For sheer lurid delirium, it would be tough to beat the opening credits of Douglas Sirk’s 1956 fever dream, WRITTEN ON THE WIND. The names of the four principals are emblazoned across the actors’ faces as booze-swilling oil tycoon Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) drunkenly veers his car up to a mansion, pistol in hand, while his best friend, Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) watches anxiously through a window. Then there’s Kyle’s wife, Lucy (Lauren Bacall) in the background collapsing to the floor, while Mitch’s sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone), gazes at the camera with only her eyes illuminated. A shot rings out, a violent gust of wind blows torrents of leaves into the foyer, and a man’s silhouette stumbles dying into the driveway. A few fluttering calendar pages nearby and we jump back to how the whole story started…
With that killer teaser, audiences today were hooked with a gloriously saturated 35mm presentation of this central installment in Sirk’s lauded ‘50s string of hyper-stylized dramas, ranking alongside such other favorites as All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, and Imitation of Life. In fact, this one was so effective that Hudson, Stack, and Malone were reunited the next year for another essential Sirk story of dysfunctional marriage and disillusion, The Tarnished Angels.
Today’s screening was introduced by Gregg Kilday, film editor for the Hollywood Reporter, who prepared newcomers for the film’s bold color scheme (with one hotel sporting “the pinkest corridors you’ve ever seen”) and remarked on the prevalence of guns in the story, which would probably be interpreted today as part of America’s love of firearms.
However, this being a Sirk film, the guns are used here more as Freudian symbols. Sexually troubled Kyle sleeps with a tiny little pistol under his pillow, while Mitch has a real man’s handgun (and handily lands every punch he throws in the film’s two fistfight scenes) and the Hadley patriarch (Robert Keith) tucks away an old-fashioned revolver. Incidentally, the Robert Wilder source novel had been bandied around at Universal for nearly a decade, originally featuring different character names and a setting in North Carolina rather than Texas.
In 1947, the Production Code cautioned the studio in 1947 that the sexual dysfunction of Tony (later changed to Kyle) be specifically cited as sterility rather than impotence, but in the final film the doctor tells him he will have problems conceiving a baby because of “a weakness” shown in his test results. (Stack stumbling away only to look horrified by a young boy enthusiastically thrusting a mechanical horse is easily one of the most outrageous moments in the Sirk canon.) This “weakness” of course reinforces the film’s most daring subtext, a psychosexual love triangle between Mitch, Kyle, and Marylee. As kids, all three of them used to go “down by the river” where they would swim “in the raw,” and now Marylee’s picking up random strange men in public and hanging out on the trashy side of town just to get a jealous rise out of Mitch. Meanwhile Kyle deliriously calls out Mitch’s name in his sleep and barely seems able to consummate a relationship with his wife, while Mitch… well, he expresses an attraction for Lucy a couple of times, but his constant rebuttals to Marylee’s advances carry an entirely different meaning on their own.
While everyone seems to be on the right Sirkian wavelength here, few would argue that it’s Malone who gets top acting honors here. From her tearful courtroom scene to the hallucinatory scene in which her dad takes a tumble down the stairs while she does a frenzied mambo, it’s really her show every time she appears on screen. She deservedly earned an Oscar for her performance, but unfortunately her film career had mostly stalled out by the end of the decade with a long stint on Peyton Place waiting on TV instead. In whatever incarnation you meet her, however, Malone is a knockout force of nature in front of the camera and perhaps the perfect physical embodiment of the tempestuous forces lurking at the heart of Sirk’s iconic films.