are assured that any happiness that Stack's character may find is only temporary. According to Sirk: "Almost throughout the picture I used deep focus lenses which have the effect of giving a harshness to the objects and a kind of enameled, hard surface to the colors. I wanted to bring out the inner violence, the energy of the characters which is all inside them and can't break through." Stack and Malone's characters dream of going "back to the river," but even this bit of nostalgia seems pathetic because there is no escaping the true source of their sickness. As Sirk himself noted, "they can't go back, they can't return." And so they set themselves on a course of self-destruction.

While Hudson and Bacall would seem to portray the more balanced and happy alternative to the Hadley sickness, they are, in fact, quite unsympathetic. And purposely so. According to Sirk, Hudson's character "is a negative figure. He is not really a man who has a helpful feeling toward these two degenerate kids, Stack and Malone....The Hudson and Bacall characters are rather coldish people and not very interesting." Sirk does a brilliant but counterintuitive thing here: he casts his big box-office stars - Bacall and Hudson - in the least interesting roles and lets Stack and Malone steal the movie. In fact, Stack recalls that when he read the script, he knew at once that Kyle was the "best part in the picture, a part that could hardly fail to earn the actor an Academy Award nomination." To Stack's surprise, Hudson gladly accepted the lesser role: "He never said a word, not a peep. He let the part go completely. He was in a position of power, and didn't misuse it." In the end, Stack was right and he got the nomination (though Anthony Quinn won for his performance in Lust for Life, 1956).

Sexual frustration is a theme in many of Sirk's films, but nowhere is this theme so ubiquitous as in Written on the Wind. Sex is the central problem for all the characters, and Sirk goes to almost excessive pains to mock their troubles. When Stack learns from his doctor (Edward Platt) that he may be sterile, he hobbles like a wounded man out of the drugstore only to be confronted by a boy happily bouncing up and down on a mechanical pony. From Stack's perspective, the boy's physical vitality is like a knife in the heart. (Realism is clearly shunted aside here as it is doubtful a doctor would tell the town's most prominent citizen about his low sperm count at a drugstore luncheonette.) And the phallic oil wells seen pumping everywhere in the background seem to represent a kind of sexual energy that both comments on and mocks the characters' own sexuality.

Malone (who won an Oscar® for Best Supporting Actress) is the epitome of sexuality in the film. But like her brother's impotence, her sexuality is diseased. This is best seen in her sexualized dance that Sirk intercuts with her father's fatal fall down the stairs. Malone does all but jump Hudson, but he isn't interested in her as anything but a sister. His disinterest spurred German director Rainer W. Fassbinder to comment that Hudson's character is "the most pig-headed bastard in the world. How can he not possibly feel some of the longing Dorothy Malone has for him?"

Written on the Wind was the sixth of the eight pictures that Sirk made with Hudson, and though Hudson is, as always, portrayed as the unproblematic American male, contemporary viewers might chuckle at his response when asked why he doesn't just find a girl and get married: "I have trouble enough just finding oil." Hudson, Stack and Malone worked so well together that Sirk reunited them one year later for The Tarnished Angels (1958).

by Rob Nixon & Mark Frankel

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teaser Written on the Wind (1957)

A number of observers have credited Written on the Wind with being the forerunner of the glossy, trashy nighttime TV soap opera, especially Dallas, which also followed the scandalous doings of a wealthy Texas oil family.

Written on the Wind has the same basic source material - the death of tobacco heir Smith Reynolds during his marriage to torch singer Libby Holman - as the Jean Harlow movie Reckless (1935).

Sirk has influenced directors as diverse as Spain's Pedro Almodovar and Hong Kong action director John Woo. "I have seen Written on the Wind a thousand times,'' Almodovar said, "and I cannot wait to see it again."

American directors John Waters and Todd Haynes have also cited Sirk's influence on their work. Haynes' recent film Far from Heaven (2002) is an obvious homage to Sirk, taking many plot elements directly from All That Heaven Allows (1955).

The German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder said Sirk was the single greatest influence on his work. While he never made a direct homage to Written on the Wind, as he did when he re-imagined All That Heaven Allows as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), the imprint of Sirk and this film are evident in such Fassbinder works as Lola (1981) and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979).

The success of Written on the Wind led to another project starring three of the principals - Hudson, Stack and Malone - again produced by Zugsmith, directed by Sirk and scripted by Zuckerman, The Tarnished Angels (1958), an adaptation of William Faulkner's book Pylon. Sirk said that, in a way, the picture grew out of Written on the Wind. "You had the same pair of characters seeking their identity in the follow-up picture; the same mood of desperation, drinking, and doubting the values of life, and at the same time almost hysterically trying to grasp them, grasping the wind. Both pictures are studies of failure. Of people who can't make a success of their lives."

As with many of his films, the revelation of Hudson's homosexuality years later brought an additional layer of irony to aspects of this picture, particularly his character's frequent, determined rejection of sexual advances by Dorothy Malone's character. Film critic Roger Ebert reported that at a London screening in 1998, the audience, mostly maintaining a respectful silence throughout, snickered a little when Hudson's character is told it's time to get married and he replies, "I have trouble enough just finding oil."

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Written on the Wind (1957)

Although his pictures were very popular with audiences in the 50s, Sirk was largely dismissed by critics as a stylish purveyor of big-budget trash. After his last American film, Imitation of Life (1959), he returned to Europe and worked on only three more films, all of them minor efforts including My Life for Zarah Leander (1986). But he lived long enough to see the Sirk revival of the 1970s, spurred on to a great extent by Jon Halliday's landmark book-length talk with the director, Sirk on Sirk (Viking, 1972). Screenings of Sirk's films increased and became staples of art and repertory houses, as well as discussion topics for academic study and debate.

In addition to the six times they worked together prior to this, Sirk and his favorite cinematographer, Russell Metty, worked together three more times following this picture: Battle Hymn (1956), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) and Imitation of Life.

Metty began as a camera operator in the early 30s and got the first of his 165 cinematography credits in 1935. Among his most significant films, in addition to the ones he did for Sirk, were Story of G.I. Joe (1945); Touch of Evil (1958), which included a long and justly famous traveling shot at the film's opening; Spartacus (1960), for which he won an Academy Award; and The Misfits (1961).

An ad touting Malone's performance in Written on the Wind appeared in one of the trade papers saying: "Miss Malone, who probably won't campaign for herself, is overdue recognition as an actress who creates characterizations in depth. (This ad bought and paid for by friends of Dorothy Malone without her knowledge.)"

Malone had a few good roles after her Oscar® win for Written on the Wind: as James Cagney's wife in the film biography of silent actor Lon Chaney Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), in the tragic life story of actress Diana Barrymore Too Much, Too Soon (1958), and of course, Sirk's The Tarnished Angels (1958), which reunited her with Stack and Hudson. But her career was mostly in the doldrums until another soap opera (TV's first prime time soap) gave her a boost - as Constance MacKenzie in the popular Peyton Place.

Stack found success on TV when his excellent work for Sirk failed to bring a wealth of great lead roles. He is most famous today as both the 1920s crime fighter Elliot Ness on the TV drama The Untouchables and as the host for 15 years of the popular Unsolved Mysteries.

Stack felt that one reason he lost the Oscar® to Quinn (who only appeared on screen in his winning role for less than 10 minutes) was that 20th Century Fox, who had him under contract, organized block voting against him to prevent one of their stars from winning an acting award at another studio.

Robert Wilder, who wrote the book on which Written on the Wind is based, wore a number of hats in his career, including publicity agent for stars like Claudette Colbert. In addition to about a dozen novels, he wrote for the stage, radio, television and the screen. He adapted his own novel, Flamingo Road, into a 1949 film starring Joan Crawford.

The cast featured a few supporting players audiences may recognize from other roles. Grant Williams (Biff Miley, the service station attendant who offers to "fill 'er up" for Marylee) later appeared in one of the best science-fiction movies of all time, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Edward Platt (Dr. Cochrane) was for several years the "Chief" on the secret-agent TV spoof Get Smart. William Schallert, who makes a brief appearance as a reporter, played the father of Patty Duke on her TV sitcom in the early 1960s.

Robert Keith, who plays the Hadley family patriarch, was the father of actor Brian Keith, star of numerous movies and the TV sitcom Family Affair.

Famous Quotes from WRITTEN ON THE WIND

KYLE (Robert Stack): Mitch is just a country boy. Kind of assets you can't buy with money."

MITCH (Rock Hudson): I have a sheepskin says I'm a geologist.
KYLE: I was kicked out of the same school. They found rocks in my head.

KYLE: Cream?
LUCY (Lauren Bacall): I never use it.
KYLE: Shows how little I know you.

MARYLEE (Dorothy Malone): I love you, Mitch. I'm desperate for you.

JASPER (Robert Keith): Welcome to Hadley - the town and the family.

LUCY: Pardon me if I seem to be brushing you out of my hair.
MARYLEE: I'll send you some of my towels. I believe you're still wet behind the ears.

MARYLEE: I've changed since we last swam in the raw, haven't I?

KYLE: A toast to beauty. And to truth, which is anything but beautiful.

KYLE: You're a filthy liar.
MARYLEE: I'm filthy period.

MITCH: I made a resolution last week. Goes like this: to hell with the Hadleys.

MARYLEE: My brother always drank too much. He was sad. The saddest of us all. He needed so much. And had so little.

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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teaser Written on the Wind (1957)

Written on the Wind started life as a novel written by Robert Wilder and published in 1946. It was a thinly disguised recounting of the real-life scandal of famous torch singer Libby Holman and her husband, tobacco heir Smith Reynolds. The two were married in 1931, and the fast-living Holman joined her husband on his family's North Carolina estate. She frequently invited her New York and show business friends down for wild parties and at one notorious shindig in 1932, Holman reportedly made her husband jealous by kissing his closest friend, Ab Walker. Later that evening, she told Reynolds she was pregnant, which sent him into a fury. Because Reynolds had been dealing with impotence for a number of years, he was certain the child couldn't be his. No one knows for sure what happened, but a shot rang out from the couple's room and Reynolds lay dead. Holman and Walker were indicted on murder charges, although they insisted it was suicide. The charges were later dropped at the request of the family, reportedly to prevent unpleasant details of Smith Reynolds' life from becoming public.

While he was still producing films at MGM, David O. Selznick prepared an original story treatment based on the Holman case. It was first titled "A Woman Called Cheap" and was brought to the screen as Reckless (1935), a vehicle for Jean Harlow that capitalized on her own recent public scandal. Harlow's husband was also found dead from a gunshot, but it was ruled a suicide and the facts of the case were quickly hushed up and remain a mystery to this day.

Wilder's novel kept the story's setting within the world of big tobacco money in the South. Somewhere along the way, the setting was switched to the oil fields of Texas.

Producer Albert Zugsmith went into motion pictures after a career in journalism as a reporter, editor and eventual manager and owner of newspapers and radio stations. He began as producer of B-pictures at various studios and production companies, priding himself on being able to pick up on a kernel of value in a script and rescue properties languishing in development. Zugsmith went to work for Universal in the 1950s, having his first success with a lurid melodrama for Joan Crawford, Female on the Beach (1955).

At Universal, he found the studio had, in his words, "about a quarter or a third of a million invested in a pile of scripts three feet high" of Wilder's novel, which had been junked and written off as unfilmable. Zugsmith coaxed the studio into letting him revive the project, and they reluctantly gave him $500 to do a treatment. Eddie Muhl, the studio's production head, read it, and although he was convinced it was unfilmable, he agreed to give Zugsmith an inexpensive writer, George Zuckerman, whose last assignment was the Zugsmith-produced boxing drama The Square Jungle (1955), starring Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine. Zuckerman had come into the business via Zugsmith, for whom the writer once worked as a reporter.

Zugsmith worked very closely with Zuckerman on adapting the book. Rather than read any of the previous scripts, Zugsmith decided it was best to just go back to the source material and work from there. He thought Zuckerman's first draft was "magnificent," and later said that most of what was shot was from that first draft: "It was that good."

In an interview with Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn for the book Kings of the Bs: Working within the Hollywood System (Dutton, 1975), Zugsmith said that what attracted him to Written on the Wind was "the impotence angle, which of course, we had to play down, down, down, but we had never shown impotence on the screen before. That was what attracted me to it." In the version that reached the screen, Kyle Hadley's problem revolves around an issue of infertility, although the actions and attitudes of Kyle and other characters certainly seem to suggest that impotence is the real problem.

Universal contract director Douglas Sirk was also attracted to the subject of impotence and commented to the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema on the prevalence of that theme in many of his films: "Yes, that is one of the great problems of modern life. The man of today is practically 'impotent' before religion, or in his conduct, because of a certain frustration. You know that it has been proven medically that if you think too much of the sex act, you lose your sexual power. That is true of Robert Stack [as Kyle in Written on the Wind] and of a certain element of upper middle class Americans."

Sirk's take on the impotence theme, as something more than just sexual dysfunction, is supported by Zuckerman's description of Kyle in his outline of the story: "The scars of his boyhood include the high, lonesome plateau of his father's wealth...the realization that he has neither the resources nor the temperament for filling his father's oversized shoes."

Sirk later said he and Zuckerman conceived the Mitch Wayne character, the "potent" male of the story, to be "opposite in every way to the Stack character...so full of goddam typical American naivet."

For his typically naive American, Sirk naturally thought of the actor with whom he'd worked most frequently in recent years, one who was fast becoming the cinema's standard for solid inner strength with a soft touch of vulnerability: Rock Hudson.

The fortunes of Sirk and Hudson were closely tied together in the 1950s. Sirk's background as a student of art and drama in Germany led first to a career as a theatrical producer and director, then into film. In 1937 he fled the Nazi regime, eventually landing in America. After a difficult and stormy first decade in Hollywood during which he managed to turn out some interesting films that proved him to be a first-rate cinematic stylist, he contracted with Universal Studios. The studio had a young actor under contract, Rock Hudson, one of a number of pretty faces then working at every studio in the business. But Sirk saw something more in Hudson, the first to realize his potential. "I thought I saw something," Sirk told Jon Halliday in the book Sirk on Sirk (Viking, 1972). "So I arranged to meet him, and he seemed to be not much to the eye, except very handsome. But the camera sees with its own eye...and ultimately you learn to trust your camera. I gave him an extensive screen test, and then I put him into Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952). ... Within a very few years he became a number one box-office star in America."

Hudson and Sirk did several pictures together before this one: Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), Captain Lightfoot (1955). But the film that really launched Hudson's career as a major star was also the one that propelled Sirk's career into the big-budget, high-gloss melodrama genre with which he's most associated: Magnificent Obsession (1954). Thanks to the great success of that picture, and the image-defining role Hudson played, director and star (along with leading lady Jane Wyman) were quickly put into another project, All That Heaven Allows (1955), considered one of Sirk's very best films. So it was natural that Hudson would take the lead in Written on the Wind.

When Lauren Bacall was offered the part of Lucy, she seized the opportunity to work with "a hot new star" like Hudson. It was also a lot of money for only a few weeks work, and her husband, Humphrey Bogart, encouraged her to take it in light of the fact that her career was not flourishing. "It had a big budget, a good cast," she noted in her autobiography. "I'd never done anything quite like it before - a really straight leading lady, no jokes, so I said yes."

Robert Stack had started out in the early 1940s as a handsome young supporting player (and the boy who gave teen sweetheart Deanna Durbin her first on-screen kiss). He graduated to solid adult leads in relatively uninteresting pictures. The part of Kyle Hadley in Written on the Wind offered him a chance to add new dimension to his image and range. "When I read the script, I cried for the fellow," he said later. "I knew him without ever having been an alcoholic."

Dorothy Malone was another actor for whom the project promised a way out of a rut. Her career had had its ups and downs since her debut more than a decade earlier. Although she had made an impression in a few roles, she was generally relegated to window dressing, and she considered her pictures under contract to Universal to be mostly junk. Late in 1955, however, she hired a new press agent, bleached her hair platinum and decided to go after parts that emphasized sex and glamour. It paid off with her casting as the wanton Marylee.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Written on the Wind (1957)

To shoot the movie, Sirk brought in his favorite cinematographer, Russell Metty. The two had worked together six times prior to this: Take Me to Town (1953), Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), Magnificent Obsession (1954), Sign of the Pagan (1954), There's Always Tomorrow (1956), and All That Heaven Allows (1955), on which they perfected the light and color effects that would bring to the melodrama form the rich visual texture associated with Sirk's greatest films.

On Written on the Wind, Metty achieved a depth of field that was difficult for Technicolor stock at the time. Sirk liked the use of deep focus lenses because he felt they gave harshness to the objects and "a kind of enamelled, hard surface to the colors."

All the cast members had compliments for Hudson on this project. He made a particular impression on Stack, who definitely had the flashier part, full of hysteria, fear, madness, alcoholism, murderous rage, while, as Hudson himself noted about his own role, "as usual, I am so pure I am impossible." Hudson, of course, was the star, and one of the top actors at the studio, while Stack was a lesser name on loan to Universal for the picture. "Almost any other actor I know in the business...would have gone up to the head of the studio and said, 'Hey, look, man, I'm the star - you cut this guy down or something,'" Stack said. "But he never did. I never forgot that."

Malone later noted how Hudson helped her with her performance. "I loved Sirk as a director," she said, "but there was one day he just couldn't get through to me." Quietly and patiently, Hudson took Malone aside and, because he had so much experience with Sirk already, was able to make her understand what the director was trying to tell her.

During production, Hudson was married to Phyllis Gates, his manager's former secretary. It was a short-lived marriage that many people, after Hudson's homosexuality became known, insisted must have been a pre-arranged sham. But those who observed the two together, when Phyllis visited the set or when she and Hudson joined Stack and his wife for casual weekends, said they never thought there was anything between them to indicate that their relationship was entirely a lie.

Despite Hudson's pleasant camaraderie with everyone on the set and his apparent happiness in his marriage, Malone said she found him to be somewhat of a loner who hid his feelings of sadness and insecurity. Nevertheless, she developed a bond with him that helped her through moments of tension on the set. "Rock gave me that sense of security whenever I worked with him."

Stack said he did no research to prepare for his difficult role. "I just went and used my imagination, and I was doing DTs and madness and the six stages of drunkenness, and it was a good chance to truly prove that I could either do something pretty good or completely fall on my face." Stack got so involved in his part that Bacall, enacting the scene where he had to knock her over the bed and induce a miscarriage, became a little worried. As Stack later related it, Bacall told him, "You're crazy, your eyes are crazy." Stack told her the character was supposed to be crazy and she replied, "I don't mean acting crazy, you really are crazy!"

At the same time she was shooting this picture, Lauren Bacall was struggling to learn her lines for an upcoming TV production of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, co-starring Coward and Claudette Colbert. Bacall was pressured by Coward's insistence that all his cast have their lines letter-perfect by the time work began on the production.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Written on the Wind (1957)

Written on the Wind was a box office success, a prime example of how Hollywood could combat the threat of television with big-budget, wide-screen, lushly color-photographed dramas with adult themes (i.e., lots of sex). Written on the Wind was able to push the limits of what could be shown on the screen partly because the Motion Picture Production Code was slightly modified around the time of the film's release with a more relaxed attitude towards its most stringent rules.

Dorothy Malone received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her heated performance as Marylee. Robert Stack received a Best Supporting Actor nomination and was highly favored to win, but was upset by Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life (1956). Victor Young and Sammy Cahn were also nominated for the title song.

In 2005, Lauren Bacall accepted the Frontier Award on behalf of the film from the Austin Film Society, which annually makes inductions into the Texas Film Hall of Fame recognizing actors, directors, screenwriters, filmmakers and films from, influenced by or inspired by the Lone Star State.

"It is in visual terms that Written on the Wind merits our attention. We watch Stack in the half-shadow of a blue bedroom, watch him dash into a red corridor and jump into a yellow taxi which lets him out in front of a steel-gray. airplane. All these hues are vivid and frank, varnished and lacquered to such a degree that a painter would scream. But they are the colors of the luxury civilization, the industrial colors that remind us that we live in the age of plastics."- Francois Truffaut, 1957.

"What the movie has is power and guts. I think it is my most gutty picture, which naturally is due to some extent to the material." - Douglas Sirk, Sirk on Sirk by Jon Halliday (Viking, 1972).

"The most violent and hyperbolic of family melodramas, Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind may be the most quintessential American movie of the 1950s. The film turns a cold eye on the antics of the degenerate superrich...Trash on an epic scale, it's a vision as luridly color-photographed, relentlessly high-octane and flamboyantly petit bourgeois as a two-toned T-bird with ultrachrome trim"- J. Hoberman, The A List, Da Capo Press.

"To appreciate a film like Written on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman's masterpieces, because Bergman's themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message. His interiors are wildly over the top, and his exteriors are phony- he wants you to notice the artifice, to see that he's not using realism but an exaggerated Hollywood studio style."- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, January 18, 1998.

"Written on the Wind is bigger than All That Heaven Allows [1955]. The plot is fuller, the characters traverse greater expanses, and the themes of love and money are more at home in a mighty saga. Private jets, rivers of booze, barroom fisticuffs, shiny clothes, and a forest of phallic oil derricks give Written on the Wind the look of a rich fat uncle to Dynasty and Dallas. - Matthew Kennedy, Bright Lights Film Journal (www.brightlightsfilm.com).

"The director, Douglas Sirk, shows his talent for whipping up sour, stylized soap operas in posh settings." - Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Henry Holt & Co.).

"The sheerest Hollywood moonshine: high-flying melodramatic hokum which moves fast enough to be very entertaining." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide (HarperPerennial).

"This film provides Sirk's clear commentary and critique of the underlying hollowness and shallowness of American society in the placid 1950s, and misfit lives stunted and corrupted by mental anguish, alcoholism, sexual frustration, and corruptible materialistic wealth." - The Greatest Films (www.filmsite.org/writt.html).

"The artificial lighting and crazy color schemes for which Sirk was noted are here, but there's again (as in All That Heaven Allows) an emotional intensity, carried to operatic extremes, that works against the idea that the film is merely a florid exercise in camp." - Gary Morris, Images Journal (www.imagesjournal.com/issue10/reviews/sirk/text.htm).

"This ranks with The Tarnished Angels [1958] as Sirk's best work. This is also about tarnished characters...As in all good potboilers, the characters are driven by their passions and are surrounded by destructive forces..." - Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic (Fireside).

"This outspoken drama probes rather startlingly into the morals and passions of an uppercrust Texas oil family. Intelligent use of the flashback technique before and during the titles credits runoff builds immediate interest and expectancy without diminishing plot punch." - Variety Movie Guide (Prentiss Hall).

"Irresistible kitsch" - Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide (Plume).

Compiled by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford

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teaser Written on the Wind (1957)

"To appreciate a film like Written on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman's masterpieces, because Bergman's themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message. His interiors are wildly over the top, and his exteriors are phony - he wants you to notice the artifice, to see that he's not using realism but an exaggerated Hollywood studio style."
- Roger Ebert

Between 1950 and 1959, Douglas Sirk made twenty-one films for Universal. Despite box-office successes (most notably with his last American film, Imitation of Life, 1959), Sirk was often ignored by contemporary critics, who considered him nothing more than a purveyor of glossy "women's pictures." But starting in the early 1970s, Sirk's films began to be seen as works of social criticism that transcended their usually melodramatic origins. As the above quotation from Roger Ebert shows, today he is considered an equal to any of the world's greatest directors. And Written on the Wind is arguably his greatest work.

According to Sirk, the film "was a piece of social criticism, of the rich and the spoiled and of the American family, really." The family Sirk refers to are the Hadleys, an oil-rich Texas family whose wealth is so great that the town itself is named after them. The Hadley "H" is so omnipresent that the town seems to be synonymous with the family. In this way, the decaying family stands in for a decaying society. The family's patriarch (Robert Keith) is trying to hold his family and empire together while his alcoholic playboy son (Robert Stack) and his nymphomaniac daughter (Dorothy Malone) run riot like the irresponsible children they really are. Stability seems to be guaranteed in the form of Rock Hudson, a close family friend, who works for the Hadleys and bails Stack and Malone out of their many troubles. But when Lauren Bacall comes into their lives, stability flies out the window.

The film's style is excessive in every way, from the garish lighting to the blaring music. The whole film is a flashback, and by showing the viewer Stack's violent death at the beginning, we are assured that any happiness that Stack's character may find is only temporary. According to Sirk: "Almost throughout the picture I used deep focus lenses which have the effect of giving a harshness to the objects and a kind of enameled, hard surface to the colors. I wanted to bring out the inner violence, the energy of the characters which is all inside them and can't break through." Stack and Malone's characters dream of going "back to the river," but even this bit of nostalgia seems pathetic because there is no escaping the true source of their sickness. As Sirk himself noted, "they can't go back, they can't return." And so they set themselves on a course of self-destruction.

While Hudson and Bacall would seem to portray the more balanced and happy alternative to the Hadley sickness, they are, in fact, quite unsympathetic. And purposely so. According to Sirk, Hudson's character "is a negative figure. He is not really a man who has a helpful feeling toward these two degenerate kids, Stack and Malone. . . . The Hudson and Bacall characters are rather coldish people and not very interesting." Sirk does a brilliant but counterintuitive thing here: he casts his big box-office stars - Bacall and Hudson - in the least interesting roles and lets Stack and Malone steal the movie. In fact, Stack recalls that when he read the script, he knew at once that Kyle was the "best part in the picture, a part that could hardly fail to earn the actor an Academy Award nomination." To Stack's surprise, Hudson gladly accepted the lesser role: "He never said a word, not a peep. He let the part go completely. He was in a position of power, and didn't misuse it." In the end, Stack was right and he got the nomination (though Anthony Quinn won for his performance in Lust for Life (1956).

Sexual frustration is a theme in many of Sirk's film's, but nowhere is this theme so ubiquitous as in Written on the Wind. Sex is the central problem for all the characters, and Sirk goes to almost excessive pains to mock their troubles. When Stack learns from his doctor (Edward Platt) that he may be sterile, he hobbles like a wounded man out of the drugstore only to be confronted by a boy happily bouncing up and down on a mechanical pony. From Stack's perspective, the boy's physical vitality is like a knife in the heart. (Realism is clearly shunted aside here as it is doubtful a doctor would tell the town's most prominent citizen about his low sperm count at a drugstore luncheonette.) And the phallic oil wells seen pumping everywhere in the background seem to represent a kind of sexual energy that both comments on and mocks the characters' own sexuality.

Malone (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) is the epitome of sexuality in the film. But like her brother's impotence, her sexuality is diseased. This is best seen in her sexualized dance that Sirk intercuts with her father's fatal fall down the stairs. Malone does all but jump Hudson, but he isn't interested in her as anything but a sister. His disinterest spurred German director Rainer W. Fassbinder to comment that Hudson's character is "the most pig-headed bastard in the world. How can he not possibly feel some of the longing Dorothy Malone has for him?"

This was the sixth of the eight pictures that Sirk made with Hudson, and though Hudson is, as always, portrayed as the unproblematic American male, contemporary viewers might chuckle at his response when asked why he doesn't just find a girl and get married: "I have trouble enough just finding oil." Hudson, Stack and Malone worked so well together that Sirk reunited them one year later for The Tarnished Angels (1957).

Producer: Albert Zugsmith
Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: Robert Wilder, George Zuckerman
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Editing: Russell F. Schoengarth
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Frank Skinner, Victor Young
Cast: Rock Hudson (Mitch Wayne), Lauren Bacall (Lucy Moore Hadley), Robert Stack (Kyle Hadley), Dorothy Malone (Marylee Hadley), Robert Keith (Jasper Hadley), Grant Williams (Biff Miley), Robert J. Wilke (Dan Willis).
C-100m. Letterboxed.

by Mark Frankel

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