Written on the Wind
Director: Douglas Sirk
Starring: Lauren Bacall, Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone
I’m not a big fan of melodrama. I find them sappy, dull, ridiculously manipulative, and tiresome. So imagine my surprise when I rewatched Written on the Wind, only one of the most renowned filmed melodramas of all time, and thoroughly enjoyed myself in the process. The reason for this is undoubtedly Douglas Sirk, King of the Melodrama. Sirk’s approach to the genre is unique, biting, intense, many-layered, and interesting. There’s a helluva lot going on in Written on the Wind beyond the narrative, and I really appreciate that.
The ridiculously soapy plot centers on a quartet of characters. We open with Lucy (Bacall), a working gal, who gets selected by Mitch Wayne (Hudson) to be the next plaything for his lifelong friend Kyle Hadley (Stack), heir to an oil fortune. Kyle is an alcoholic and outrageous wild child; Mitch is quiet, reserved, responsible, and practically an adopted member of the Hadley family despite his poor financial status. Lucy balks at Kyle’s attempts to woo her with fortune, which makes Mitch like her, but also makes Kyle like her even more. Kyle and Lucy impulsively wed and she tries to reform him. When they meet the last member of the quartet, Kyle’s kid sister Marylee (Malone), another wild child who has harbored a lifelong love for Mitch, Marylee’s antics and Kyle’s paranoia and insecurities soon start to pull everything apart.
I’ll deal with the narrative first. This movie is Over The Top – the capitalization is required. Don’t think too hard about how Kyle and Lucy’s courtship is so damn short and wait, I thought she didn’t like him, and holy cow, that’s a cheesy line he threw her way. It’s just a prelude to getting all four of our main characters under the same roof. Once Marylee enters the picture, you start to understand the definition of “full tilt,” because that’s how Sirk plays it. This is not about believability, ladies and gentlemen. This movie spins with the same giddy energy of film noir, where everything is dark and dank and evil and shady. In noir, that energy drives the story of crime and desperation. Here, the energy crackles throughout the story keeping the volatility sky high. I usually grow tired of melodramas as I find them tedious. I would hardly call Written on the Wind tedious.
And yet, through his utterly ridiculous story of greed and paranoia and infertility and power, Sirk manages to make a very clear social statement. Written on the Wind is a fairly searing indictment of the follies of the wealthy; despite their riches, the Hadleys are deeply troubled, mostly through their seeking of power or constantly needing to validate their own power. Kyle is deeply insecure and, it is implied, impotent. He has a lengthy discussion with Lucy at the beginning of the film that focuses mostly on Mitch, and Sirk is constantly implying that it is Mitch that wields the real power in this relationship, and for all of Kyle’s braggadocio, he is painfully aware of how small he really is. Marylee is a nymphomaniac who throws her cooch all over town, except when she’s aggressively pursuing the one man she really wants – Mitch. Again, it is Mitch who holds the power; he is the only one who could get Marylee to do something. Kyle and Marylee together do not react well to their lack of control, their lack of power, and they lash out in harmful and self-destructive ways. These are the rich, according to Sirk.
Sirk also freely uses symbolism throughout the film. Lucy and Mitch, who hail from the middle class and are steady and responsible (and also, frankly, boring), are constantly dressed in neutrals – browns, greys, and tans (even a rather ridiculous beige baseball cap worn by Rock Hudson pops up). Kyle and Marylee, on the other hand, are costumed in bright colors that radiate off the screen thanks to the Technicolor production. Guns are surprisingly frequent, given that this is a “weepy woman’s picture” about the melodrama of a rich family. A clear representation of both power and violence, Kyle is paranoid as he makes certain he is constantly surrounded by guns although he rarely, if ever, wields one himself. Mirrors are abundant throughout the sets, something common to Sirk’s films. “The mirror is the imitation of life. What is interesting about a mirror is that it does not show yourself as you are, it shows you your own opposite,” quoting the director himself. That is precisely what we have here. The mirrors are representing a façade – perhaps the one we want to present to the world, perhaps the one we show to ourselves, perhaps the one others see. But they do not represent truth, merely a weakly reflected version of it. The color red is positively everywhere in Written on the Wind (except for the clothing of Lucy and Mitch). Chairs are red, bedspreads are red, cars are red, the stairs are red. Red flowers are in nearly every scene involving the wealthy, perhaps signifying their passion and violence and uncontrolled emotions. Red represents danger, or signs to stop. Lastly, the film is chockablock full of phallic imagery. That’s no mistake that Sirk placed red Anthurium flowers in Marylee’s room – the dang things are more than slightly provocative. The ending – Marylee literally fondling a statue of an oil well, which looks like a… well, you know… couldn’t be much clearer. Kyle’s infertility and implied impotence is given additional heft by these constant references.
It’s a little surprising that, given the cast includes Bacall, Hudson, and Stack, the one actor with whom I am least familiar is the one who captivated me the most. Dorothy Malone rightly won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Marylee. Marylee is full-on unhinged, and Malone does not hold back in getting that across. She likes fucking and looks like she doesn’t do it nicely. She’s conniving and mean-spirited and is not above threatening imprisonment and general ruination in order to get her way. Given Marylee’s sexual impropriety and Kyle’s impotence, there’s more than a bit of a hint of an incestuous past between the two. Malone is tremendously fun to watch here.
My first pass through this film, it barely registered. I watched it then promptly forgot it. I was not intrigued to watch it again, but it was playing on Turner Classic, so I thought “what the heck.” Everyone always made such a fuss about Douglas Sirk, that even though I had never noticed a dang thing about his movies, I owed it another shot. I always think a movie deserves a second shot – I never make up my mind about a movie until at least twice through a picture. For Written on the Wind, I’m not sure why I forgot it the first time around. There’s a lot here. For “just a melodrama,” this is a surprisingly dense film. Sirk was not merely throwing random lines or images or characters on the screen. There is meaning here. There are layers. I’m fascinated by that, and to find it in a melodrama is unexpected – and refreshing.
And heck, if all you want is a soapy story, Written on the Wind will fit that bill as well. Because honestly, it doesn’t get much more ridiculously soapy than this, and I found that tremendously entertaining.
Final verdict: soapy, trashy fun with all kinds of subversive meanings. And editing to add - in the weeks since I saw this for a second time, I keep on thinking back to it fondly. The more I think about this movie, the more I like it. REALLY like it. Want-to-own-it sort of like it. And believe you me, I was not expecting to enjoy it that much when I put it on for a second viewing.
Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10