Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
Alcoholic playboy Kyle Hadley marries the woman secretly loved by his poor but hard-working best friend, who in turn is pursued by Kyle's nymphomaniac sister.
Influencing some of the most respected directors (Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Todd Haynes, Pedro Almodovar) of the past and today, Douglas Sirk’s Melodrama Written on the Wind is one of the most brilliant masterpieces of the genre. Considered as the cornerstone of the soap opera, the sheer excesses of Sirk’s mise en scène, art direction, and his parentheticals to the actors are at their best in this movie. Having only seen The Magnificent Obsession and A Time to Love and a Time to Die prior to Written on the Wind, I did not knew much what to expect. Well, I had a slight idea but I wasn’t prepared to be impressed and charmed by the eccentric facets of Sirk’s once ridiculed film that regain its esteem into the cinephile circles. When one enters into a Sirk film he should be warned that the bright colors and the exuberant over the top acting won’t be an instant amazement.
In the case of Written on the Wind, Sirk tells the story of the Hadley family, Kyle (Robert Stack) the alcoholic playboy son carrying a dark secret, his future wife Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), Marylee (Dorothy Malone) the nymphomaniac daughter, Jasper (Robert Keith) the head of the family and the Oil company, and Kyle’s best friend Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson). The film opens with a perfect sequence depicting the events of a murder in the Hadley house. No words are spoken but we meet the four main characters and we understand rapidly what is happening. Then we are back in time where Kyle and Mitch meet Lucy and both men fall in love with her. Since Kyle has money and charm Lucy will fall for him and they’ll quickly be married and happy together. We also learn that Marylee is having the reputation of a tramp around town and that she consumes men because she can’t have the only thing she really wants: Mitch who sees her as a sister and no more. Kyle will learn that he is “weak” between the legs and might be unable to conceive a child. It will bring him back to drinking and end his hiatus on the bottle. With that the plot will take melodramatic proportions, let’s leave a little surprise to the people who haven’t seen it yet.
Sirk’s storytelling is accentuated by metaphorical imagery and sometimes comical effects. Taken too seriously one can easily say that it is over the top. Well, the quality that one must understand with Sirk’s cinema is the irony of the situations, the wealth, and the way people are living in the material world of America. Sirk being a German who flew out of his home country to escape Hitler, was a great observer of the American culture and usages. His critical commentary is very subtle and his sets have a feeling of artificiality and the bright, too bright colors recalls photo plays and pulp stories. Even if in 1956 the Hays Code was still valid, Sirk’s film is filled with subthemes of sexuality, one of the most jaw dropping image is Marylee holding the derrick model as if it was a phallic figure she was caressing. Also, in the original story, Kyle’s problem to conceive a child was because of his sexuality. It is not really evoked or clear what is Kyle’s weakness but the doctor tells him that there’s still hope. But it is a possibility that could not be clear if Sirk wanted to pass it under the Hays Code.
At first, Douglas Sirk’s melodramas were not the kind of films I thought I would rave and ramble about. However, Sirk’s preoccupation at telling a story on the basics that he wants his viewers to understand why the story leaded a murder and not how brings his actors to reflect the feelings of their characters at a level few could have achieved. Even if Dorothy Malone’s Marylee is over the top and too excessive, she managed to receive the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and her performance fits perfectly with her character. Written on the Wind is a successful melodrama that will probably make my personal Top 100 best films of all time.