Saturday, September 25, 2010

Written on the Wind (1956) - #96

Are you looking for laughs? Or are you soul-searching?

Among the directors with enough films in the Criterion Collection to be considered "featured auteurs," Douglas Sirk is rare in that the titles chosen for inclusion all come from the period of his artistic and personal maturity. Usually, it's just the opposite, with a director's early "breakthrough" films representing their work, typically capturing them at their edgiest and least concerned with mainstream commercial considerations. It doesn't always mean that a director's first film are their best - sometimes, they're just the easiest and most affordable for Criterion to license from the studios that control the rights. But those seminal features made by bold, sometimes desperate young artists eager to express and establish themselves often do make the biggest impact on culture and cinematic history. But in the case of Written on the Wind, I'm glad that this late-career production made the cut - Sirk only made five more feature length films after this one, retiring from Hollywood before the end of the 1950s, even though he lived for another 30 years after Written on the Wind was released. Just following the trajectory established by the two films I've reviewed here that preceded it - Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows - I can see why Sirk might have figured it was time to put down the megaphone and turn over the director's chair to younger talents. Though his technical mastery and flawless compositions burst through the screen in shot after shot, the pot-boiling elements required to keep his next movie from topping the last one probably became too hard to manage in a way that allowed Sirk to maintain his artistic dignity and self-respect.

Even if Written on the Wind seems likely to be the last (chronologically) of Sirk's films that Criterion will release, the DVD makes a great introduction to his work, primarily because of the Melodrama Archives supplemental feature included on the disk. It's an extensive photo essay that tracks the progress of Sirk's career, which began in 1920s German cinema, reminding us that even though his most famous 1950s films function as nearly unsurpassed icons of that era in America, Sirk was first and foremost a highly cultured European filmmaker whose life experience and perspective gave him a unique perspective from which to chronicle the age. The overview provided by the Melodrama Archives leads me to wonder if an Eclipse Series entry of his earlier works would ever be arranged. I'd be very interested in that set!

Written on the Wind shifts the attention that Sirk gave to proper, upper middle-class heroines (played in both Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows by uber-dignified 50s female archetype Jane Wyman) to the sleazy and scandalous exploits afflicting a particularly wealthy Texas oil family, the Hadleys. The patriarch, Jasper Hadley, is a widower who plays just a bit part in this saga that focuses more on the psychic torments suffered by his two adult offspring, brother Kyle and sister Marylee. Indulging and reinforcing the common bourgeois notions that limitless, unearned wealth is as much a source of suffering as it is a blessing and privilege, Kyle and Marylee both seem to have arrived at a point of cataclysmic crisis in their personal lives as Written on the Wind's story unfolds. The action begins with a bang, as a speeding exotic convertible roars across the screen through a twilight landscape populated by oil derricks. (I was immediately reminded of the racing speedboat that opened Magnificent Obsession.) A wild man driver chugs bootleg whiskey straight from the bottle as he swerves into the driveway of a stately, gorgeous mansion, exits the car, smashes the bottle and staggers inside. Blowing leaves - a confrontation - a gunshot - a body falls. A powerful breeze flips the pages of a daily calendar... backwards!... and we're led to that point of time, a year earlier, where destinies were altered through a seemingly innocent but fateful meeting in an swanky bar in Manhattan.

The meeting is part of an extravagant ruse concocted by Kyle (Robert Stack) and his sidekick Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), a friend since boyhood, to meet Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), a sharp secretary to one of Hadley Industry's upper executives. Mitch basically cons Lucy into meeting Kyle, who appears to have never met a woman of substance before, the way he barrages her with self-aggrandizing pick-up lines and flaunts his wealth through embarrassingly generous gifts. Understandably put off at first by Kyle's over-eager relational power-moves, Lucy eventually succumbs to the pressure. She's curious to see where the adventure will lead, agreeing to marry him despite learning early on, by his own admission, that Kyle drinks too much and frequently puts everyone around him through the wringer of his erratic mood swings.

Meanwhile, Mitch diligently sticks to his underling role in Kyle's world, a competent enabler that allows the millionaire playboy to function despite the increasingly turbulent, even violent, scrapes that Kyle keeps falling into. Even though the flush of a new marriage has kept him on the wagon for a short while, Kyle's anxiety over the scandalous behavior of his manic nymphoid sister Marylee and the persistent underlying insecurities of being a big man's son who can never measure up push him back to the comforts he finds in the "raw corn" he buys under the counter at the local bar. Though the world's finest Scotch and other liquors are always at his disposal, there's something about that rotgut moonshine that hits the spot for Kyle.

As for Marylee, she has a basket case full of her own torments that drive her into the arms of any good time Charlie who crosses her path whenever she's in the mood. Kyle and her dad are powerless to stop her, though Mitch might have the key, if only he'd give in to her perpetually lusty come-ons. But having grown up with her all his life, he can't get past the sense of her being more of a kid sister than the lover that she, and husband that father Jasper, wish he could be.

The emotional stew continues to simmer as further complications add to the heat: Kyle learns that Lucy's inability to conceive a child relates to his own impotency issues; Mitch's function as Kyle's companion keeps him near to Lucy, fanning the flames of attraction that those two had felt toward each other back when they first met; Marylee's lewd carousing grows ever more out of control; business pressures and old man's fatigue take their toll on Jasper's health; Kyle relapses into daily drunken binges. Finally, with the tinder pile stacked up and dried to a crisp in the Texas heat, Marylee tosses the match that lights it all up in grim conflagration, sowing rumors and triggering jealousies in her brother's booze-addled imagination about the state of affairs between Mitch and Lucy. When Lucy announces the news of her pregnancy to her husband, let's just say it's not received with as much grace and gratitude as decent middle-class husbands would show their loving, faithful wives.

Eventually the strains of melodrama that are Written on the Wind carry us back to that same point where we first entered the picture, where we learn what happened when that shot was fired and are then set up for a final act denouement that manages to resolve and humanize, to an extent, the caricatures we've been watching. What makes Written on the Wind such a fascinating slice of prime 50s Americana is how easily and effectively it can be viewed on multiple levels, depending on the mood of the viewer on any given occasion. One can get caught up in the pain and pathos experienced on screen, a straightforward surface reading that packs earnest emotional power if you just go with it on its own terms. Or it can be enjoyed, if you prefer, as an exercise in florid, trashy camp cinema, a precursor to prime-time soap operas that became standard network TV fare decades later when the censorship rules softened up sufficiently to allow candid handling of touchy subjects like those focused on here. The impeccable, conceptually-loaded cinematic craftsmanship of Sirk, the sumptuous Technicolor hues, and dynamic period-tinged acting performances from Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack (along with Hudson and Bacall, both relatively bland, but effectively functional), all make return visits to Written on the Wind an inviting proposition.

Watching this film in close conjunction with ...And God Created Woman also brought to mind the extent to which popular films were beginning to significantly loosen up in how they addressed mature themes. Though the Bardot film wouldn't crash American shores for another two years, both of them are noticeably frank in how they handle sexual topics - the European film being a bit more playful and casual, of course, and the American taking a typically neurotic, histrionic approach, seeing sex as a more of a problem than a pastime. As Written on the Wind's liner notes point out, this relaxation of standards was in part a response to Hollywood's competition with network television, which was still strictly limited in its ability to talk about what was on peoples' minds. It was also among the very last films released in 1956, a harbinger of still more loosening up and lowering of inhibitions that would take place over the course of the late 50s.

The YouTube clip I chose to add here is a tribute piece put together by someone who had the clever idea of mashing up a representative sample of pop culture flotsam from four decades later with a re-edit of some of Written on the Wind's most visually striking scenes. It's probably best enjoyed by those who've already seen and appreciate the original, but even if you haven't, I figure you can get a few minutes worth of amusement from it anyway. Nothing like a hard slap in the face to get one's point across!


José said...

Hi, I read your blog for some time now, and I think it's really good. Sirk is, if not my favourite director, one of my faves easily. Written on the wind is an amazing film. Some things most of the people overlook is the political potential in Sirk's films. He was criticizing society all the time, so I agree with you when you say his cinema can be viewed on multiple levels, from the most superficial to the most profound. Another really important thing about Sirk's films is his understanding and application (on film) of Brecht's distancing effects. For Sirk, this was a movie, and that's why it is so artificial, it doesn't want you to go along with the illusion. I find it funny that people actually cried watching his films, that's quite a testament to how well constructed his films really are. Ophuls and Fassbinder are two other very brechtian directors, by the way.
Well and you keep 'em coming! :)

Dave said...

Thanks for this insightful and affirming feedback, Jose! I'm glad to hear from someone who's been tracking along on my journey with me.

Your point about Sirk's distancing and artificiality is well-taken, especially when it comes to the "romance" between Kyle and Lucy. Nothing happens on-screen to warrant Kyle falling so hard for her, and let's be honest, if she wasn't "Lauren Bacall the famous movie star" in the audience's eyes already, we'd have a hard time understanding just what he sees in her. That unnatural and inorganic quality makes Sirk's film such a fascinating and multi-layered "imitation of life" :) where audiences are thus freed to extrapolate all kinds of meaningful messages from it, even if they don't immediately identify with the surface attributes of many or any of the main characters.

I think the emotional response of Sirk's initial viewers (and even those who cry at his movies today) serves as an indicator of his ability to tap into repressed aspects of ourselves, especially those who feel like they've had to give up a lot or sacrifice their own happiness at the behest of others. Whether it's Jane Wyman's maternal martyrdom, Rock Hudson's self-denying torments as he struggles to abide within the role and expectations society imposes on him, or the Hadley siblings' burden of confusion over having everything they could ever ask for in life except the thing they really most desperately want... Sirk finds creative and entertaining ways to put us in touch with that part of our experience, and I think a lot of people have their eyes opened to what's been happening to them in their own lives as they emotionally invest in and identify with the flawed protagonists that he places in such dramatically outrageous circumstances.

Also - I really love your blog! I've seen it a few times in my wanderings, but now I'm about to add a link to my site here. Thanks again for the kind words!

Dave said...

Oh, Jose's blog is Imitation of Life, for anyone who's curious. He posts evocative screencaps from great movies... thought-provoking and often quite funny!

Jump_Raven said...

It always came across to me that Stack comes along and takes Bacall as a wife. Yet Sirk portrays it as what happens in America. Like how the black lady becomes Lana Turner's "slave" in Imitation Of Life and yet it is portrayed as perfectly natural in America as well.

I have to partially disagree with Jose about their being humor to people crying at his films. If you watch the supplements on the Criterion edition of Imitation Of Life you find out that he did indeed mean to evoke an emotional response. In other words, never think of Sirk as 100% melodramatist or 100% social commentator.

José said...

Dave, thank you for your kind words, and for adding my blog. I agree with everything you say and I'm glad you like my little blog!

Jump raven, I agree with everything you say too. I didn't say I see Sirk as a 100% social commentator. Of course there are emotions too. He talked a lot about greek tragedy, which is something I too love and, just like Sirk's films (and a lot of melodramas), is about emotions but political too. But some people prefer to see them as plays about emotions and other people as political plays, even when knowing there's the two sides of it.
I think my reaction to Sirk is really not emotional at all, and that's why it's hard for me to understand people who react emotionally to them. But I think it's amazing that it can have this effect on people. It just makes me like Sirk even more.

Dave said...

Re: Stack/Kyle "taking" Bacall/Lucy - What strikes me as unnatural about it though is, what changed in him to all of a sudden push away the party girls in favor of a career-oriented woman like Lucy? And why does Lucy, despite her initial resistance, ultimately allow herself to be bought? We don't really explore the inner depths of these characters. Maybe that's Sirk's point - he sees a lack of interiority in the culture around him, people jumping into relationships without taking the time to first understand and address their own needs...?

A small detail, but Criterion didn't release Imitation of Life. I'm eager to see that film though! I agree with your point that Sirk was also a commercial filmmaker, who was paid to produce popular, accessible films for a mass audience. His ability to consistently strike that balance between high concept art and mawkish emotionalism makes his films so appealing to re-watch and to write about!

Jump_Raven said...

I need to stop making comments when I am half asleep. The comment from Sirk was on the All That Heaven Allows DVD not Imitation Of Life. However, the comment was about blacks in America and how he tried to portray that in Imitation Of Life through the maid/slave character and her preoccupation with her own funeral.

Romantic Movies said...

Great review of the movie! I am so glad that Criterion releases these old movies that way they don't disappear. I was not familiar with Sirk, but thanks to your post, I am definitely going to rent this movie and check out his other films as well. Thanks for the post!