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Written on the Wind: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, Lauren Bacall,
and Robert Stack

Written by George Zuckerman,
from the novel by Robert Wilder

Directed by Douglas Sirk

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

"A whole picture which I kind of liked was Written on the Wind. It's a kind of surrealism. The people are heightened versions of reality — not realistic characters. Above all in its lighting and colors it is a non-realistic film. Fassbinder wrote a very perceptive thing about my style — he spoke of the craziness of my lighting. He points out that my lighting is never realistic, almost never from where the real light source would be. I was pleased that he saw that. Remember, Written on the Wind is basically one set. With Written on the Wind I had even more opportunity to furnish rooms and interiors lavishly. The studio expected it. But I determined to do the opposite. The material, I decided, is poster material, with a flat, simple lighting that concentrates the effects. It's a kind of expressionism, of course, like Wedekind, or late Strindberg, or early Brecht. And I avoid what a painter might call the sentimental colors — pale or soft colors. Here I paint in primary colors — like Kirchner or Nolde, for example. Or even like Miró. I have the flashing red of a car and I want that to be just as red as possible."

— Douglas Sirk, talking to James Harvey in Film Comment, 1978

"I have seen Written on the Wind a thousand times. And I cannot wait to see it again."

— Pedro Almódovar

Douglas Sirk is an auteurism acid test.

The German-born Danish film director — who in the 1950s specialized in so-called "tear jerkers" — on the surface seemed, for many years, to be a typical Hollywood hack who did nothing more than dish out formula product. But French critics, with Andrew Sarris following suit, detected in his work a subversive stance of ironic distance and satire. Many British critics of the '70s carried forward the torch of critical rehabilitation , followed by the feminist critics who saw Sirk as honoring the hidden strength of his female leads. Investigations by said critics into Sirk's early years (when he was known as Hans Detlev Sierk) revealed that the director had a long career in German theater before the war, mounting sharply expressionist and modernist adaptations of Chekov and Brecht — two playwrights who influenced his take on American life in the '50s. Finally, Sirk's films were taken up by the German New Cinema. Werner Rainier Fassbinder was deeply influenced by Sirk's blinding palette and chessboard staging, and most of all his fearlessness at blending irrealism and emotionalism.

Critics also see Douglas Sirk as a director who confronted placid and unsuspecting Eisenhower-era Americans with the emptiness of their values, sneaking it up on them via the Trojan Horse of melodrama. But there's one thing these critics fail to realize about their thesis — it's sheer bunkum. Sirk the subversive? Sirk's satire on American manners is as subtle as his color schemes or Rock Hudson semi-truck shoulders. Were '50s audiences really so dense as not to see that Sirk's films were critical takes on aspects of modern life? And were the '50s so repressive that films weren't allowed to protest contemporary conditions, forcing Sirk to go subterranean with his critical views? I doubt it.

The best illustration of Sirk's absolute clarity of purpose is seen in another of his films also in DVD release from Criterion, All that Heaven Allows (1955). In a key scene from that film, Jane Wyman's widowed Cary Scott has a television delivered unto her by her wretched offspring. One of the great things about Sirk is how much he hates kids, or to put it differently, how he sees through the cult of angelic childhood. Sirk is quoted as saying that "Children are usually put into pictures right at the end, to show that a new generation is coming up. In my films I want to show exactly the opposite: I think it is the tragedies that are starting over again". As Cary Scott's children basically write her off by farming her out to that great electronic babysitter to the aged and lonely, Cary's shadowy face is shown reflected in its green tube, as with great pomp and circumstance the appliance salesman brags "Comedy ... drama ... life's parade at your fingertips." The scene doesn't require a feminist film critic for complete understanding.

However, it is true that Sirk threatens cinematic excess at every juncture as, in Written on the Wind (1956), he tells the complex ,"Dallas"-style story of Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), lower-class caretaker to the scion of a wealthy Texas oil family, the alcoholic Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack). Kyle treats Mitch as a servant (Mitch, he says is "eccentric. He's poor"). Meanwhile all the women around Mitch secretly love him: Kyle's nympho sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone, who won a supporting actor Oscar for her performance), and even Kyle's new bride, the prim and competent Lucy Moore (Lauren Becall). Everyone wants Mitch, including, it seems, Kyle. It turns out that Kyle has a little trouble in the sack, and a doctor rashly tells him he's impotent, which sends the already lugubrious oilman deeper into the bottle. But Kyle's panic when Lucy does indeed become pregnant betrays a larger insecurity, or willful blindness, on his part to the cause of his sexual dysfunction. Love-hate tensions rise between Mitch and Kyle, and Kyle and everyone else, until the film ends where it begins, with a shoot-out at the wind-swept Hadley manse. Yes, Written on the Wind is just your typical '50s film about wealth, alcoholism, nymphomania, impotence, suicide, incest, and homosexuality, introduced with a lush and non-melodic Sammy Cahn song rendered by the Four Aces.

*          *          *

Wild, comical, even at times hysterical. But is Written on the Wind subversive? After the lurid opening, in which Kyle in a sports car races through the grim oil fields of the Hadley empire with bottle in hand, and bursts into the mansion where Marylee watches all through a window with key lighting illuminating only her eyes, all enacted to the strings and Caucasian harmonies of the theme song, the film settles down to tell a frank tale of small town intrigue, not unlike "Peyton Place" — indeed, not unlike George Stevens' Giant (1956), the other big oil-family film at the time. Though Sirk's picture is hailed in today's cinema quarterlies as a great satiric poke in the placid '50s eyeball, at the time of its release it was charged with bringing an unwanted frankness and honesty about intimate relations to the screen — which no doubt was the source of its great popularity.

Sirk (who died in 1987) may not always be subtle, but he is always brilliant. It's possible to isolate just what made him brilliant by comparing Written on the Wind to another Texas family drama, Vincente Minnelli's Home from the Hill (1960), adapted from William Humphrey's novel. Minnelli — who, like Cukor, is one of the most overrated studio technicians in film history — is credited with many of the qualities that Sirk brought to his films, but he fails to achieve a satirical distance from the material that Sirk is so lauded for evincing. Home from the Hill is a family drama with Robert Mitchum as a lovable rogue patriarch and George Peppard and George Hamilton as his two sons, official and otherwise, masculine and otherwise. Visually, Minnelli's style is flat and overpopulated without being full, and he fails to integrate the bad acting of the two Georges into the Female Weepy template, probably because he takes to it much too campily. And one thing we can say about Sirk's melodramas is that there was never any genuinely bad acting in them. As Sirk has said, he could have made a much more lush movie out of Written on the Wind, but he intentionally kept the film spare and underpopulated. Ultimately, Sirk confronts his material head-on and his attitude to American culture is always clear (and much more subtle than it seems), while Minnelli is the subversive director, hiding what is primarily a gay text within a popular drama. Sirk's film is a model of what Andrew Sarris called his "formal excellence and visual wit."

The auteurist acid test for Sirk is not so much how he subverted the pop-culture material that he was "forced" to direct, but how he managed to consistently and creatively, over a surprisingly long career, enliven his films visually without necessarily looking down on them viciously. Going back to the source that started the whole Sirk craze, Sarris writes in The American Cinema that "Sirk requires no extreme rationalization, and his films require no elaborate defense. The evidence of his style is visible on the screen." In other words, it's possible to enjoy Sirk's films for what they are — very well put together and supremely witty satires.

*          *          *

Criterion's DVD edition of Written on the Wind offers a clean, colorful anamorphic transfer (1.77:1) mastered from the 35mm interpositive. Audio is Dolby Digital 1.0, derived from the 35mm three-track magnetic audio master, and English subtitles are available. Supplements include the theatrical trailers for Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows, and liner notes by film theorist Laura Mulvey, which gives a brisk summary of the director and his place in history. The most extensive supplement is a slide show entitled "The Melodrama Archive," an annotated and illustrated filmography of Sirk's career that admirably doesn't shirk detail. However, the disc might have benefited from an audio commentary track by either Jon Halliday — who published an important interview book with Sirk and later became the director's friend and creative collaborator — or Michael Stern, who is equally subtle in his appreciation of the Sirk canon. But barring that extra mile of attention, the DVD still venerates an important director — one who was quite possibly the smartest man ever to hit Hollywood.

— D. K. Holm

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