WRITTEN ON THE WIND (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.
Douglas Sirk acknowledged he filled his films with mirrors. But what do they signify in Written on the Wind? The way the two male and two female leads are, to an extent, mirror images of each other? The way a small family group turns in on itself with awful results? The pain of knowing yourself, which is well on the way to destroying Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) before the film even begins?
Or is the constant presence of reflective surfaces simply an acknowledgment of the way that, as in all Sirk’s most famous movies, so much in this film is right there on the surface, whether in the form of vivid, even lurid, set designs, or in the emoting of the cast?
If Written on the Wind were not so deliberately exaggerated, if it were made by a director who’d intended subtlety, it might justifiably be ridiculed. Not only are the story and the visual style OTT by any realistic standard, but so is the slick and knowing dialogue (“smart talk”, as the character Marylee herself would call it). Yet Sirk most certainly meant it to be this way, and while the result is difficult at times to take entirely seriously, it’s made with such verve and (despite its somewhat claustrophobic qualities) is so fast-moving it’s hard not to be caught up in Sirk’s melodrama.
In the first scene, a yellow sports car races at top speed through an industrial setting, Kyle at the wheel, distraught, drinking quickly. The huge grey tower of the Hadley oil company looms above him like a disapproving parent; the contrast of the kinetic, brightly-coloured vehicle against the gloomy, static background suggests that established, conservative ways are about to be violently disrupted. Brilliantly marrying what Peter William Evans has described as “vitality of form and morbidity of theme”, this sequence is very tightly choreographed and precisely edited, and every character is verging on hysteria—an indicator of what is to come.
Before long the action flashes back about a year earlier, and the rest of the film traces the lead-up to the day of the yellow car. We’re introduced to Kyle and Mitch (Rock Hudson) as they fly all the way from Texas to New York City for a steak sandwich (this profligacy indicating to audiences the unattainable glamour and luxury of their lives). Soon they meet Lucy (Lauren Bacall), and the fourth key character is also flagged up some time before we meet her: Marylee (Dorothy Malone).
Now Sirk and screenwriter George Zuckerman, who based the film on Robert Wilder’s 1946 novel, set up the central dilemma. The self-indulgent, self-pitying, alcoholic Kyle is the scion of the wealthy Hadley oil family (based on the Reynolds tobacco dynasty). Mitch, although not related to him by blood, was taken in by the Hadleys as a young boy and they grew up as brothers.
Kyle also has a sister, Marylee, and this is where it gets complicated; she detests Kyle but loves Mitch, who doesn’t reciprocate the feeling. Mitch, meanwhile, loves Lucy, a former secretary in the Hadley family business, but Kyle has already managed to marry her not long after the movie begins… and Lucy’s feelings aren’t entirely clear.
So while the histrionics in Written on the Wind tend to be provided by the wealthy pair of Kyle (slowly being destroyed by his drinking, and by his own lack of self-confidence in the shadow of his illustrious family) and by Marylee (frustrated in her desire for Mitch, and instead sleeping around with whoever happens to be available), the real core of the drama comes from the much more grounded and conservative Mitch and Lucy. Will Mitch, the epitome of a solid, decent man by 1950s standards, betray his oldest pal Kyle to get Lucy? And does Lucy, for her part, secretly harbour feelings toward Mitch that will lead her to also betray Kyle?
Sirk tells the tale in his characteristic style, intensely colourful—both literally and figuratively—but also highly controlled. Although Written on the Wind is intensely melodramatic, there’s not a single scene in it which is present purely for effect. Everything contributes to the whole.
For example, consider the visual coding of the hotel scene early on where Kyle is wooing Lucy: the larger-than-life colours of the flowers in her suite and the wardrobe he buys for her are contrasted with the almost totally grey palette of the airplane she tries to take back to New York after having second thoughts. Kyle’s lifestyle is clearly tempting to her, and yet she also seems aware that the grey of her previous existene might be the safer option.
“It was beautiful at first glance, then I thought how ugly it would be in the morning,” she says of their romance at this point. Even as Kyle kisses Lucy after his proposal, the look in her eyes is briefly unsure, another harbinger.
Indeed, as the film progresses, the sets take on an increased importance: most significantly the Hadley family home with all its oppressive memories (there are several references to hell and captivity), but also the other locations where the action is played out. Virtually all are indoors, indicating how little freedom the vast wealth of the Hadleys has brought them; they even embody class and gender differences. While the opulent country club seems the natural home of the Hadleys, it is—at least in Kyle’s view—acceptable for him to slum it in a local bar, yet outrageous for his sister Marylee to do so.
Contrasted with these is a location much discussed and (importantly) hardly seen, the river where Kyle, Mitch and Marylee played as children, perhaps an Arcadian America that could have been, certainly a representation of past, more innocent happiness. Kyle speaks to a bartender of the “good old days when a fella knew nothing and cared less”; Kyle tells Lucy that a holiday will “be fun… like turning back the clock”. Almost his last line is “let’s go down to the river.”
A few individual scenes stand out, perhaps most notably the passage toward the end where a key character tumbles to his death and another runs to his aid while Marylee, oblivious, dances hyperactively on her own: three different people’s situations in life (and death) encapsulated in their motion, and Marylee’s rapid movement harking back to her brother’s yellow car at the beginning.
Also memorable, in a film set in the American South that has virtually no black characters save for the occasional servant, is the way that two of them suddenly get a scene of their own just before the climax, and seem to be more aware of the way the story is heading than any of those directly involved in it.
More than specific moments, though, it’s Sirk’s instantly identifiable directorial manner and some of the performances that make the film.
Of the core four roles, the women are perhaps stronger than the men. Lucy is reserved, hard-working, professional and mature, and she has many fewer opportunities to emote than Malone, which makes the complete conviction of Bacall’s performance all the more impressive. (Although her star was fading by 1956, she was nevertheless paid more than Sirk, Hudson and Malone combined.)
Malone’s Marylee, by contrast, is overtly emotional, with a laziness and childishness born of wealth. In one wonderful moment, she viciously scores the top of a bar table for no reason. Malone in studio publicity described Marylee as “more cunning than Scarlett O”Hara, more ruthless than Lady Macbeth”, though Mitch puts it even better in the movie itself: “For a beautiful girl, you can look real ugly sometimes.”
Sirk might seem to be giving into northern-vs-southern stereotypes here, but perhaps not: the same difference is seen between Mitch and Kyle, both of them Texas boys. Kyle is superficially affable, but deeper down full of hate, for himself as well as others; as played by Stack (rather resembling Sean Penn) he chews more scenery than the other three put together, though the screenplay offers little alternative.
Hudson, meanwhile, is his usual likeable but slightly bland self. Perhaps Sirk, who made eight movies with him, felt they needed a stolid male lead to anchor the immoderation elsewhere. Among the supporting cast, meanwhile, Robert Keith is superb as Kyle’s father, a shrunken old man living in a brown world of the past: Kyle wants to escape his father and what he stands for, but at the same time knows he is failing to live up to his father’s successes.
Written on the Wind attracted many protests from Geoffrey M. Shurlock, the head of the Production Code Administration, who was concerned by its excessive drinking, the word “hell”, and the portrayal of Marylee as a “nymphomaniac”. The explicit way that the film depicts her casual promiscuity—a hook-up with a gas station attendant, for example—is indeed pretty startling for 1956. But the Hays Code’s influence on film-makers was waning by now, and Sirk and Zuckerman ignored many of his misgivings.
And rightly so, because just as Written on the Wind would be ludicrous if intended as straight realism, conversely it would be simply dull if stripped of its excesses.
But the lack of complexity or nuance in plot and character motivation doesn’t matter, any more than it does in successors like Dallas and Dynasty, for in Sirk’s hands the film’s over-indulgence itself becomes part of its power—a constant reminder of the Hadleys’ decadence, and the way that tragedy can devastate even those at the top of a consumerist society.
Written on the Wind is not realistic, but it doesn’t have to be, for beneath all the extravagance is a very real, and dark, truth about the mighty and the way that they too can fall.
USA | 1956 | 99 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Douglas Sirk.
writer: George Zuckerman (based on the novel by Robert Wilder).
starring: Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack & Dorothy Malone.