Thursday, August 8, 2013

Five Nights With...1956: Written on the Wind

Continuing on with our ‘Five Nights With…’ series, we’re going to take a little detour from the world of the thriller and walk into pure soap operatic heaven.  Yes, we’re looking at Douglas Sirk’s trashy ‘Written on the Wind’, a 1956 melodramatic opera of sorts starring sex symbols Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall.  Now, you may wonder, just what ties this film in with the previous entry, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’.  Well, as I mentioned in that review; this is all about a singular musical moment.  In ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ it was that infamous Albert Hall scene (I so wish I could have found the YouTube video for that) and here it is a crazy moment where Dorothy Malone shakes her tail feather and Robert Keith falls down a flight of stairs to his death.

And, we have a clip!!!

So, that moment ties our two films together, but they are already tied together by the theme of this month’s ‘Five Nights With…’, that theme being the film year of 1956.

Douglas Sirk does not shy away from the pulpy atmosphere when constructing this strangely enticing hot mess of a film.  There is very little focus, everything feeling very clustered and chaotic, and yet it is in that chaos that the film builds such richly utilized tension.  It reminded me a little of 1957’s Oscar hit, ‘Peyton Place’ in that it indulged in a tapestry of soap operatic undertones and overtones.  It don’t feel it was as successful, mainly because the two leads couldn’t quite handle the drama, but in parts this film is untouchable.

The storyline follows a tumultuous relationship that spurns between four individuals.  Kyle Hadley meets and falls very madly in love with Lucy Moore.  She is swept off her feet and in a hurry weds the persistent Oil man.  In the flurry of rash decisions, Kyle’s best friend, Mitch, was left in the dust as he watched the girl he too was smitten with accept a ring from another man.  Mitch hides his attraction for Lucy the best he can, but as time marches along and cracks begin to surface in the Hadley marriage, Lucy’s attraction for Mitch starts to show and the two find themselves truly fighting temptation.  In the background, watching, is Kyle’s rebellious sister Marylee.  She is a thorn in the family’s reputation, sleeping around and manipulating everyone she can to get what she wants.  She has an obvious incestuous connection to her brother, more of mental incest than anything else, and she has harbored a fantasy affair with Mitch for many years.  Maneuvering things to get what she wants, Marylee begins chipping away at the fabric of the family dimensions in order to come out on top.

She ruins everything...
Every frame is dripping wet with melodrama, to the point where it becomes very hard to take the film seriously, and yet it is in that near camp atmosphere that the film really glistens.  It is memorable because of all the bad choices it makes.  For me, the sorest spot is the film’s beginning, which fails to really establish a basis for the marriage between Kyle and Lucy, which really is the core of the film.  Without believing in their love, the rest feels more inevitable than shocking, and they wanted shocking.

The stars of the show!
Still, Dorothy Malone is on fire as the femme fatale here, and she earned her Oscar 100%.  Even better than her, though, is Robert Stack (who looked a lot like James Caan), who just filters through Kyle’s every emotion with pitch perfect calibration.  His descent into drunken madness over the idea of his wife and his best friend running around behind his back is so desperate and so honest.  I just wish that Hudson and Bacall weren’t so stiff here.  Bacall was wonderful in everything I’ve seen her in, so charming and charismatic and mysteriously enticing and yet she did nothing of note here and failed to make Lucy a woman we could believe two men would fall head over heels for.  Hudson was just a wooden box here, empty and stiff.
What happened?  You're usually so wonderful...
For what it is worth, this is a real hot mess of a film and one I recommend checking out despite its flaws.  The atmosphere is enough to sell the thing, but those BIG moments and that finale really seal the deal.  This is one of those bad movies that I can’t help but really like.

So, tomorrow is the last entry for this month, and we’ll be carrying on this soap operatic theme with another trashy film, this time incorporating a little bit of that ‘thriller’ vibe we talked about earlier.  Tomorrow we’ll be talking about ‘A Kiss Before Dying’.  


  1. I think Bacall was really awful here but to be honest - I think she is awful in bascially everything...the film itself is totally entertaining even if it may be trash in some parts...Dorothy Malone perfectly fits into that style but I'm not sure that this is totally Oscar-worthy...I need to re-watch her at some time.

    1. I love that she won the Oscar because it is not your typical Oscar performance, and she really went balls to the wall here. Still, for me, if ANYONE should have won for this film it should have been Stack.

  2. I agree 100%. Stack and Malone were the best part of the film, which I also kind of enjoyed. I've already forgotten Hudson's and Bacall's performances, though. Like Oscar, Malone's my winner that year, and Stack is probably my runner-up (losing to James Dean).

    1. Right now, Stack and Malone are my winners in their respective categories, but I have a lot more to see from this year.

  3. Again I'm late to this but while I'm waiting for Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to wend its way to me so I can give it a rewatch I thought I'd poke around in the archives.

    As I've stated I love this cockamamie movie with its lurid colors, blaring music, barely contained lusting and symbolism (those oil derricks constantly pumping in the background!!). Hudson and Bacall may not be at their respective best but their characters represent forthright respectability and that can't help to pall next to the wild machinations of those two hellcats they share the screen with. If you want to see Betty Bacall at her saucy, wisecracking best catch up with 1954's Woman's World, a wonderfully enjoyable drama of corporate competition at mid-century-she's MVP there and that's in competition with Clifton Webb!

    I favor Malone's performance over Stack's. It might be that I think his character rather contemptible, he had just about everything and tosses it away whereas Marylee is just so broken, desperate and sad. But he is certainly giving it his all. He seems almost another person from his future stone faced Elliott Ness. But Dorothy Malone arching those mink stole eyebrows and pushing everybody out of her way whenever she's in a scene is riveting. Even dressed all in black in the courtroom she wipes the surrounding players out.

    He's never gets discussed but I like Robert Keith's work as the Hadley patriarch. It's not the performance you would expect with such two wild children, it would seem more likely Pat Hingle's overwhelming father who shouts down everybody in Splendor in the Grass would produce such crushed souls, but he implies in subtle ways before he flat out states that he failed them that he wasn't there for them and favored Mitch over Kyle. The actor's slight stature also helps imply how the years of dealing with these two hellions would lead to the air of weariness he gives the part. Speaking of that slight build I've always marveled how different he and his son Brian Keith were in looks, Brian must have favored his mother's side of the family because aside from the last name there is no similarity. Did you know one of Robert Keith's wives was the infamous Peg Entwistle who leapt to her death from the first letter of the Hollywood sign?

    Sirk loved those shots that make an impact, like Jane Wyman's image captured in the TV screen in All That Heaven Allows, but those wild intercuts during the staircase scene may be his best. I wonder if he planned the scene to the music or if it was composed specifically for it because it's perfect in every way.

    Sirk's greatest renown is for these overripe mellers but he has many other interesting films in his Hollywood canon, Summer Storm, Lured, Hitler's Madman, Take Me to Town and several others which stretch across many different genres. He was also very good at drawing out excellent performances from his players. He took an interest in Hudson and guided him to stardom, while Rock's work is variable he steadily improved under the tutelage. Beside Malone his films contain some of the best work Ann Sheridan, Linda Darnell, Edward Everett Horton, Susan Kohner, Juanita Moore and many others did in their careers.

    1. You have such an incredible knowledge of classic Hollywood and the films they produced. I love reading your comments. I'm with you on Malone. She was remarkable here. I love her Oscar win, I just wish that Stack had also won (even though I don't give him the Fisti win).

      Sirk was a very interesting filmmaker, and he really understood his strengths and his vision very well. Of what I've seen, I really do like his work, even when it is a little manic. Despite the flaws, I like Written on the Wind, even more so as time has gone by.

      I love that you found this :-D