When its director, Douglas Sirk, said Written on the Wind was “a film about failure,” he hardly did justice to the way pent-up, unfulfilled sexuality spills onto the screen and into the visual excess that has come to be considered his cinematic signature. Failure and frustration are the forces that drive Written on the Wind: Robert Stack’s Kyle Hadley drowns his sexual insecurity in alcoholism, and Dorothy Malone, as his sister Marylee, forgets her unrequited love for Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) with promiscuous pick-ups. Kyle’s fear of impotence turns into fear of sterility after he marries Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall) and fails to conceive a child. The film responds to these failures and frustrations by crowding the screen with answering images from the overtly Freudian to flamboyantly cinematic lighting, color and decor. Sirk used Stack and Malone as the emotional center of the film. Their highly stylized performances, delivering strange and somewhat ponderous lines with bravado, carry the melodrama—and won them both Academy Award nominations for their supporting roles (Malone ultimately snagged the prize).
Sirk is a director with what could only be called multiple histories. His career began in the theater in Weimar Germany and he moved to cinema shortly after the Nazi Party came to power; he finally managed to leave the country in 1938. It was only after a difficult and stormy first decade in Hollywood that he settled into Universal Studios in the 1950s as a “kind of house director.” With Rock Hudson as his major star, he broke through to A-pictures with the melodramas that became his trademark and then made a string of box office hits for the studio. But it was the maverick independent Albert Zugsmith (also producer of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil) who gave Sirk the opportunity to work outside the studio and direct his masterpieces Written on the Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels (1957).
Zugsmith was one of the new independent producers who were emerging in Hollywood as the rigidity of the old studio system came under increasing strain. Together he and Sirk escaped from the staid conventions at Universal to more “adult” material. Today, in the age of the explicit sex scene, the erotic content of Written on the Wind may not seem as daring as it did in 1956. Then, the press response typically went something like this: “WOW [as it was known in the trades] is the frankest motion picture ever made.” As Hollywood struggled to hold its own against television, Cinemascope and color could, of course, show up the visual limitations of the little black-and-white box. But the box was also limited to family fare and as the movies fought back, sex became a selling point. Under these pressures, the Hays Code began to relax slightly and was modified at about the time of Written on the Wind’s release.
Simultaneously, Sirk was noticed by the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma in Paris, who were writing seriously about directors whose personal style transcended the rigors of the Hollywood studio system. Their “politique des auteurs” enabled the work of a director such as Douglas Sirk to be judged according to new aesthetic principles. They valued command of cinematic language over the seriousness of a plot, the emblematic quality of a Hollywood star over complex characterization, and meanings conveyed through mise en scène over the literary quality of a script. In Written on the Wind, for instance, Sirk carefully color-codes his characters and their relationships. As Lucy switches her affection from Kyle Hadley to Mitch Wayne, her clothes change from the blue-gray associated with Kyle to the brown tones associated with Mitch. But Marylee, from her bright red sports car to her shocking pink negligee, has Written on the Wind’s most explosive scenes. In one of the film’s key moments, she performs a wild solo dance of rebellion in her bedroom. As her loud, jazzy music fills the house, her father slowly climbs the sweeping staircase, only to collapse and fall to his death. With Sirk’s instinct for melodrama(in the literal sense of music plus drama), the intercutting between the spaces occupied by father and daughter quickens to create an innovative, cinematic rhythm for a montage sequence that was rare in studio-system Hollywood. The highly stylized lighting and saturated color give the film great visual intensity, and Russell Metty (Sirk’s favorite cinematographer, who also shot The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, and Spartacus) achieved a depth of field that was difficult for Technicolor stock at the time.
Douglas Sirk’s career was significantly inscribed with his aforementioned multiple histories, but he is also a director with multiple critical and artistic legacies. From Cahiers early enthusiasm (from Godard particularly), to the acknowledged influence on Fassbinder, to rediscovery by feminist and psychoanalytic theorists of the 1970s, and finally as a favorite of the new generation of American directors (Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Quentin Tarantino, Todd Haynes, and others), Sirk has been as important for film practitioners as he has been for film academics. For he is both a supreme stylist of the cinema, and one whose mise en scène is always in touch with his characters, carrying in image the emotion they fail to articulate in so many words. As he says of the penultimate shot in Written on the Wind: “Malone has lost everything. And I have put a sign there indicating this—Malone, alone, sitting there hugging that goddammed oil well, having nothing. The oil well which is, I think, a rather frightening symbol of American society.”
Groundbreaking filmmaker and theorist Laura Mulvey is Professor of Film and Media Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her essays have been collected in Visual and Other Pleasures (Macmillan, 1989) and Fetishism and Curiosity (British Film Institute, 1996), which both include pieces on Douglas Sirk.