Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films. With 261 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. This week, he takes on Douglas Sirk’s Written in the Wind.
Director: Douglas Sirk
Writer: George Zuckerman, Robert Wilder
Cast: Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone
Prior to watching this film, I had never given much thought to where soap operas came from. Roger Ebert calls Written on the Wind “a perverse and wickedly funny melodrama in which you can find the seeds of Dallas, Dynasty, and all the other prime-time soaps”. I wouldn’t call this film “wickedly funny”, and the comedy struck me as unintentional or so satirical that you have to be aware enough to be in on the joke. Much of the dialogue in the first act didn’t really engage me. I found myself reaching for deeper meaning until I realized “hey, this is a Technicolor soap opera!”. And that’s where I got the film, but mostly by taking it lightly.
I couldn’t help but compare this to the Mexican soap operas I watched as a kid during the 80’s and 90’s. Written on the Wind takes itself more seriously….. or does it? According to Ebert, director Douglas Sirk can be given credit for establishing the tone in soap operas, “in which shocking behavior is treated with passionate solemnity, while parody burbles beneath”. Either I watched too many damn soap operas growing up or I’m too much of a hopeless romantic to have noticed any parody “burbling” beneath. Once I settled into the story and knew a bit about each character, I ate up all the drama and unfolding plot points.
The film follows Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), who is the son of an oil millionaire and – without a sense of purpose in life – marries Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall). But she has always been secretly loved by his best friend Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), who is also a geologist for his father’s company. Kyle’s sister, Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone), has always had a crush on Mitch. The stage is set for a web of sex that – though not intricate enough to be called “tangled” – provides some nice surprises along the way. Conflict is triggered when Kyle learns that he is unable to have children, a discovery that takes him back to the bottle, and that’s exacerbated when Marylee tells Kyle that Lucy is pregnant.
The best performances here are by Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack as the Hadley siblings. They’re both unstable and spoiled individuals. Malone is recognizable as the type of manipulative lust-hungry family member, an archetype that we’ve grown to expect in soap operas. Previously known for playing nice girls, Malone won an Oscar for her against-type work here. Robert Stack has a scary and unsettling intensity, which is probably a major reason why his character is drawn to Lucy’s calming presence. His eyes often seem like they’re deviously thinking about something else. Stack lost the Oscar to Anthony Quinn (whose winning performance in Lust for Life was less than ten minutes long), allegedly for political reasons involving his studio contract. It is Stack and Malone that drive the action.
Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson are mostly straight-laced here. Bacall was married to Humphrey Bogart at the time of this film and took this role at a time when her career had lost much of its steam. Bacall and Rock Hudson are not bad here, but their characters are given a limited range of emotions and rendered mostly as self-composed individuals.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert: I like this movie, although I was ready to turn it off during the first act. But about 30 minutes into it, when I stopped taking it seriously, my enjoyment multiplied. And the fun levels went through the roof when Lucy makes the film’s biggest revelation to Kyle, and we can see that all hell is about to break loose by looking at Kyle’s eyes as he says, “You shouldn’t have done that”. Mr. Ebert, as sometimes happens in film history, some films are overlooked and dismissed as simplistic during their time, only to then be re-assessed and declared to have greater value because some critic decides that the joke was on us the whole time. My hesitation in calling this film “great” stems from my own curiosity, mainly wanting to know whether director Douglas Sirk did intend this as satirical humor and as a subversive take on American families. Why didn’t critics know that before they began praising it years later? And, it seems, why wouldn’t a director disclose his intentions from the start if that is in fact what he intended. On the surface, this is similar to a soap opera, but under the surface, it is suggested by critics that much of its power lies in its subversiveness. When recently watching Contagion, I appreciated the last minute of the film when we learn how and where the pandemic began. If only it were possible to know who, and at what precise moment, someone first declared Written in the Wind to be satirical, leading to the now widespread belief of it being so.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like Written in the Wind? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad or Great?
Next week’s review: Victim