Written on the Wind (1956), now issued on Blu-ray from Criterion, belongs to the string of over-wrought soap operas directed by Douglas Sirk at Universal during the last half of the 1950s. Several of these films, including this one, starred Rock Hudson and cleaned up at the box office. Most American critics tended to sneer while the people involved nursed their hurt feelings all the way to the bank. Today’s critics feel rather differently.
Written on the Wind is a tale told in flashback. The opening sequence strings together a series of wide shots in which a lone yellow roadster speeds along otherwise empty roads through a variety of bleak industrial settings, almost a deserted or devastated landscape. The name Hadley Oilco is seen in lights near the top of one prominent tower, and there will be many prominent towers and derricks and oil pumps. The man we’ll know as Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) drives the open convertible, booze bottle in hand.
Alerted by the roaring motor and the screeches of its tires as it speeds around corners, the inhabitants of a white mansion are roused to come to their curtained windows, in which the interior light is shadowed by exterior blue leaves and branches. The editor adopts the technique of running the image forward and backward to extend the effect of the flailing leaves. As each person shows his or her face, the credits identify the actor. Meanwhile, the Four Aces sing the title song, a piece of lush sap that remains a non-classic but fits the era and soporifically counterpoints the excitement.
As Mitch Wayne, Rock Hudson looks with concern out a window. As Kyle’s wife Lucy, Lauren Bacall rouses on her bed only to droop with exhaustion. Stack is billed next as Kyle totters into the house, followed by the dry leaves. As his sister Marylee, Dorothy Malone comes to her window, showing the wide eyes and lips that she’ll manipulate throughout a highly mannered performance that will snag her an Oscar.
As credits and song reach their climax, a shot rings out. Kyle, holding a gun, staggers outdoors and collapses. Lucy has reached her window and, turning back to the room, she too loses consciousness. The camera lets her drop out of sight and glides forward to the page of the desk calendar showing 6 November 1956. The same wind upon which everything is written is billowing the curtains and starts turning the calendar pages.
One momentary montage later and we’ve arrived at 24 October 1954. Lucy, whom we still can’t help thinking of as Lauren Bacall since we don’t know the character’s name and because of those eyebrows and cheekbones, stands in a chic office with mock-ups of magazine covers. The image is not unlike how audiences would soon see her in Vincente Minnelli‘s Designing Woman (1957), to give an example of how one film speaks to another.
Lucy is somebody or other’s recently hired executive secretary and has a background in one of the top advertising firms, as per very chic ’50s careers. Mitch enters and introduces himself as they embark upon the first of the film’s long series of dry, wry, sophisticated, ironic, highball-ready conversations that Marylee will call “smart talk” when she tells Mitch she can think of something better to do. That’s the future, though they don’t know the future is already past.
Mitch drags Lucy to a “business lunch” at 21 Club, the snazzy Manhattan eatery. Kyle has flown himself and best childhood buddy Mitch, literally his wingman, up from Texas for the occasion. More brittle clever dialogue ensues intended to convey that both men have fallen for Lucy at first sight. If it seems unlikely, that’s where casting is important. Did we mention the eyebrows?
Before we know what’s hitting us (or who’s hitting on us), Kyle is flying them to Miami for a dip in the ocean, evidently because they have ocean down there. In the air, he’s surprisingly serious and candid about his self-hating regrets as the problematic scion of a Texas oil millionaire who likes Mitch better. (More interfilm commentary: this same year, Hudson plays the Texas oil millionaire in George Stevens’ Giant.)
At one point, the characters exclaim that they’re flying over North Carolina. This seems underlined gratuitously, and it may be the film’s only signal that Robert Wilder’s 1946 source novel is based on a real-life scandal involving an R.J. Reynolds tobacco heir who was shot under mysterious circumstances.
Apparently, the Reynolds family was still prepared to sue, so writer George Zuckerman and producer Albert Zugsmith carefully altered enough details to obscure the issue. The ’50s were fairly loaded with films based on famous novels and scandals, from A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951) to Peyton Place (Mark Robson, 1957). If a bestseller existed, Hollywood felt justified in filming it, no much how much they had to change to satisfy censors. It never stopped them from selling the films as “frank” and “bold”.
To review: We have the oil industry, millionaires, sleek cars, Madison Avenue, career women (until marriage), and airplanes – all high signs of the decade. Most of all, we have sexual problems, handled “frankly”. The wealthy Hadley siblings, both self-hating alcoholics, are presented as a mess, with Mitch and Lucy struggling to keep up.
Pouting and rolling her orbs, Marylee is a “tramp” who “picks up” hunks all over town and drives them to motels, from which she’s escorted by police. By the way, the town is named Hadley. She can’t have any liaisons without somebody calling somebody to intercept it, and she does this deliberately. We’re told repeatedly by herself that her motive isn’t frustration at being boxed in by this claustrophobic gilded cage but simply because she can’t “have” (a frequent euphemism) the man she really wants: Mitch.
Mitch avows that he loves her “like a sister”, and he practically breaks into a sweat and starts gripping things when anyone hints it’s about time he got married. Marylee accuses him of being “stolen” by her brother, for he’s always devoted his time and attention to Kyle. The plot spells out bluntly that Mitch is in love with his best friend’s wife, but modern viewers can hardly avoid paying attention to casting and subtexts that dare not speak their name. Mitch wants to flee to Iran because Kyle’s marriage is the end of a beautiful friendship.
Kyle is infinitely more neurotic. Conscious of his father’s desire that some of Mitch’s qualities should “rub off” on him, he’s always felt inferior to Mitch, who can do all manly things better than he can. That includes whaling the tar out of some violent sleaze (John Larch) who’s cruising Marylee so she can watch the fireworks. It also includes the general manipulation of firearms.
Oh lord, are there guns in this film. A drinking game to send you under the table would be noting how many men show off their shooting irons in a wide variety of contexts. When Lucy discovers Kyle’s gun under his pillow, it’s a dainty pearl-handled pistol of a type commonly called a “ladies’ gun.” Hmm. Next come the moments when men threaten to kill each other, always in a context of sexual territory; I counted five.
All this is relevant because Kyle’s crisis is defined as believing he can’t father a child, for all the airplanes he flies and the money he spends as compensation. “You’re not sterile,” says his doctor (Edward Platt), but he’s detected a certain “weakness” to be addressed. “Weakness” is the only word Kyle can process before he stumbles outdoors to a little boy riding a mechanical horse, the horror all duly underlined by Frank Skinner’s score. That’s the type of over-the-top visual punchline loved by Sirkians. Such moments obscure the fact that he’s subtler than we think before we start examining things minutely.
Also in the film are Robert Keith as the surprisingly puny Hadley paterfamilias, Grant Williams of the masculinity-crisis The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957) as the gas jockey who informs old Hadley that “your daughter’s a tramp”, Robert J. Wilke as the bartender whose gun “has a hair trigger”, Harry Shannon as Mitch’s elderly father who gets a new rifle, William Schallert as a slick reporter, and Maidie Norman as the maid Bertha. Even her name is a significant detail in a film alluding to baby-making.
As was common for actors who played domestics, Norman’s personal achievements are much more notable than her role suggests. Sirk’s casting department used a keen eye for populating the film with several African Americans at the service of white neurotics, often serving alcohol to aid their dissolution. Truly, the primary function of most of the black characters is to keep the white characters drunk.
This summary avoids the really crazy stuff so you can let it come upon you. We’ll note only that when the opening scenes come around again, Kyle’s last words are about going “to the river” and waiting there. He refers to a literal river that we’ve seen, to the river of childhood that can’t be revisited, and probably to the shores of the afterlife, like Jordan or the Lethe, where he’ll meet the other characters eventually. The final image is of the prison-like bars of the gate shutting on the estate whose servants are the last people we see. They need to go serve more drinks.
As stated, audiences ate this up and the Academy noticed. Not only did Malone get her first Oscar but Stack was also nominated, as was the title song. Sirk reunited most of the cast and crew for a personal project, The Tarnished Angels (1958). This overlooked film is among his greatest, and its reshuffling of similar elements (Stack as pilot, Malone as reputed “tramp”, a boy riding a mechanical toy) makes for a fascinating comparison.
Criterion’s Blu-ray of Written on the Wind presents a 2K digital restoration along with a new analysis from film scholar Patricia White and a 2008 short with archival interviews of Sirk, Hudson, Stack, Malone, and Zugsmith.