Written on the Wind is one of the key films in Douglas Sirk’s extraordinary run of melodramas in the 1950s, which arguably starts with Magnificent Obsession and climaxes with his final feature, Imitation of Life. It’s one of the films that a newbie to Sirk should watch early on, because it has all of his hallmarks and some of his most extreme use of Technicolour. The first film everybody should start with is All That Heaven Allows, which is probably his best and most influential film; my personal favourite is the extremely perverse and almost noirish (Sirk made numerous noirs in the ’40s) There’s Always Tomorrow, which was one of only four films that paired Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. It was made a dozen years after their most famous collaboration, Double Indemnity.
Sirk used most of this unofficial stock company for the cast, with Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone. Malone went platinum blonde for this film, completely changing her image from the bookish librarian in The Big Sleep and saving her career.
In probably his best movie role, Stack plays Kyle Hadley, an alcoholic playboy who is heir to his father’s oil fortune, along with his nymphomaniac sister Marylee (Malone). In one scene Marylee literally kills the patriarch of the family by dancing the mambo. Kyle seeks the approval of his father, but his father prefers the mild-mannered Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), who Marylee has been in love with since childhood. The picture gets complicated when Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall) walks into both Kyle and Mitch’s life, and both men fall for her.
Written on the Wind has some basis in reality: it was loosely inspired by a real incident involving an heir to a tobacco company, but the details of the source material were changed drastically at the script stage to avoid any lawsuits. Tobacco became oil, ages changed, characters were eliminated, and the setting moved to Texas instead of North Carolina.
There isn’t much to be said about Written on the Wind at this point, because since the revival of his work in the ’70s it has become one of the most analysed of Sirk’s films. It’s a seething attack on the Eisenhower-era family unit, and only in retrospective could you begin to unpack what lies underneath the beautiful surfaces. It’s utterly perverse, in the way that the best of Sirk is, with Robert Stack’s Hadley finding out he may be infertile, then walking out of the bar where the doctor tells him the news only to see a young boy riding a horse. The film’s final few seconds consist of Marylee practically masturbating a oil tower after she is the reluctant inheritor of the family business, whilst weeping. Never mind the overt homosexual subtext between Stack and Hudson’s characters—Marylee even exclaims that Kyle stole Mitch from her. It’s something Sirk and Hudson must have been in on, as Hudson said Sirk was the only director to really “get him.”
Written on the Wind is a classic that predates the soap opera of Dallas, Dynasty (incidentally, the final role of the film’s star, Rock Hudson, was a recurring role on the fifth season of Dynasty, before his untimely death from AIDS). It’s a film to watch over and over, just marvelling at how subversive Sirk remains. It also has one of the most adventurous uses of flashback in a Hollywood film, period.
In addition, it proves how good of an actor Robert Stack was, even I still can’t help thinking of him as the host of Unsolved Mysteries. Hudson is, of course, great, a woefully misunderstood actor even though he still gets crapped on… just watch that ridiculous mini-series Hollywood on Netflix.
The Blu-Ray from Criterion is considerably upgraded from their much earlier DVD: Written on the Wind was among the first 100 DVD titles released by Criterion. The two extras on the disc are a new interview from film scholar Patricia White, who talks about all the films various subtexts that may or not intentional on Sirk’s part; and a older featurette about Sirk featuring director Alison Anders and even older interviews with Hudson, Malone, Stack and the film’s producer, Albert Zugsmith. The actors and producers mainly talk about working with Sirk.