Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)


Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind contains some of the most deliriously striking pictorial compositions, within one of the most jaggedly disturbed psychological structures, in all of classic Hollywood cinema; every moment (from the astoundingly dynamic opening credits) is a submission to a startling spectacle, to a degree that feels personally destabilizing. On a trip to New York, dissolute oil heir Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) rapidly falls for one of his company’s executive secretaries, Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall); he marries her, cleans up his act, and brings her to the family’s Texan home base, a setting dominated by his unhappily promiscuous sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone), whose behaviour is at least partially driven by her unrequited love for Kyle’s best friend and fixer Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), who can only look on her as a sister, and who in turn is in love with Lucy (Sirk weaves in a rich number of Freudian threads, including Kyle wishing that Mitch’s father had been his own). Stack and Malone both give heightened, physically unrestrained, often almost gargoyle-like performances, their great wealth and potential power only accentuating their personal inadequacies – when, in Kyle’s case, the symbolic inadequacy appears to become a primal medical one, such that he believes himself to be sterile, there’s no recourse except inwards, into drunkenness and madness and beyond. At times, the film feels like Gothic horror, the vast family home seeming almost demonically possessed (for example, in the cross-cutting of Marylee feverishly dancing in her bedroom and her despairing father taking a fatal fall down the stairs). It follows then that Mitch and Lucy, the representatives of relative normality (to the extent that anything about the fifties seems normal in retrospect) can only find closure by fleeing the site of trauma, leaving Marylee as the inheritor of familial power, the final shot laden with unresolved sexual threat.

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