Written On the Wind is my first foray into the world of director Douglas Sirk. I know generally the go-to Sirkian melodrama is Imitation of Life (a film on my Netflix) but I went with this because it stars my girl Lauren Bacall! Not only was this my first Sirk film, WOTW marks my first Rock Hudson movie! With all that I didn’t have high expectations but I did leave scratching my head. I actually did research on “Sirkian melodramas” to make better sense of what I watched. Written On the Wind is a highly convoluted and melodramatic film as to be expected. The deus ex machina at the end (a typical Sirkian trope) didn’t actually seem to open up grander notions like it supposedly did in Imitation of Life, it felt like a cheap way to end the film and ruined a lot of the goodwill. In waiting a few days to write this review I’ve come to enjoy Written On the Wind more than when I first watched it. If anything it opened up an interest in star Dorothy Malone who plays one of the best femme fatales I’ve seen for a late-1950s film.
Secretary Lucy Moore (Bacall) enters into a whirlwind courtship and marriage to spoiled oil heir Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack). Lucy soon realizes the Hadleys are a disturbed family from Kyle’s drinking to his sister Marylee’s (Dorothy Malone) promiscuity. The one reliable influence in the family is friend/confident Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), who harbors a silent love for Lucy (complicated by being Kyle’s best friend) while being chased after by Marylee. Eventually Kyle turns on his friend leading to disastrous consequences for all.
I hate to say “you should do a little research” in regards to a film but if you don’t know anything about Douglas Sirk movies before watching one you’re going to think these are cheap soap operas with bad acting…like I did. I enjoyed the soapy, convoluted “I’m in love with my best friend’s girl but his sister loves me too” plot but the over-the-top acting and the “everything but the kitchen sink mentality” threw me. Thankfully there’s a lot of information on Sirkian melodrama, generally revolving around Imitation of Life, that makes this understandable. The over-the-top nature of the acting and story, the courtroom climax, all of it heightens the world created around the Hadleys. They are people both part of and separate from society at large and because society adores the lurid tales of the idle rich, they stay healthy and relevant (gosh I keep connecting films back to today’s society don’t I?).
The film starts by literally breezing through the formalities of a relationship that would generally be the entire runtime of any other film. Lucy Moore is introduced as well as Mitch and Kyle. Within thirty minutes, I timed it, Lucy and Kyle are married and really you can’t blame her. The Hadleys are all obsessive about the things, and people, they want for themselves during the films runtime. They’re so used to getting what they want they’re willing to stalk and cajole others. Not only does Kyle do this with Lucy in the beginning but his sister Marylee vows to “have” Mitch no matter what. I was floored seeing Robert Stack in this film, having only seen him (film-wise) in Airplane. I did grow up on Unsolved Mysteries so, to me, Robert Stack will always be the serious host with the deep haunting voice. Seeing him play a spoiled, sexualized, drunken playboy skewed all my original views of Stack, in a good way!
Sirk infuses Kyle with a multitude of traits that layers him aside from being a playboy. Sure he’s the typical guy who wants what his best friend desires, as he constantly blocks every attempt Mitch makes to get close to Lucy in the beginning of the film to which Mitch says “I can’t shake you can I?” That quote haunts the rest of the film as the two men’s relationship is defined. Kyle himself is smooth and rude at the same time, constantly interrupting Mitch. He even tells Lucy that he’s jealous of Mitch because Mitch’s father was a good man yet Mitch is seen as responsible by Kyle’s father. According to IMDB they lessened the sexual tension between Mitch and Kyle due to the Hays Code but it’s obvious there’s a homosexual subtext we’re meant to see about their relationship. This is painful apparent when Kyle tells Lucy he can talk to her in ways he doesn’t talk to Mitch which surprises him.
Speaking of Lucy, Bacall really isn’t the interesting character of this film. Bacall and Hudson are “normal” compared to the outrageous Hadley clan that there’s really nothing for them to do other than being shocked, upset, or a combo of two. Hudson gets a boost considering he’s in a love quadrangle throughout the film, but Bacall never shows any backbone outside of her introductory scenes. It’s as if the Hadleys crush her spirit once she’s welcomed into the clan. Despite Kyle’s charm Lucy sees through his attempts at seduction. She knows Kyle is only interested in sleeping with her as she tells him she’s thought about what “the suite would look like in the morning” after the encounter. Gotta love a woman whose honest about considering the one-night stand; she’s not indignant, offended, or shocked by the suggestion. Despite finding Bacall’s character to be flat she does get the award for favorite scene (which YouTube doesn’t have…damn them) when she first meets Marylee. Marylee is such a bitch, for lack of a better word, and she tries to lay down the law with Lucy. She tells Lucy she’s “allergic to politeness” and talks down to her until Lucy verbally bitch-slaps her. Honestly their showdown is worth the price of the rental!
I can’t hide it any longer: I LOVED Dorothy Malone in this film. I’ve never seen her in anything although IMDB does list she had a part in my favorite Bogie/Bacall film The Big Sleep so might have to give that a rewatch and she’s in Beach Party apparently (damn you Frankie and Annette!). Out of all the characters Marylee stands out as the broken one. Being a woman in the 1950s the quickest way to sully yourself was through sexual promiscuity and Wiki makes a point of labeling her character a nymphomaniac. I didn’t see Marylee as a nympho but as a woman trying to dull the pain of being abandoned by every man in her life. She tells Mitch that Kyle took him away from her (referring to the homosexual subtext), her brother finds her repulsive and her sister-in-law is desired by all the Hadley men! You feel for Malone and yet she doesn’t do a damn thing that makes you like her, and she doesn’t care. Malone rips the scenes she’s in to shreds and you see her calculating her next move like a spider. When she finally gives Kyle the idea that Mitch and Lucy are together she uses Kyle’s own personality against him, “Where would you take your best friend’s wife? It’s said with such malice and it’s obvious that Kyle and his sister feed off each other’s negativity. In fact the relationship between Marylee and Kyle borders on incestuous, especially when Marylee tells Kyle one day they’ll wake up “all alone together.” At certain points Marylee’s love for Mitch borders on mental illness or at least a slightly loopy temperament. She does an impromptu striptease in front of Mitch’s photo and has no issue with labeling herself as “filthy.” She’d rather say it about herself than the whole town saying it behind her back. Marylee revels in the pain of others yet she has the most pain to mask. The ending does give her a change in character that is the Sirkian deus ex machina but here it doesn’t work at all.
The Hadley’s, and the self-named town, are consumed by sex and try to challenge it. Marylee challenges gender roles which trying to make the one man she loves love her. Whereas Kyle tries to be ultra-masculine to hide his homosexuality. When the doctor tells Kyle he can’t have children the doctor makes a point of saying it’s not Lucy’s fault. Kyle suffers from “a weakness,” cited as low sperm count by Wikipedia. Having been a disappointment to his father, coping with his own sexuality, and being labeled “weak” because he can’t procreate pushes him over the edge. Again, Written On the Wind is not the story of the love affair between Mitch and Lucy, it’s about how Kyle and Marylee cope with loving people who are far better than them; who they don’t deserve and they know it yet they desperately want to find absolution through them.
In writing this review I’ve grown to have a fonder appreciation for this film then when I first saw it. I’d easily watch this again for the intense (and yes campy) performances by Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone. The story deals with heavy themes and masks them with a soapy premise you can’t help but get hooked by. Should be interesting to compare this to Peyton Place which made my TCM Top Twelve this month.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.