I’ve now seen two Douglas Sirk movies in two days, firstly Imitation of Life and now Written on the Wind. I had mixed feelings about the former but I absolutely adored Written on the Wind. It’s just so outrageous. It’s like a cross between Dallas and Valley of the Dolls.
And it looks so gorgeous. How did he get such amazingly vivid colours? Even by the standards of Technicolor the colours are dazzling. Everything has an air of unreality, of staginess. The sets are expensive, but they don’t look real. They look like incredibly expensive film sets.
The dialogue is so overheated. The acting is exaggerated almost, but not quite, to the point of parody. But somehow it works. It’s pure melodrama, but it does deal with real issues and real emotions. It deals with them in an exaggerated and heightened way, with more symbolism than you can poke a stick at. The scene with Dorothy Malone stroking the model oil derrick has to be seen to be believed.
All four main actors give the same types of performance, so one has to assume that these were exactly the performances that Sirk wanted. Robert Stack plays Kyle Hadley, a sexually insecure alcoholic oil tycoon. Rock Hudson is his best friend, Mitch Wayne (wonderful character names in this film), who happens to be in love with his wife. Lauren Bacall is Stack’s wife Lucy , while Dorothy Malone is Kyle’s sex-crazed younger sister Marylee.
The actors focus obsessively on one aspect of each character – Kyle’s fears of sexual inadequacy an failure in general, Mitch’s divided loyalties, Lucy’s determination to somehow make her husband happy, Marylee’s sexual frustration. The performances make fascinating contrast to the Method acting that was becoming so fashionable at the time. Although the performances are artificial they do achieve a kind of intensity that is actually more effective than the mumbling incoherence of the Method.
There are also some sharp observations on the emptiness of life in 1950s America. These people have everything, but they’re absolutely miserable. Written on the Wind is insanely entertaining, it looks magnificent, it’s like eating too many overly rich chocolates, but it’s addictive. I loved it. It’s soap opera, but it’s the Citizen Kane of soap opera.