Release Date(s)1956 (February 1, 2022)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Criterion – Spine #96)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
When first released, Written on the Wind received unenthusiastic reviews but was adored by moviegoers. Its critical fortunes have improved through the years as director Douglas Sirk has been rediscovered and re-evaluated by modern reviewers who have given his 1950s pictures more scrutiny. The film is an artifact of its repressive time, yet flirts with taboos while never addressing them head on.
Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) grew up poor on the Texas ranch owned by oil millionaire Jasper Hadley (Robert Keith) but was brought up with Jasper’s son, Kyle (Robert Stack), and daughter, Marylee (Dorothy Malone). Now Mitch works for the Hadleys as a geologist and is high in Jasper’s esteem, while Kyle has become a drunken playboy and Marylee has turned to booze and one-night stands and is known as the town tramp.
Mitch and Kyle are in New York on business and both become attracted to Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall) from the firm handling the Hadley’s advertising. Kyle whisks Lucy off to the airport, leaving Mitch alone. Knowing how Kyle operates, Mitch reaches the plane before they do and they all fly to Miami Beach together.
We soon learn that Marylee has had a crush on Mitch since childhood, while he regards her more as a sister than a romantic partner. This is what led her to the bottle and trysts with male strangers.
Director Sirk provides a look at a wealthy family while interweaving twisted romantic relationships—the stuff of classic melodrama. The screenplay deals with nymphomania, alcoholism, impotence, unrequited love, betrayal, lies, jealousy, and familial dysfunction in a grand, operatic fashion that’s part of the film’s appeal.
Sirk elicited showy, over-the-top performances from Stack and Malone and more tempered, down-to-earth portrayals from Hudson and Bacall to keep the picture from becoming entirely manic. The visual style of the film, like its characters, is extravagant, with mansions, luxurious interiors, beautiful costumes, fancy cars, and wealth dripping from every frame.
Hudson is surprisingly subdued amid the family drama. The script leaves it to Hudson to show Mitch’s love for Lucy in subtle, non-verbal ways, which is not the actor’s forte, so the character’s emotions are awkwardly registered. Hudson is wonderfully wooden as always, and comes off looking stiff rather than rapturous. The one scene in which Mitch and Lucy kiss is long in coming and unconvincing.
Bacall’s Lucy is an enigma. She willingly goes with Kyle to Florida yet decides, once there, to return because she finally realizes he has brought her there to be seduced. Lucy is kind of a doormat, and since we’re used to seeing Bacall in roles as intelligent women, Lucy’s cluelessness is a letdown.
Malone, driving a red sports car, dancing the mambo with a photo of Mitch, and seducing a gas station attendant, has few quiet scenes and constantly is on the move. Marylee has never stopped trying to get Mitch to reciprocate her affection. Frustrated and deeply unhappy, she disguises her disappointment with a self-destructive lifestyle. Her pent-up emotion has its outlet in constant, furious and frantic movement that is so exaggerated as to become ludicrous.
Stack, who a year later would assume the role that brought him his greatest fame, as Elliot Ness in TV’s The Untouchables, has been allowed to do the worst, stereotypical drunk scenes. Whether staggering, picking fights, exhibiting cruelty, physically abusing Lucy, or feeling sorry for himself, his Kyle is nearly comical in his unrestrained performance.
Written on the Wind, though campy and with more than its share of trashiness, is nonetheless quite watchable. We get caught up in the machinations of these people even as we feel sorry for them. Their humanity shines through a veil of wealth and privilege, and we realize that huge sums of money alone cannot buy true happiness.
Written on the Wind was shot by director of photography Russell Metty on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 2.00:1. It’s presented on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution from the original camera negative. A vintage 35 mm dye-transfer print, courtesy of the Academy Film Archive, was used for color reference. The presentation has excellent clarity and a great deal of detail, including individual strands of hair, pores in skin, and stubble on men’s faces. Film grain is fine, with a sharp texture to the image. The color palette has a wide range, from vivid primary colors in Marylee’s red sports car, flowers and designer dresses in the Miami suite, to shimmering diamond jewelry and conservative suits and dresses for Lucy. The Technicolor hues are warm, with pleasant complexions. Blacks are rich and deep, with shadows sometimes partially covering actors’ faces at dramatic moments. The presentation is free of scratches, dirt specks, and other distractions.
Audio is included in an uncompressed English Mono LPCM track with optional subtitles in English SDH. Dialogue is clear and crisp throughout, though Robert Stack’s Kyle often slurs his speech to suggest inebriation. The engine of Marylee’s car is loud as she speeds along an oil derrick-lined road. Later, Kyle races home drunk in his car, its engine’s roar dominating the soundtrack. Frank Skinner’s music is fairly pedestrian, even obvious as it punctuates dramatic moments with ominous chords. Temptation is heard as Marylee’s promiscuous exploits are shown. The Four Aces sing the title song under the opening credits.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release includes a fold-out insert booklet containing the essay No Good End by Blair McClendon, a reprint of the film’s original full-color poster, a cast and credits listing, and information about the film’s digital transfer. Bonus materials on the disc include the following:
- Acting for Douglas Sirk (23:23)
- Patricia White Interview (20:40)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (2:47)
The 2008 featurette Acting for Douglas Sirk discusses two of the director’s films, Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels. The two shared a number of collaborators, including actors Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, and producer Albert Zugsmith. All are featured in archival interviews. The actors play similar characters in both films. A new interview with director Allison Anders is included.
In the interview with film scholar Patricia White, which was shot by Criterion in 2021, she discusses the complicated interplay of gender, sexuality, and class on display in Written on the Wind. The film is a piece of social criticism. Excess wealth poisons the Hadley family. On the surface, everything is pretty, but beneath, there’s rot. An overview of Sirk’s career from his beginnings in Germany to his lush Universal melodramas of the 1950s is provided. White notes that melodrama makes a statement in many ways—acting, photography, color, and music. Though the opening depicts physical violence, the film is really about the violence of emotions. At this time in Hollywood, films were trying to attract audiences with adult themes.
“In a tense, frank drama woven of the raw realism of life itself,” booms the off-screen narrator in the theatrical trailer as “the most revealing study of human emotions ever attempted on the screen” appears in bold letters and brief moments from the film are shown.
Though coming years before TV’s Dallas, Written on the Wind has many of the same elements, particularly a dysfunctional family that made its fortune in oil. Director Sirk has filled every moment of the film with simmering tension, from Kyle’s initial appearance trying to seduce Lucy in their first meeting to the alcoholic stupor of his downfall.
- Dennis Seuling