WRITTEN ON THE WIND
(director: Douglas Sirk; screenwriters: George Zuckerman/based on the novel by Robert Wilder; cinematographer: Russell Metty; editor: Russell F. Schoengarth; 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), John Larch (Roy Carter), Grant Williams (Biff Miley, service station attendant), Robert J. Wilke (Dan Willis, proprietor, The Cove), Edward C. Platt (Dr. Paul Cochrane), Harry Shannon (Hoak Wayne); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Albert Zugsmith; Universal Pictures/Criterion Collection; 1956)
“A spellbinding twisty story teeming with sexual frustration and whatnot.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Douglas Sirk’ (“All That Heaven Allows”/”The Tarnished Angels”) lurid melodrama is a subversive critique of both the two middle-class straight outsiders and the spoiled brother and sister of an extremely wealthy Texas oil-family, as George Zuckerman’s screen play reserves more compassion for the pathologically twisted siblings than the uninteresting and cold-hearted negative outsiders.
The novel by Robert Wilder is actually based on a true story of such a North Carolina family. It wears its emotions on its lush images and music. The color-coordinated sets blanket the film with the good versus the bad type of soap opera moments. Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone as the rich siblings with big psychological issues, turn in over-the-top performances and are just fabulous in their intensity. Malone won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
This is one of those quintessential films of the ’50s that was popular in its day (Sirk’s biggest box office hit) and later on became recognized by Cahiers du Cinema in the 1970s as an artistically great film that resurrected his reputation among critics but Sirk’s film became deserted by the public (it’s as if as soon as they found out the film meant something and wasn’t the trash they thought it was, that they decided to part company). It has a lot going for it including all around great performances (though I must say that Lauren Bacall’s performance didn’t do much for me even if she was okay, as I found her emotional range too limited), a spellbinding twisty story teeming with sexual frustration and whatnot, a lightning fast pace, a stunning mise en scene and beautiful visuals that give it a surreal artificial look that could knock you over with its imbued melodrama.
The story concerns the ensnarled relations of four main characters. Robert Stack is the self-pitying and self-destructive rich boy alcoholic Kyle Hadley, who disappointed his father (Robert Keith) by his irresponsible behavior and failure in every endeavor since childhood. Dorothy Malone is Kyle’s trampy unstable nymphomaniac sister Marylee, who hates her brother so much she poisons his mind saying vicious things about him that leave him further confused and leads a tormented life trying to find her own way. Rock Hudson is the stalwart good boy Mitch Wayne, who was raised by the wealthy Hadleys and given opportunities to succeed in life his middle-class rancher father couldn’t. He’s Kyle’s lifetime best friend and is employed as the Hadley Oil geologist, someone Mr. Jasper Hadley (Robert Keith) relies on more than his son (he constantly points out to his son that he can’t measure up to his trustworthy best friend). The beautiful blonde Marylee loves Mitch with all her heart but he treats her only as a sister, which must make him the most chillingly obstinate person in the film. Lauren Bacall is the middle-class Lucy Moore, a level-headed New York advertising executive secretary whom Mitch meets on a New York business visit and falls madly in love with at first sight but the aggressive Kyle comes along and sweeps her off her feet with his candor and marries her.
The film opens in November 1956 at the Texas estate of the Hadleys, in the town named after the family. A drunken Kyle comes home and a shot rings out, as we see Kyle fall to the ground dead. It then goes into flashback one year earlier and we retrace why this tragedy took place and if it were a homicide or suicide or an accident.
At first, the marriage between Kyle and Lucy surprisingly turns out blissful until the doctor (Edward C. Platt) tells him he can’t have children because he has “weak” sperm and that makes him so upset he reverts to drinking again. Meanwhile as Jasper confesses to Mitch that he blames himself for his children’s problems the police bring home Marylee, who has spent the evening in a motel with a gas-station attendant (Grant Williams) she picked up on the spur of the moment. Jasper suffers a heart attack and dies as he struggles to climb the stairs on the way to talk to Marylee, who is oblivious of everyone while dressed to kill in her reddish orange chiffon and is frantically dancing in sexual heat to the hot music she’s playing in her room. Things change for the worse instead of for the better when Lucy tells Kyle she’s pregnant and he beats her causing a miscarriage, as he suspects Mitch is the father. Kyle then gets liquored up and we return to where the film opened to find out what took place in this troubled mansion. The film climaxes at the scandalous public inquest that reveals the family’s dark secrets as Marylee, of all people, confirms that Kyle was a lost soul “who needed so much and had so little.” The last shot has the lonely Marylee hugging a symbolic derrick that represents the oil money that will keep her materially comfortable, but her sadness indicates that she will still be unable to cure her troubled soul.
Warning: a spoiler in the next paragraph.
Though Sirk’s style alone might be the only meaning gleaned from the film, still it hints of a bitter irony behind an almost “happy” ending; that is, considering the self-destructive nature of the siblings, the accidental shooting of Kyle has in a certain way restored a sense of order.
This was the sixth of the eight pictures that Sirk made with Hudson.
REVIEWED ON 1/22/2007 GRADE: A