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Written on the Wind
Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: George Zuckerman (based on the novel by Robert Wilder)
Stars: 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), Bob Wilke (Dan Willis)
MPAA Rating:NR
Year of Release: 1956
Country: USA
Written on the Wind Poster

Written on the Wind is by far the most sordid of director Douglas Sirk's 1950s social dramas. The debauched tale of an uberwealthy, but deeply troubled Texas oil family, it reaches near hysterical melodramatic proportions, dealing as it does with alcoholism, nymphomania, sterility, adultery, and murder. Audiences in 1956 ate it up as a lurid, but straightforward soap opera of familial dysfunction; but, since the early 1970s, critics and scholars have read it as purposeful self-parody, a way in which Sirk could critique American social conventions and the capitalist drive while still appearing to play within the rules of the conventional Hollywood studio system.

Sirk's other '50s melodramas for Universal-International, including Magnificient Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955), were set within the middle class, which put characters on-screen that many in the audience could recognize and relate to. Written on the Wind is completely different in that it deals with a highly exclusive class of people: the millionaire set. Thus, there is an immediate distancing effect--watching the characters on screen becomes more voyeuristic in nature, as it is almost impossible for most viewers to identify directly with them and their extreme money-induced problems. In terms of social commentary, the film is probably best seen as a parody of the ultimate realization of the American dream. The Hadley family in Written on the Wind has achieved everything possible in terms of capitalistic gain, yet they are the most miserable people one can imagine.

The story deals primarily with the interactions among four main characters. Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) is the heir to the Hadley Oil Company empire, yet he is an alcoholic playboy who is incapable of responsibility. Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), his best friend and adopted brother of sorts, is a more down-to-earth character; he has a degree in geology from the university from which Kyle was expelled, and he is the most obvious choice to take over the business. Kyle's sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone), is as troubled as he is, but she embodies her emotional dysfunction through nymphomania and wicked, spiteful manipulation of those around her. She goes beyond simply "loose" sexuality; as one male character says, "I've never heard of anyone picking her up. It's always the other way around." Finally, there is Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), a secretary whom Kyle romances and quickly marries, then destroys out of jealousy and misunderstanding.

This quartet of characters is easily divided down the middle, with Kyle and Marylee on the "dysfunctional" side and Mitch and Lucy on the "normal" side. Yet, their lives are deeply intertwined beyond just blood relations and marriage vows. Marylee has been infatuated with Mitch since they were children, and her excessive sexuality may be in some way compensation for the fact that he could never love her back as anything more than a "sister." At the same time, Mitch is in love with Lucy, but his essentially decent nature keeps him from advancing on her because she is Kyle's wife.

Written on the Wind is an endlessly, perversely enjoyable film because it offers multiple possible readings. Some have seen it as a precursor to the '80s prime-time soap opera Dallas, with its emphasis on debauched wealthy characters and its setting in the Texas oil business. Others view it as pure camp, an exercise in outrageous kitsch that is all the more amusing when you imagine that viewers took it seriously when it first played in theaters.

It can also sustain a deeply Freudian reading, as sexuality, the threat of sterility, and failed patriarchy drive much of the narrative. It has all the right ingredients, with the powerless patriarch, Jasper Hadley (Robert Keith), overrun by his out-of-control children, who fully embody the kinds of traits (excessive consumption, flamboyant sexuality) that American society traditionally has tried to repress. Kyle and, especially, Marylee are literally "the return of the repressed," which is embodied in a hilariously overdetermined scene in which Marylee, recently picked up by the police after a liaison with a gas station attendant at the local motel, breaks into a wild dance in her bedroom upstairs. The sight of her dancing is intercut with Jasper having a heart attack and falling down the stairs. The visual connection between Marylee's sexual display and her father's pathetic death make the obvious suggestion that her irrepressibility literally killed him.

Jasper is quite possibly the most tragic character in the film simply because we know next to nothing about him except that he has been an utter failure as a father. The end of the film, however, suggests a tragic understanding of Marylee, but her behavior throughout has been so cruel that it is difficult to arouse sympathy for her, even in her moments of hurt (this is not surprising because Sirk loved to work with character ambiguity).

Heavily symbolic moments are scattered throughout Written on the Wind to great effect. One memorable scene shows Kyle stumbling out of a drug store after meeting with the local doctor and finding out that he may be sterile, which strips him of his selfhood by denying him the ability to reproduce, leading to a downward spiral that eventually culminates in murder. In this scene, Sirk overloads the frame with symbols that, along with the swelling music, magnify Kyle's distraught emotions to ludicrous heights. First, he walks past dozens of signs proclaiming "Buy Quality Drugs Here," reminding us that Kyle's sexuality is unfit and must be aided by modern medicine. Then, in the coup de grace, outside the store he sees a little boy gleefully bouncing up and down on a mechanical horse, bringing to mind both childhood and sexual activity, two things that, for Kyle, are forever destroyed. It is one of the most overdetermined moments in Sirk's entire oeuvre.

Sirk also employs architecture to convey emotional states, especially his use of the Hadley family estate. Although large and beautiful, it is also cold and empty, with cavernous open spaces and marble floors and walls that don't invite feelings of familial love and togetherness, but rather of isolation and despair. He also conveys an implicit critique of the Hadley Oil Company's having taken over the small town of Hadley, Texas (named, we assume, for the family, not the other way around) by constantly including its corporate logo everywhere, from the sides of buildings, to car doors, to billboards. The opening shots of the film show how the Hadley Oil Company dominates the town visually, with endless rows of phallic oil towers and the enormous corporate skyscraper that is three times taller than any other building. The Hadleys are everywhere, yet emotionally and spiritually they are nowhere.

In a study of Dostoyevsky and Gogol, Yuri Tynyanov wrote, "When stylisation is strongly marked, it becomes parody." As Paul Willemen pointed out in his excellent 1971 article "Distanciation and Douglas Sirk" (an early attempt to recuperate Sirk's career), this is particularly applicable to many of Sirk's films, especially Written on the Wind. From its overuse of cliches, to its overwrought baroque color scheme, to its hysterical narrative and exploitation of uncomfortable subject matter, it is a twisted masterpiece of self-parody. Although not for every taste, Written on the Wind forces a response, whether that be pouring tears or outright laughter. It is a film that cannot be ignored.

Written on the Wind: Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.77:1
AnamorphicYes
Audio Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesEnglish
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements "The Melodrama Archive": annotated filmography of director Douglas Sirk illustrated with hundreds of production stills and lobby cards
Original theatrical trailers for Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision
SRP$29.95

VIDEO
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.77:1) in a high-definition transfer from the 35mm interpositive, the gorgeously baroque images in Written on the Wind look stunning. The gaudy Technicolor palette is beautifully rendered, with deep, rich, well-saturated colors that still look fresh and new. Amazingly enough, despite the heavy use of stark reds and pinks throughout, there is no bleeding to be found. Some sequences are slightly softer than others, but overall the picture is sharp and finely detailed. There are almost no instances of dirt or scratches, although the reel markers are still very noticeable.

AUDIO
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack sounds very good, as well, with almost no hiss, distortion, or age-induced artifacts. Dialogue is mostly clear and easy to understand, and Frank Skinner's wildly eclectic musical score--which ranges from sudsy music typical of '50s melodramas to thumping chords reminiscent of a horror movie--sounds wonderful.

SUPPLEMENTS
"The Melodrama Archive" is a well-written annotated filmography of Sirk's career, based largely on books such as Barbara Klinger's Melodrama and Meaning and John Halladay's Sirk on Sirk. It is divided into three periods of Sirk's career: his work in Germany in the 1930s, his work in America in the 1940s, and his work with Universal-International in the 1950s. It offers plot summaries and brief critical notes on all his films (including some trivia tidbits such as the fact that one of Sirk's films inspired the plot of John Woo's The Killer and where to look for cast members from Gilligan's Island), as well as hundreds of black-and-white production stills and color lobby cards.

Also included are original theatrical trailers for Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows (also available on DVD from The Criterion Collection), both of which are presented in nonanamorphic widescreen.

Overall Rating: (3.5)




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