Written on the Wind
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"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).
by Mark Frankel