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Douglas Sirk was regarded as the grandmaster of melodramas. He
remained, throughout, both revered and reviled.
And 'Written On The Wind', regarded as his crowning achievement, shows you why. Exaggerated, larger than life, emotionally overcast, it is about as close to opera as cinema could possibly be. What works, despite it all, are the performances, which, despite being a bit over-the-top in keeping withthe general aura of the entire film itself, are satisfying on the whole ... with a special word for Dorothy Malone, as the nymphomaniac Marylee Hadley who, at the end of it all, is the only one who retains your sympathy.
And that, unfortunately, is where the film falls apart. The whole affair is so in-your-face that you hardly have occasion to empathise with any of the characters. Though the attempts by the others, Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall and especially Robert Stack, are sincere in themselves, they fail to thrill essentially because the film itself overshadows them all. There is nothing subtle or soft here, everything is either black or white, as a result of which the viewer has little to think about, little to absorb ... you just sit through the entire experience, but take back little with you after it is all over.
It's all right for one viewing, and is about as representative of Douglas Sirk's repertoire as you can get. But that's about all it is.
Well, it IS another way of spending an hour and forty minutes.
That Douglas Sirk must have really loved watching soap operas. His
movies always feature stories an average soap opera features in one
whole season and would be jealous off. But yet his movies still often
work out as great ones to watch, as does this one as well.
This movie can definitely be called melodramatic and overdone, since basically a whole lot is happening in it. Characters are all interconnected with each other, with all of the drama and emotions that go with it and there is really a lot of drama going on in this movie. Definitely too much to call this movie a really convincing one but yet I really can't say that the movie is bad or ever becomes an annoying one with all of its drama piling up on each other.
The movie is simply far too well made for that. Just imaging a soap opera episode being directed by Steven Spielberg. That episode would rock as well, as does this movie also, that got directed by genre expert Douglas Sirk. He gives the movie lots of class and gets great performances out of his actors.
Dorothy Malone even won an Oscar for her role, as a real femme fatale. Nevertheless I always keep seeing her as the old lesbian lover of Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct", which also happened to be her last movie role by the way. She's still alive but simply enjoying her pension now, I would assume.
Rock Hudson and Douglas Sirk must had really loved working with each other, seeing that this is the 7th movie they did together and after this movie made even 2 more. It's no complaint of course, Rock Hudson was a great actor for these sort of roles and actually the worst movies they did together were their non-melodramatic ones.
I would actually assume that the story for this movie on paper looked extremely bland and average but Douglas Sirk simply managed to really spiced things up with his directing skills and made the movie a perfectly watchable one.
Can't say I was always too happy about its pacing. At times the story really makes some sudden leaps in time but this is something that often is the case with a movie that is filled with so much drama. The alternative would had been that this would movie would had been a 3 and an half hour long one, while the 100 minutes that it's now being short, ensures that this movie at all times remains an easy and always light watch, despite of all its heavy drama that is happening within its story.
One big soap opera, that just got done irresistibly well.
Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), an alcoholic, fun-loving oil empire heir,
is introduced to a down-to-earth secretary named Lucy (Lauren Bacall)
and impulsively marries her. Initially the marriage seems to help him
maintain control of his life, but his inner anxiety and emotional
problems won't leave him alone and keep casting dark shadows over his
life with Lucy. Things are not helped by Kyle's equally wild,
promiscuous sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone) and her unrequited love to
Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), a long-time trusted friend of Kyle.
Director Sirk's shamelessly melodramatic style is evident right from the very first scene where the drunken and highly upset Kyle arrives to his home on a windy autumn night. Most of the story is then presented as a flashback until returning to the same situation again at the end. A lot has taken place in the lives of the characters, emphasized by highly sentimental music, brightly glowing colours and dramatic plot twists involving hidden guns, fist fights, drinking binges and delirium tremens. Many of the individual scenes look great and work perfectly in the film's context: particularly Marylee's childhood memories at the autumny river, the aftermath of her arrest after being busted in a motel with yet another man and the aforementioned opening scene are all enjoyable visual cinema. Sirk's dynamic camera work and direction keep the potentially banal-sounding story fascinating all the way through.
The larger-than-life story is brought to life by the actors who succeed in their roles well. Especially Robert Stack's lively eyes capture Kyle Hadley's impulsive thoughts formidably and the solemn and humble Rock Hudson provides a perfect pairing for him. Bacall and Malone give no reasons to complain either, and especially Malone's performance as the scheming Marylee is fascinating to watch.
Even though the exaggerated style won't appeal to everyone, I enjoyed the beautifully colourful visuals and the unrestrained performances from the main cast. The music, as silly as it might sound in some more small-scale film, works excellently here too. A classic melodrama, Written on the Wind is warmly recommended to any fan of dramatic romance cinema of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An overblown melodrama typical of its period (mid-1950s) and appropriate matinée food. Rock Hudson, the hulk everyone always falls in love with, plays his usual stereotype role, but whereas in Giant, made the same year, when his material and co-stars (Taylor & Dean) were above average, in this movie he is just not good enough to raise the calibre beyond a mushy tale of how difficult it is to be both rich and happy. The self-destructive brother and sister (Robert Stack, reeling his way through the film in a drunken stupor, and Dorothy Malone, playing a vampish poor little rich girl totally over the top) end up the losers and Hudson gets Bacall - who is rather wooden in this part which does not have enough character or wit to get her going. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, that is the meaning of fiction. However, I was interested to read that the film is based on a true story which vindicated the plot. Like other films of the period, homosexuality is disguised in heterosexual terms. Maybe the film could be remade: Stack's character would ring truer if he was hiding homosexual feelings for Mitch by marrying. Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven greatly improved on All That Heaven Allows , also directed by Sirk. Perhaps Haynes could remake Written on the Wind and give us a truly memorable film.
"Written on the Wind" pulses like a neon sign.
WOTW SHOUTS at you from the first frame. Hyper kinetic action, bathetic poses and announcements, lurid suggestions, and OH WHAT COLOR: Turquoise! Midnight blue! Electric yellow! Pumpkin orange! -- the pumpkin orange is the face make-up, slathered on really thick, by the way.
The plot shouts pretty loudly, too. Rich Texas oil family, its slutty daughter Marylee (Dorothy Malone) and wastrel son Kyle (Robert Stack) who suffers from, as the family doctor puts it, "let's call it a 'weakness'" crumbles before your very eyes, as the good, noble, humbly born folk inherit the earth.
White trash petroleum geologist Rock Hudson gets sucked into this family like an innocent bird into a plane's exhaust system.
Gorgeous working girl Lauren Bacall volunteers to marry into the family, partly out of pity for Kyle, partly because she wants the goodies he can throw at her, like a drawer full of sequined purses and a closet full of designer gowns -- Kyle displays this to her as a courtship gesture. Oh, I hate when that happens.
There's some lusting, some dancing to loud Devil's music, lots of drinking, lots of yearning.
There is weather, blindingly colored foliage, fireplace blazes and fur coats that bear no relation whatsoever to the ostensible setting of the film, Texas.
There are tons of fabulous outfits in styles and fabrics and colors TO DIE FOR. The ensembles that Marylee wears after her brother dies -- one at the breakfast table before the inquest, a sort of Givenchy take on Ellie Mae Clampett, and one at the inquest, the Black Widow outfit to end all Black Widow outfits, have to be seen to be believed.
A very, very over-the-top film score underlines and puts in bold text and then goes over in yellow highlighter pen and *then* italicizes every last lust filled glance, feint for a gun, slow dance in a road house, tryst with an underage high school football star cum gas station attendant cum jail bait, and / or the attempt at an understated moment of tender sincerity.
I was screamingly bored. I've seen productions starring literal Ken and Barbie dolls that moved me more.
Douglas Sirk is an important auteur, so they say, later to be emulated by Rainier Werner Fassbinder ("Ali: Fear Eats the Soul") and parodied by Todd Haynes ("Far From Heaven"); Sirk rules the genre of melodrama; Sirk's films offered important critiques of American materialism and snobbery. So. They. Say.
Well, that's what you learn in film class, but are you moved? Do you care?
Two life-long friends (Oscar-nominee Robert Stack and Rock Hudson) meet a woman (Lauren Bacall) simultaneously. After a bit of time Stack expresses that he loves Bacall and that he wants to marry her. She reluctantly accepts, actually loving Hudson more. Hudson never did proclaim his love though and realized that Stack had the same feelings for her so he stood down. Stack, a terrible alcoholic, changes his act and sobers up. Within a year it appears happiness will follow as Stack is the heir to his father's (Robert Keith) oil empire. However it is made apparent that Keith has always treated Hudson as a son and might actually love and trust him more than his real son. Chaos strikes when Stack's wild and crazed sister (a sexually-charged Oscar-winning turn by Dorothy Malone) comes back to town though. Immediately her antics worry Keith to death literally and it seems that she could try and take control of her father's riches completely. Malone, always in love with Hudson, tries to win his approval constantly. He only looks at her as a friend and a sister though and this drives her to more anger. Soon Bacall becomes pregnant, but Stack was diagnosed as being sterile supposedly. So how can this be? Malone of course takes advantage of the situation, convincing Stack that Hudson and Bacall are having an affair. Stack goes off completely and starts a rampage of boozing again. As all this happens the audience begins to grow tense as something explosive is bound to happen and the lives of the four leads will all change dramatically. "Written on the Wind" starts off as a calm and somewhat soothing movie, but there are always underlying tones of fireworks. The powder keg is finally lit when Malone appears and the sparks fly all over the place. Most certainly a crazed soap opera, "Written on the Wind" rises above that due to its stunning performances (Stack and Malone do the best work of their lives and Hudson was only better in "Giant") that ignite a wicked screenplay and highly impressive direction from Douglas Sirk (who had an otherwise very ho-hum career of making films). The movie works very well in spite of a few shortcomings. Bacall (one of the most over-rated actresses ever) just cannot match the intensity of her three co-stars and the ending is a rather large let-down considering how excellent the movie was before the final 10 minutes. Still a dominant and overwhelming success, "Written on the Wind" should stand taller than it has. It is one of those forgotten and sometimes misunderstood gems that rises high. One of the finest pictures of the 1950s. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
The cast is great in this movie, which should appeal to anyone in the mood for some 1950-style drama. Malone steals the movie and won an Oscar for her efforts, but I think Robert Stack was just as good and should have won also. They make the movie what it is, especially since Hudson & Bacall are so dull. Some of the dialogue spoken between Stack & Malone is priceless - "You're a filthy liar"; "I'm filth. Period." The great Douglas Sirk directs with a sure hand.
Another classic study of the effects of wealth on a southern family is
masterfully depicted in Written on the Wind.
Kyle Hadley has it all. Wealth, a plane, you name it. Kyle's best friend, Mitch, has always gotten him out of difficulty. Mitch finished college, Kyle got thrown out. Mitch is not from a wealthy home. Kyle's family, with Hadley Oil, controls most of everything in the town.
While in N.Y., Kyle meets the girl of his dreams, nicely played by Lauren Bacall. After a whirlwind romance, he marries her and brings her home. There she meets her father-in-law who warns her how difficult Kyle can be. Kyle sleeps with a gun under his pillow. The Bacall character meets Kyle's sister, Mary Lee, a tramp if ever there were, played to the fullest by Dorothy Malone, who was voted best supporting actress.
Rock Hudson plays Mitch, the faithful friend.
A year of wedded bliss for Kyle and his bride ends when Kyle is told by the doctor that he can't have children. It is when his wife reveals to him that she is indeed pregnant, Kyle, thinking that the child is Mitch's, goes on a drunken frenzy and is accidentally shot dead in a memorable scene.
Mary Lee, who has always loved Mitch, tries but is unsuccessful in blaming Mitch for Kyle's death. In a memorable courtroom scene, Malone pulled out all the stops in finally admitting that Kyle's death was an unfortunate accident. Her Oscar was well deserved.
Surprisingly, Robert Stack, brilliant as Kyle Hadley, was nominated for best supporting actor and lost in an upset victory by Anthony Quinn, as Paul Gauguin, in Lust for Life.
Douglas Sirk was the master of soap opera films of the 1950s. Written on the Wind is no exception. ***1/2.
Roger Ebert gives Douglas Sirk's "Written on the Wind" laudatory props
for being subversive, ironic, a commentary on 50s materialism, ahead of
its time, the forerunner to TV soaps like "Dynasty" and "Dallas," and
god knows what else.
But watch it.
I love Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows" (truly brilliant, and brilliantly executed, for its genre) and "Imitation of Life" (the ULTIMATE in the lush romantic melodrama genre and a tearjerker that EARNS its tears, thanks largely to the performances of Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner).
By comparison, "Written on the Wind" is an insult on virtually every level. Not least, the sad revelation of the utter lack of talent in two of its leads.
One snickers uneasily, at first, then recoils at the shoddiness of what's on screen.
Humphrey Bogart, when he saw WOTW screened, had the wisdom to tell his then-wife, Lauren Bacall, not to make any more crap like this. She didn't.
Bacall is the ONLY actor (aside from supporting ones like Robert Keith, Grant Williams, Robert Wilke, Edward Platte, etc.) able to elicit genuine emotion or audience empathy from this carny sideshow hurly-burly script.
Rock Hudson doesn't have to do anything but be a stoic hunk and stunt-fighter. Watch him in Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows" if you want to see what Hudson was really capable of in roles like this. Still better, watch his evolution into a first-rate light comedian in his Doris Day pictures or his final incarnation as the same in TV's "McMillan and Wife."
Beyond Bacall and Hudson, and the excellent supporting players, WOTW is shocking. Not for Sirk's always superlative visuals and camera direction, but for his Community Theater cast. Why were they EVER considered talents, much less stars?
Robert Stack could do ONE thing. His role on "The Untouchables" exploited that fully. What he COULDN'T do was nuance, or a drunk scene. So clenched and anal-retentive was he as an "actor" that he couldn't even laugh or giggle convincingly.
WATCH him! Stack's drunk scenes here are painful to watch. They're supposed to display layers of his character's background and depth and pain and sympathetic hurt.
Instead, they're just a shallow amateurish actor's attempt, given a lousy script, to infuse dramatic depths beyond his talents.
Lauren Bacall's lines are no better, but look at what she does with them. Namely, she UNDERPLAYS them, to relatively great effect. Same with Hudson.
Not Stack. In person, he was "nice." Conservative. Didn't rock boats. Had a long career in wooden roles. But he simply couldn't rise, convincingly, the the occasion when cast as tortured bastards like Kyle Hadley.
Dorothy Malone? Saddest of all. You really have to watch WOTW to appreciate her. She won an Oscar for this performance.
Bless her heart! ANOTHER one who never should have been a "star," nor an "actress." A nice gal who got to Hollywood and got bleached and coached into "sexy" and finally wised up and left it and went home.
Malone's is an amazing performance here because, in EVERY scene, no matter where in the plot's emotional arc it falls, she plays it EXACTLY the same.
"Sultry." In quotation marks.
Apparently, for Malone, "sultry" meant raising her chin defiantly, lowering her eyelids, looking down her nose at her co-stars or the camera, pouting, parting her lips, then lowering her chin, looking up from under her eyelids at her co-stars or the camera, pouting some more, parting her lips some more, writhing in place for no discernible reason, and sounding "breathy." Up . . . down. A face on a slo-mo fork-lift.
WATCH her! Looks terrific till she has to speak or move. Over-emotes with the same heave-ho histrionics to a sound-stage tree in a voice-over scene! Priceless!
Malone can't even dance seductively, as required at the party sequence, or after her motel shack-up with the star of "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (Grant Williams), upstairs in her bedroom with her mock-striptease inter-cut with her father's heart attack on the stairs while a "hot" arrangement of "Temptation" blares from her record player.
That sequence is so totally contrived, badly executed (largely by Malone's quick-cut lack of ability to embody or sustain her character's wanton lust in-the-moment) and hysterically obvious that today's audiences burst into spontaneous applause and laughter at its sheer inept audacity. "TEMPTATION!"
The camera has to cut away from brief shots of Malone in her pink peignoir swirling across the lens because Malone simply isn't capable of being genuinely "sexy" on screen, though she labors mightily.
Ostensibly her "best" performance was in "Man of a Thousand Faces." Even there Malone was an amateur among professionals, but her role was more sympathetic and better written.
In "WOTW," in her big courtroom scene with her glycerin tears, she's still doing the slo-mo fork-lift facial up-and-down sultry shtick we've seen since reel one.
Then Hudson and Bacall drive off into the sunset, or something, accompanied by the Four Aces -- the FOUR ACES! -- singing the unforgettable title song.
A song long since forgotten unless you watch this film again. Which you should. Simply to marvel at how mediocre actors (but no doubt wonderful people) like Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone were ever ranked as box-office, much less Oscar winners, in the 50s.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Written on the Wind is on par with Douglas Sirk's other cinematic
experiments and is aided considerably by a most skilled cast.
Particularly, the entire film hinges on Dorothy Malone's performance. She is the one who sells us the bill of goods at the end. And if she happened to be unconvincing, then we would feel that the entire 99 minutes was lost. But she does save the film at the end. And it is not surprising that for her efforts, she did receive the Oscar for a best supporting performance. Her scenes in the courtroom make it clear to us that not only is her brother Kyle (Robert Stack in an Oscar-nominated performance) a sad waste of a life, but they all are living a nothing existence-- except those who manage to get away (which is what Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson must do in the last shots). Malone's character will never get away, having been forced to take over the family business at the end. It's a very sobering conclusion.
In the meanwhile, Sirk fills the earlier portions of the film with inspired mise-en-scene which continues to build the tension and suggest the inevitable outcome for these characters. At every turn, the director is offering motifs and manipulating them carefully, often without our noticing. The scene where Stack throws the drink into the mirror is not only played for dramatic effect but is rich with symbolism. Another important moment occurs when the father (Robert Keith) is experiencing a heart attack on the stairs. Sirk does not allow the camera to linger on the old man during this display like most directors might be tempted to do. Instead he inserts quick cuts to other members of the household, experiencing their own mini-attacks of anguish at the same time.
As a result, Sirk provides quite a searing tale about the so-called lives of the spoiled rich in a desolate oil town. He brings us into the world of its interconnected destinies and the smoldering passions of its inhabitants. He holds us hostage and doesn't let us go.
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