Written On the Wind (U.S, 1956)
Director: – Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: – George Zuckerman, Robert Wilder (based on his novel)
Starring: Rock Hudson (Mitch Wayne), Lauren Bacall (Lucy Moore), Robert Stacks (Kyle Hadley) and Dorothy Malone (Marylee Hadley).
“Are you looking for laughs or are you soul-searching?” asks Mitch Wayne to Lucy Moore in the beginning of the movie. The question seems to be thrown at us-the audience. Is the film a satire mocking the genre or is it uncompromisingly flamboyant in its treatment? I still don’t know the correct answer. Maybe it’s both. (Film critic Roger Ebert makes a compelling argument for it being a satire in his review)
The best thing about the romantic melodrama “Written on the Wind” is that it sprints relentlessly right from the start, and it seems not to care whether we buy its contrived plot or not. It makes no effort to pretend that the world it shows or the characters that inhabit it are ‘real’. Rather, it seems to be playful of this fact. The lack of effort to hide the artificiality of the set is evident everywhere, especially through the use of bright colors. Douglas Sirk loved to open his movie by introducing the major players along with the credits. He did the same in his next film “The Tarnished Angels”, also starring Hudson, Stacks and Malone.
The movie begins with an over the top scene, where we see a drunk Kyle Hadley driving his bright yellow colored car (Allard J2X Le Mans), with leaves flowing all across the frame indicating an impending storm as the title song by “The Four Aces” plays in the background .The movie then goes back a year, as we see Mitch as an employee of Hadley Oil Company meeting Lucy Moore, an executive assistant of an advertising company that works for the Hadley’s. Eventually Mitch takes Lucy to meet Kyle in a restaurant. Kyle is floored by Lucy from the outset and tries every move on her that he can think of. Lucy, even though doesn’t seem to be much impressed, tends to go along with it. Mitch all these time, has supposedly fallen for Lucy as well, and responsibly follows her and Kyle to the private plane. As Kyle takes her to his private plane, he opens up in front of her almost mechanically, talking about how he and his sister Marylee along with their dead uncle were the black sheep of the family, and how Mitch-the son of his father’s legendary hunter friend-was the good son that his father always wanted to have. We later come to know that this conversation makes Lucy fall for Kyle but it never seems really convincing. Later on, when she deserts Kyle in Miami to go back home, Kyle manages to persuade her that his feelings for her is genuine and eventually they end up getting married.
As the film proceeds and we are introduced to the promiscuous Marylee, we realize that the film is actually about the siblings, who as kids were in love with Mitch and probably still are. Kyle’s love for Mitch is more subtle than that of Marylee. Even though, Kyle and Marylee are grown up now, they are still the same kids at heart who used to play together by the lake with Mitch. They are rich spoiled kids pretending to be grownups. As a result, they are the characters who are the most interesting ones and also the ones who we feel more sympathy for. It can be argued whether Kyle would have been a disappointed alcoholic or Marylee the way she is now if Mitch wasn’t in their life.
As several things happen along the way, Sirk makes things interesting by placing a gun just about everywhere -under the pillow, inside the drawers of the study or hidden in the bookshelf.
As far as performances go, I wasn’t particularly impressed by Rock Hudson. Except for a few scenes, he plays the character of Mitch Wayne mostly single note. Lauren Bacall is really good especially in her earlier interactions with Robert Stacks. You can’t help yourself from smiling when she drops the line” “Don’t look now, but you’ve dropped your friend.” with an effortless ease of a pro. Bacall had the quality of bringing depth to her character even if it doesn’t seem to be provided by the plot. Bacall’s Lucy seems to know more than she says. Like how she stumps her father in law by asking him whether he considers her a gold-digger or when she tells Mitch that even though she didn’t like Kyle to begin with, she decided to go along only because she couldn’t resist being tempted by the adventure like situation. Robert Stacks is superb too as the alcoholic insecure Kyle, but the film belongs to Dorothy Malone (in her Academy Award winning role). She is a revelation here. While unashamedly seducing Mitch or smiling nonchalantly at the consequences of her actions, Malone brings the child like impulsiveness of her character to the fore. The final scene alone, in which she confesses the truth in front of the judge before intending to do otherwise is a testament to her brilliance.
In the end, we hardly feel upbeat as the film draws on to its supposedly happy conclusion. The Hadleys weren’t really bad people but their riches weren’t enough to overcome their failure in their personal lives.
This post is part of the Lauren Bacall Blogathon hosted by the amazing Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.