Friday, August 26, 2016

Written on the Wind (1956)

Grand, melodramatic, colorful, and supremely entertaining, Written on the Wind in many ways seems like the definitive Douglas Sirk movie. The film oozes with melodrama to the point where you might question Sirk's sincerity, and its story doesn't feel as rooted in the 1950s as Sirk's most popular film, All that Heaven Allows, does. While the latter is certainly pretty great, its reliance on social issues for much of its dramatic weight makes it feel too of a time rather than timeless.

Written on the Wind, released a year after Heaven, fits within a grander tradition of storytelling, rife with portentous notions about family, friendship, honor, and jealousy, honesty, deception, expectation, fulfillment, disappointment, love, and the complex neuroses weigh down people with that much on their shoulders. I list these items with no intention of describing any of them in depth. The film, honestly, doesn't afford the viewer much opportunity to do so. It's aware that these themes are embedded in the narrative, and it's also aware that it doesn't really address them in any complicated way. It sounds like an epic, but at only 100 minutes, it's actually not interested in being one.

The movie opens with an impromptu trip to New York by Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) and Mitch Wayne (Sirk regular Rock Hudson). One's a alcoholic playboy and heir to a lucrative oil business, and the other his longtime chum and geologist for the business. One's reckless, the other responsible, and the former gets the girl the latter secretly admires, Lucy, an executive secretary played by Lauren Bacall. Despite her fairly distinguished position in New York, Lucy envisions settling down with a husband and kids, and describes herself at the beginning as a "soul searcher." Though she recognizes that Kyle is deeply problematic, the fact that he seems to see in Lucy an opportunity to change his ways and settle down indicates to her that this could be a mutually beneficial relationship.

After the film's lengthy opening bit, we skip ahead five weeks where Kyle and Lucy are now married, while Mitch saunters in the background, resentful from his secret love for Lucy and the fact that he did not act upon it as quickly as his friend did. At this point we're introduced the fourth major player in the film, Kyle's sister maniacal sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone). Cut from the same cloth as her brother, Marylee drinks too much, has serious daddy issues, and is both obsessed with and incapable of getting Mitch to fall in love with her. Her self-destructive behavior is both a cause and a result of her loneliness, and I'm reminded of a line from a certain song, "I drink 'cause I'm lonesome and I'm lonesome 'cause I drink." She also, as the plot progresses into something that borders on pulp, displays attributes of a Shakespearian menace, a little Iago here, a little Lady Macbeth there.

Like all of his 1950s melodramas, Sirk brings his trademark ornate visual style, loaded with artificial autumnal exteriors and intensely lit interiors full of blues and reds. But it's not simply Sirk's sense of production design and lighting that makes him such a memorable stylist, but also his ability to put together a memorable sequence. What happens in a Douglas Sirk movie is always dramatic, but how it happens is the reason he's so intoxicating. Take the scene in this film when Marylee returns from a reckless night out with a gas-station attendant which results in the police taking her home. She goes straight up to her room, puts on a silky red gown, blasts music from her record player, and starts to dance. Her father has just become fully aware of the sexual deviant his daughter really is, and when he hears the loud music from upstairs he decides he must confront her. Sirk intercuts Marylee dancing intensely in her room--like she's under some sort of spell--with her father moving up the stairs towards her room. Sirk frames Marylee from the waste down as she dances, like she's some sort of firestorm, crazed, not quite human. We finally see her face as she collapses in a chair, laughing gleefully, and at the same time her father also collapses down the stairs, dead from a heart attack. It's a sequence that's just as energetic as it is tragic. We see Marylee even more deranged than we'd seen her previously because now her father is fully cognizant of and forced to grapple with the degree of her promiscuity.

One aspect of the film I still have trouble with is the level of sincerity with which Sirk approaches this story. If you read Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay on the film, you'll find he spends much of it talking about Sirk's subversive approach to the material and the irony that pervades it. It certainly makes sense given Sirk's disdain for the cultural norms of the time coupled with just how serious a lot of the so called "great works" of the 1950s really were. But at the same time I still find in his films-even this one-a decent commitment to the characters' psychology, an attempt at capturing something like real emotion amidst the trashiness of it all. However, I think it'd be a mistake to read the film as somehow both sincere and ironic. It's one or the other, and I suppose the beauty of it is that both viewpoints work. When you consider the aforementioned "themes" of the movie you can't help but snicker a little. But at the same time the movie approaches them, however shallowly, with a genuine sense of emotion.

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