Written on the Wind (1956)
Written by George Zuckerman
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Is melodrama something that naturally occurs in real life? Our inclination is to say, “No, people behave melodramatically. Life isn’t that way on its own.” But sensationally strange things happen in the real world all the time. What we often attach to melodrama are the characters’ reactions to the dazzling explosions of emotion. People, especially Americans, flock to melodrama. Look at the popularity of sensationalist politics and reality television that has only built over the last two decades. It could be argued that America is the most melodramatic country on the planet. Check out the frequency of road rage, mass shootings, political violence, racism, and the list goes on & on. My personal view is that Americans are drawn to this exaggeration of life because it makes the mundane misery of their actual existence feel somewhat more important. Rather than engage in the collective struggle to improve life for themselves and their fellow human beings, Americans fall listlessly into an opium-like fantasia where they are central characters in a big story.
Beginning at the end of the story, Written on the Wind introduces us to its four main characters, with everyone in a place of chaos & self-destruction. But, before all this, Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) falls fast for Lucy (Lauren Bacall), a secretary at his family’s oil company. Kyle meets her via his best friend & unofficial adopted brother Mitch (Rock Hudson). Lucy starts out interested in Mitch, but Kyle’s unrelenting insistence causes her to end up with the oil heir. Kyle’s sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone), has always had her sights set on Mitch. Still, he sees her as a younger sibling, having grown up in the same house. This sets Marylee on an angry path, intent on destroying Mitch & Lucy. And from that fantastic opening, we know that death is the only thing waiting at the end of this story.
Everything about this film is set up to be a “trashy” melodrama. Yet, Sirk finds ways of communicating the story & developing his characters that keep it in a middle space: somewhere between soap opera & touching on important themes in modern life. Throughout, the director embraces that he is making a “women’s film” genre flick but fills the screen with visual metaphors & use of color, almost Lynch-ian when we look at the visual language of pieces like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
Douglas Sirk was wrapped up in making avant-garde theater in Germany before deciding to flee the Nazis with his Jewish wife. In America, he didn’t resume that form of experimental theater. Instead, he became interested in melodrama and how this genre reflected many things happening in American life. Sirk viewed himself as parodying life in the States and finding darkness in melodrama. He called it a “drama of psychic violence,” Written on the Wind illustrates his perspective quite powerfully. He could focus on the unspoken desire of his characters and many people living in America, subtly weaving them into his pictures.
Lucy, Lauren Bacall’s character, is a perfect example of this. When we meet her, she’s in her boss’s office, a New York City skyscraper, an advertising agency, the very setting of Mad Men. Lucy is very lightly fantasizing about being in power: rearranging mock-ups from the art department put on display for the boss and sitting at his desk. Then Mitch comes in, and her life suddenly goes down a new trajectory. That intensifies when she meets Kyle. Before she knows it, Lucy accepts a marriage proposal and begins a life of domesticity where the expectation is she will produce an heir. This happens because she is a woman and her class status. She is beneath the Hadley clan, so marrying into it will boost her economic situation. There is no other way for her to do such a thing.
In a twisted version of Othello, Marylee is Iago, whispering into her brother’s ear to create problems in the family. It also doesn’t help that Kyle learns from his doctor that his sperm count is low, which explains why Lucy hasn’t gotten pregnant a few months after they marry. At the time, Sirk couldn’t be that blunt about the situation, so the physician speaks in innuendo. Still, as a modern audience, there is no doubt about what is happening. For all his wealth & power, Kyle is ultimately impotent, which drives him to madness. Marylee attempts to sow seeds of discord by belittling her brother when it’s just her and Lucy. Lucy, however, is working class and sharper than Marylee, whose wealth has caused her to become dull, unable to see past this hollow power she wields. Lucy isn’t here because she’s looking to cash in; it’s simply a means to have a better life than she otherwise would have available.
This is clearly Sirk having fun with the genre, mocking the upper classes. He’s also creating complex parallels. Mitch & Lucy are clearly being compared with Kyle & Marylee. Old Man Hadley is a character who initially seems kind and not like his children, yet how did they turn out the way they are? The patriarch also shows far more favor to Mitch & Lucy while holding his own children with disdain. But again, why are they spoiled rich brats? They didn’t become like that due to pure chance. It was because that was the world their father made sure they were raised in, one of the ultimate privileges where they were never told they couldn’t have something. He’s not a sympathetic figure but the one who made this whole nightmare in the first place.
A movie like Written on the Wind predicts the work of Pedro Almodovar, also a lover of melodrama who makes visually stunning pictures focused on women. This is the embrace of melodrama in presentation while pursuing deep psychological explorations of the central characters. Sirk was still working within the constraints of the Hays Code and had to produce “wholesome” movies for the studios. But the truth is there. The constant presence of mirrors in Written on the Wind forcing its characters to look at themselves, especially in their ugliest moments. There’s one more film in this short series. It will be Sirk’s final picture, his boldest statement at a time before saying such things was considered appropriate.