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Arguably Douglas Sirk's best film, "Written On The Wind" is a virtual
hurricane of over-the-top acting, cotton candy-colored cinematography
and blatant sexual energy all whipped into a Category 4 storm. Many
critics dare to compare this 1956 classic to another melodrama from the
same year, the soapy MGM film "Giant". Besides the fact that both star
Rock Hudson and follow the seedy lives of wealthy Texans, "Written On
The Wind" succeeds thanks in large part to Sirk's social critique and
uncanny eye for visual irony. And the screen sizzles as a result of
steamy performances all around. This is the perfect film to watch if
you want it to feel like a hot, steamy summer night.
The Hadley family is one of wealth and beauty, but underneath lie secrets and scandals that threaten to uproot the cracking dynasty. Jasper Hadley(Robert Keith)has his hands full dealing with his slutty daughter, Marylee(Dorothy Malone), and insecure alcoholic son, Kyle(Robert Stack). Marylee only amps up her randy sex-capades the more she realizes her true love, Mitch Wayne(Hudson), doesn't want to be with her. In fact, not only does he not want Marylee, but he is actually in love with Lucy(Lauren Bcall), Kyle's new bride. Got all that? The drama gains momentum when Jasper is confronted about his daughter's promiscuous behavior and Kyle finds out that his own sexual dysfunction will prevent him from having children with Lucy. So what happens when Lucy turns up pregnant? The film comes to a sordid, pounding climax.
The entire cast has an undeniable chemistry - a chemistry which Sirk tried to emulate the next year by reuniting Hudson, Stack and Malone for his gritty drama, "The Tarnished Angels". And Stack is at the top of his game, as he nails the role of a pathetic, weak and insecure man who has everything, but really has nothing. Sirk's use of phallic symbols in the scenes with Marylee are riotous(one of cinema's best moments is when she is caressing the mini oil derrick model)and his mise-en-scene is filled in every nook and cranny with relevant visual stimulation. Even the open title sequence, done much like a classic nighttime soap opera, is sleek, sophisticated and unforgettable. And unlike many films from this period, precious time is not wasted on tedious monologues or wordy segments. The action starts as soon as the movie opens and swiftly continues from scene to scene. "Written On The Wind", a true screen classic, provides a torrent of unabashed glamor and trash, upheld by the smart and saavy direction of the always brilliant Sirk.
For years I used to turn away from Douglas Sirk's overcharged
melodramas when they appeared on TV, dismissing them as "woman's
movies", but I've now learnt to appreciate the art (really "Art" with a
capital "A") of a great cinematographer and story-teller. This is
probably the best of his I've yet seen, elevated by superior acting
behind the leads of Rock Hudson & Lauren Bacall of Dorothy McGuire &
Robert Stack, both of whom garnered deserved Academy recognition.
The plot is basically one that would have served as "Dallas - The Movie" if the TV series of the 80's had been raised to movie status with a plethora of weighty themes and subjects including jealousy, parental love, sibling rivalry, the abuse of wealth, the limits of friendship, and so on down the greasy pole to impotence, alcoholism wife-beating and nymphomania. This particular American tragedy naturally ends in tears with a miscarriage and two deaths, although there's the hope that Bacall and Hudson can build some sort of relationship out of the burning ashes of the consumed oil-rich Hadley family.
To pull all this schlock off takes imagination, skill and conviction and Sirk aided by his heavyweight cast certainly delivers. The camera-work is breathtakingly opulent throughout both in the exterior and interior work. You're immediately captured by the opening shots of Robert Stack's spineless playboy Kyle Hadley drunkenly driving his car in long-shot through the darkening gloom to the family mansion to play out the final dramatic scenes and there are several other shots where the colours superbly seduce the eye, notably at the secret lake where Stack's sex-mad sister in her youth last laid any claim to the affections of her lifetime love Hudson's Mitch Wayne character. Poisoned by his rejection and inflamed by his attraction for Kyle's new straight-as-a-dye wife, she foments the disastrous events which overtake her father (including the famous scene where she dances in her room to ear-blasting music while her father suffers a fatal heart attack downstairs) and her brother (egging him on against Mitch with the brazen insinuation that Mitch and not Kyle has fathered the long wished for child that Lucy belatedly carries.
The acting is mostly fine, Hudson rather good as the torn Mitch, Stack superb as the troubled Kyle (especially good in his many drunken scenes) and McGuire on-fire as the twisted sister. Bacall, though I considered a mis-cast - she looks too old and seems far too worldly for the naive innocent she portrays here and it's hard to imagine two men fighting over her as Stack and Hudson do here.
Of course it's all high-gloss soap but it's so addictive I couldn't take my eyes off it and will long remember some of the imagery that Sirk employs. All that glisters certainly isn't gold as he takes us (there's one great sub-Hitchcockian shot where the camera surreptitiously seems to glide through a window into a party scene at the Hadley mansion) behind the facade of the lifestyles of the fabulously rich to deliver the simple homily that, as the Beatles later put it, money can''t buy you love.
Written on the Wind (1956) is a great film directed by Douglas Sirk, this film has a combination of many great pieces of the puzzle that makes a great movie. Numerous things stood out to me that helped this movie turn into a classic. For one the combination of long shots and short scenes creates diverse action throughout the film. The long takes provide a powerful sense of reality, this coupled with the great dialog make this movie feel like real life. The long takes work so well with the superb editing and great quick takes. This idea provides the best of both worlds, and creates the feel of a modern classic. To me 1955 (give or take a year or two) is a turning year in the world of film. The technology was finally good enough to keep up with a directors ideas, yet at the same time nothing was lost like it is today, in the world of special effects and 'high quality' cameras. With that said, some of the acting throughout this film is quite sub par, Robert Stack's (who plays Kyle Hadley) performance was less that convincing. Luckily not all was lost, the roles by Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall were quite good. Overall this film was very good and quite entertaining, as someone who is no so versed in film history my first impression is that this movie, and others like it from this era, were a turning point into the age of modern film making.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The style and design of this film was splendid and it definitely contributed to the overall mise en scene. The jewelry, clothes, house, cars, plane, and attitudes of the characters really made you feel like you knew why you hated arrogant rich people. With nothing to do with your time and all the money in the world, why not tear yourself and other people apart from the inside? It does make for a good story though. Which brings me to my other point which is that the progression of the plot in the movie was ideal. Everything happened in an orderly fashion, which really made the whole idea of the story more believable. The only thing that I didn't like about this film was that the murder in the beginning was shown. I would have rather that part was a surprise. Other than that I really liked the film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I am not a fan of melodrama. This movie has two fantastic performances: by Dorothy Malone and Robert Keith. After that there is not much to recommend it. Lauren Bacall is quite attractive, but this is FAR from her best work. It is not explained in the movie how two wealthy playboys, especially Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), would be so completely swept off their feet by her. Malone steals the show, but the bone weariness of Robert Keith as the patriarch of the Hadley family is the only other memorable performance in this piece of Douglas Sirk fluff. The story Sirk wants to tell, of the debilitating effect of wealth and privilege, is better told in "East of Eden" and "Giant," among roughly contemporary films. Even the soundtrack for this film is over the top. I am not a fan of melodrama in general, but particularly not of this melodrama.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Two childhood best pals, one filthy rich, Kyle (Robert Stack), and one
poor and honorable, Mitch (Rock Hudson), manage the Hadley oil
corporation. Incurable drunk Kyle, a guy with one hell of an
inferiority complex, marries magazine art director Lucy (Lauren Bacall)
on the day that Mitch himself fell in love with her. In the background
lurks Marylee (Dorothy Malone), Kyle's trashy sister who, goes without
saying, loves Mitch to distraction. When Lucy turns up pregnant, and
Kyle has been proved sterile, what is going to come down? Not everyone
will appreciate the tone of voice that Douglas Sirk uses to tell his
big, sprawling epic. It is melodrama spelled with a capital M right
from the start, but the intensity of the narrative does vary and change
subtly with each new fatal plot-twist. The climax is brilliantly
inventive film-making no matter how you look at it, and you watch in
suspense and animation.
So, is it trash as the prejudice goes regarding Douglas Sirk? Is it pre-Dynasty soap? No, it's not. It's an especially volatile kind of movie-making that is closely related to opera and Greek drama. Its surface is so obviously eye-catching that you might fail to look below it, which is your loss. The characters of 'Written on the Wind' have depth (Kyle is quite a devastating figure as played by Stack) and Sirk's contribution to American cinema, culture even, is unsurpassed. He never took the American dream at face value, even though people have often enough been fooled to think he did. German bad boy Rainer Werner Fassbinder idolized him. That should tell Sirk's detractors something.
The corruption of the super rich. A classic melodrama that makes the lower middle class insane! Filled with strong mucic, strong colors, Written on the Wind is a giant "back cramp" of a movie. Yes, it has its moments, but shouldn't ever film have a majority of moments worth watching? The film is about a wealthy family with no place, no meaning, and nothing to do. The use of extreme lighting, colors, and loud music makes you want to go to the bathroom every five minutes during the film. Look closely at the 3 main male leads in the film. Each of them own a gun. You can see how each of the male characters are defined by the size of their gun. And for some reason Rock Hudson has the biggest!
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.
The acting is so-so (Bacall), bad (Malone) and very bad (Stack). In comparison, Hudson comes off as an acting genius. The supporting players are fairly good. When the acting of 3 of the 4 leads is that bad, you've got to know the director is behind most of those very bad choices. The color is wonderful one of the better big-screen DVD movies I've experienced. The script is often clumsy, but you do wanna know how it's going to turn out, don't you? What arises out of the ashes is quite watchable. If you can handle the melodramatic, over-the-top acting, and you just can't look away from an impending train-wreck, you just might get a kick out of this (although you're bound to feel very guilty the next morning). Don't say I didn't warn you!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is melodrama with a capital M. It is so over the top that I can
only feel that it is a spoof. There is the oil-rich alcoholic Kyle, his
buddy from childhood Mitch, his wife Lucy, and his sister Marylee. Kyle
meets Lucy and immediately asks her to marry him, which she does, after
a brief hesitation. Mitch has fallen for Lucy too, but remains loyal to
Kyle. Nymphomaniac Marylee is in love with Mitch, but he has little use
for her. Quite a triangle. You have Marylee doing a wild drunken dance
in her room while her father has a fatal heart attack outside her room
and falls down the stairs. Throw in an unexpected pregnancy, a
shooting, a trial that has a Perry Mason ending, some hints of
homosexuality, and you start to get the idea where this movie takes
The filming is in over-saturated colors and little attempt is made to provide realistic sets. The musical score is as outrageous as the story.
On the upside you do have Lauren Bacall to look at, even though she is not at her best. It's hard to tell if she is in on the joke or not. Rock Hudson gives his usual earnest performance. Dorothy Malone's winning an Oscar for best supporting actress for 1956 must indicate that there were some weak contenders in that category for the year.
Shocking for a mid-fifties movie we see Kyle in the same bed with his wife, although they are not near each other. The final scene has Marylee gently caressing a miniature model oil derrick as the love of her life rides off into the sunset. How that escaped the censors is remarkable.
The setup is so ridiculous that you can't take it seriously, but it didn't work as satire for me either.
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