Written on the Wind (1956)

Douglas Sirk | 1hr 39min

All the money and oil in Texas can’t save the Hadley family from its own self-sabotage. The daughter of business magnate Jasper Hadley, Marylee, is a spoiled socialite, and her playboy brother, Kyle, isn’t much better, splurging his inherited wealth on alcohol and women. The unofficial third child of the family, Mitch Wayne, comes from a much poorer background, though his childhood friendship with the Hadleys is one which remains strong right up until the arrival of Lucy into their lives. We can’t blame her for the turmoil that follows though. Lauren Bacall is a steady, grounded force playing Kyle’s new love interest, as is Rock Hudson in the role of Mitch. Both actors provide a stability that attract the volatile Hadley children like magnets, wrapping them all up in a messy love of jealousy, insecurity, and selfishness.

The first scene of Written on the Wind opens at its climax, when a drunk, angry Kyle drives to a large suburban home, swings the door open, and marches in, accompanied by a powerful gust blowing in leaves across the luxurious entrance hall. The titular metaphor is set up early in this prologue, announcing itself as a delicate but powerful force tainting the neat interiors of the Hadley manor. A gun shot is heard, but before we learn who was on the receiving end of the bullet Sirk whisks us back in time, letting the wind blow the pages of a calendar to Monday 24th October, 1955, a full year earlier when Kyle first met Lucy and set this unfortunate sequence of events in motion.

A bedroom of many riches, florals adorning Sirk’s production design in a show of extravagant material generosity.
The essence of Marylee is captures in Sirk’s pink decor and costuming, letting her pierce through compositions from the background or otherwise become the centre of them in this gorgeously framed shot.

This is the sort of melodramatic material that Douglas Sirk thrives in crafting, drawing out each of Written on the Wind’s four main characters in the sort of expressive detail that can only be stylistically matched by décor and costuming as equally lavish. Kyle’s grand romantic gesture of buying a full wardrobe of clothing for Lucy and decorating her room with red and white bouquets is met with a mildly suspicious reception, as it is exceedingly evident in these extravagant visuals just how much he is compensating for his lack of substance. Likewise, Marylee is rarely seen without being swathed in pink, whether in her dresses, bedroom curtains, or expensive sportscar. In contrast, we find Sirk dressing Mitch and Lucy in soothing natural hues and lighting them up with a melancholy blue day-for-night wash, suggesting through the subtle language of colour that it is perhaps these two we should be getting behind as a romantic couple.

Sirk shoots beautiful day-for-night like few others – a true expressionist in his casting of shadows across faces and sets.

With each character clearly defined, Sirk follows up by staging their romantic entanglements in tightly blocked formations, especially letting Mitch linger in reflections and backgrounds between Kyle and Lucy like an ever-present third wheel. Sirk’s remarkable depth of field only highlights this further, articulately drawing together and separating these characters across layers and segments of his frame. It is simply Mitch’s being there in otherwise private shots which eats away at Kyle’s mind like a corrosive acid, feeding a self-doubt that clearly has roots far deeper in his psyche than anything Mitch is actually responsible for. On top of his father’s massive legacy that he is expected to carry on, there is also his diagnosis of impotence, meaning he will be unable to pass it onto any children and thus fail to fulfil his most important duty.

Mitch subtly framed in the mirror between Kyle and Lucy.
A complex piece of staging that reveals a web of relationships – most notably though, Mitch and Marylee totally separated between the foreground and background.
Once again, Mitch in the foreground and Marylee up the back, though here it carries different implications – he is clearly on her mind. A lovely splash of colour with the red flowers and telephone too.

To remove ourselves from Kyle’s perspective though, it is evident that his failures already extended far beyond his infertility. If patriarch Jasper Hadley represents the Old South, then his children are twisted, modern representations of that, disconnected from its cultural values yet taking for granted the prosperity it provides. When Jasper passes away on the staircase of his manor, Sirk simultaneously intercuts the scene with Marylee’s boisterous, blissfully ignorant dance up in her bedroom, the loud music distracting from the tragedy that is unfolding just outside her door. Instead, it is Lucy and Mitch who rush to his body. Without so much as a line of dialogue, Sirk points directly to where the future of this culture lies.

Sirk relishes these scenes where he escapes into the outdoors, drawing out the gorgeous reds of the flowers and reflection of the lake.
A strip of light across Marylee’s eyes – conniving and manipulative.
Tragedy and melodrama all through Sirk’s skilful blocking.

Even when the Hadley family hits an all-time low, somehow Marylee still finds it in her to keep pulling strings and manipulating the system out of some sort of vindictive bitterness towards Mitch and Lucy. At this point though, there is no re-establishing the success and dignity that her family once held. Sirk’s penultimate shot of the film says it all – hanging on the wall, a touching portrait of Jasper shows him proudly holding a model oil tower, and sitting directly beneath, a distraught Marylee holds the same figurine. Perhaps she will manage to keep her wealth, but as the only surviving member of the Hadley dynasty, the name will soon perish along with its cultural presence. As Sirk so thoughtfully demonstrates in his eloquent storytelling and mise-en-scène, when a legacy like this is built on as weak foundations as Kyle and Marylee, then it might as well be written on the wind.

This should have been the final shot, but it will have to settle for second-last – everything you need to know about Marylee and the legacy she has to carry captured in one image.

Written on the Wind is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Foxtel Now.

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