Combustible Celluloid
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With: Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone
Written by: George Zuckerman, based on a novel by Robert Wilder
Directed by: Douglas Sirk
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 99
Date: 12/11/1956

Written on the Wind (1956)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Selling the Melodrama

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Praise to the skies Universal's tireless cleaning out of their vaults. In the last twelve months, we've had Orson Welles' re-edited Touch of Evil, the Universal Horror festival with Bride of Frankenstein, the Universal Hitchcock festival with Vertigo and Psycho, and now the Universal Sirk festival, all in brand new prints.

Douglas Sirk was one of Universal's greatest assets in the 1950's. He made melodramas in Technicolor and sometimes in Cinemascope. He made them fast and cheap, and they made money. He was generally left alone and so he was able to sneak subtle artistic flourishes into his films that generally went unnoticed by studio brass. The festival presents four of Sirk's best known films: Magnificent Obsession (1954) with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman; The Tarnished Angels (1958), based on William Faulkner's novel Pylon; Imitation of Life (1959) with Lana Turner; and his masterpiece, the grand-daddy of them all, Written on the Wind (1956).

Written on the Wind (1956) concerns a wealthy Texas family, the Hadleys. Kyle (Robert Stack) is a playboy and a drunk and his sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone) is a scandalous nymphet. Their father Jasper (Robert Keith) is still respectable and still works for a living. Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) has grown up with them and is considered part of the family. Marylee wants to marry him, but Mitch considers her a sister. Instead, he meets and falls for Lucy (Lauren Bacall). But Kyle also falls for Lucy, sweeps her off her feet and marries her. Things get complicated a year later when Kyle learns he has a low sperm count and Lucy winds up pregnant. Mitch gets blamed for the deed and all hell breaks loose.

But what makes Written on the Wind great is certainly not its plot. Sirk was a master of using colors, sets, and shadows, not to mention actors, to tell his story. The first five minutes are worth studying. We meet all four characters with no dialogue and we know exactly who they are and how they stand with each other. Other scenes are just as expertly designed. A mirror in the Hadley mansion hallway shows us everyone who comes and goes through the front door -- usually bad news -- without looking at it directly. When Kyle first hears the news of his almost-sterility, the first thing he sees is a young boy on a coin-operated rocking horse, bobbing up and down (sure to get big laughs from the Castro's savvy crowd). Much more subtle is the scene when Kyle invites Mitch and Lucy to a club that same night. He's drunk for the first time in a year. Sirk squishes all three of them together in one cramped frame that both demonstrates the awkwardness of the moment and their relationship together.

Sirk's technique notwithstanding, the thing that pops out most is his use of actors. Dorothy Malone won an Oscar for her portrayal as Marylee, and some will wonder why. She seems way over the top in some scenes but Sirk did this on purpose. He wanted to guide her past the point of caricature and into character. The same goes for Robert Stack as Kyle. Both Hadleys seem crazy and overwrought, but it adds to the way we feel about them. Mitch is strong, tall, and silent, and his perfect match is Lucy. The dialogue doesn't say so. The dynamics of the performances say so.

Hudson stars in three of the four movies featured here: Written on the Wind, Magnificent Obsession, and The Tarnished Angels. Malone and Stack also appear in The Tarnished Angels. Bacall probably should have stayed on the Sirk bandwagon as well. But Bogie gave her the sage advice, "you probably shouldn't do too many of these." At the time, he was probably right, but it would have been great now, with the benefit of hindsight, to see Sirk and Bacall gliding through the 50's together making great films.

The Criterion Collection has given the deluxe DVD treatment to All That Heaven Allows, while giving short-shrift to Written on the Wind. Though it boasts a superior transfer, highlighting the film's extraordinary Technicolor cinematography, the disc's extras include only a filmography, trailers, liner notes by film theorist Laura Mulvey and optional English subtitles.

In 2022, the Criterion Collection followed up with a Blu-ray release, a gorgeous 2K digital restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Bonuses includes a 23-minute documentary from 2008 about this film and The Tarnished Angels, an interview with film scholar Patricia White, a trailer, and a liner notes essay by filmmaker and critic Blair McClendon, which folds out into a mini-poster. Highly Recommended.

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