Jon Robertson has shamelessly gushed over the Region 0 release of Written on the Wind, Douglas Sirk’s unquestioned masterpiece dealing with the downfall of an oil-rich clan.
I adore Written on the Wind and quite frankly don’t care who knows it. It’s the pinnacle of the epic romantic matinees made in the last days of the golden age of Hollywood, and is the height of a truly great filmmaker’s career, who always tried to make something out of nothing (although in this case, he had more than enough substance to lean back on). However, recognising that this is a fairly specialist genre, be prepared to take the following with a pinch of salt.
Written on the Wind proves to be so lip-smackingly delicious, one is tempted to lick the plate at the end. Basically the template for every American soap opera since, it deals with the dynasty of the oil-rich Hadleys. The set-up, in my own inimitably confused fashion, goes something like this: Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack, garnering an Oscar nomination for his exertions) and Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) are best friends, having been so since childhood. Mitch lived an easy, simple (ie. poor) life, but had strength, charm and a good level head – riches beyond wealth, you might say. Kyle was the son of Jasper Hadley, head of the Hadley Oil Company, and grew up in exceptional comfort, with his younger sibling Marylee (Dorothy Malone, in an Oscar-winning performance), who has always held the torch for Mitch. Both are very spoilt and very unhappy – Kyle with his abundant, dependent love of alcohol and fondness for guns, and Marylee, nymphomaniac extraordinaire, though through all the pouting and posing is just as in need of stability as the rest of us. Then, in comes Lucy (Lauren Bacall), Kyle’s secretary, who, after first meeting Mitch, then proceeds to be wooed by her employer (“How would you like to join the Kyle Hadley Society for the Prevention of Boredom?”), who does so the only way he knows how, by flashing the cash. After initial cold feet, she accepts his proposal of marriage and the two appear to genuinely fall in love. However, trouble in paradise starts to emerge, as Marylee’s love for Mitch grows ever stronger, while his affections are directed at Lucy. Lucy doesn’t know which way to bend, as Kyle’s one-time live-in partner Jack Daniels takes up residence once more and his love of guns takes a more phallic turn – when the couple are incapable of concieving, the doctor bluntly informs him “There’s nothing wrong with Lucy.” Add bar brawls, two deaths, a murder inquest, jaw-dropping blackmail and much, much more, and you have a film that delivers a cinematic orgasm like very few others.
The film is also dripping with Sirk’s wonderful symbolism, subversion and wit. Lurid colours, preserved wonderfully by Criterion’s succulent transfer, blaze off the screen in Oz-like Technicolor hues. The sexual imagery is abundant (and along with the storyline, earned the film the nickname/acronym ‘WOW’ on release) – everyone’s favourite being Marylee gripping the miniature oil derrick with both hands. With continual nods to the fake realism the film and characters are set in, many “exterior” locations are quite clearly phoney – the river that Marylee takes a trip down memory lane to is probably a swimming pool with some foliage and papier mache banks, or even many shots of the mansion’s exterior with atrocious sky-blue backdrops and “real live” plantlife all around. The fact that such locales could easily be found on location isn’t relevant; everything that surrounds these people is a façade, down to the very environment.
All the performances are very good to brilliant, with Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack being queen-and-king-of-the-castle respectively, upstaging their far more box-office-proficient co-stars at every opportunity. Dorothy Malone’s simultaneously domineering and vulnerable portrayal of the conflicted Marylee is outlandishly sexy, with husky voice, large eyes and lusciously parted lips; malevolently troublemaking, her eyes flecked with malice and glee; and ultimately frustrated and tragic, especially at the inattainability of her one true love, drowning her sorrows in the beds of other men. Robert Stack excels as the seedy, well-groomed heir of the multi-million (-billion?) oil empire, delivering even his sleaziest, tackiest lines with perfect timing and something approaching dignity (”There are times when only champagne will do – and this is one of them.”). Rock Hudson comes across as slightly wooden, though this may be a virtue, as the earthy boy thrown into glamorous wealth, and, after all these years, might still be unadjusted and uncomfortable. Lauren Bacall makes a very good impression as the torn Lucy, but doesn’t leave much of an imprint, mainly because her character is the least interesting, and therefore least memorable.
Russell Metty’s gorgeous Technicolor photography perfectly captures the Hello! magazine glamour of the Hadleys’ lifestyle – huge wide-angle shots of swinging parties, more reaction shots than a year’s worth of Neighbours, and the lighting and framing that simultaneously displays the extravagant surroundings as much as the characters. Frank Spencer contributes another terrific score, that pulls all the right strings (pun intended) to tug the viewer’s emotions this way or the other – essential in a piece like this.
This is as perfect an example of a genre (or perhaps ‘style’ would the more appropriate term) as you can get – but I am more than aware melodramas do not appeal to all. Those who would rather receive their thrills and excitement from a strictly adrenalin-fuelled action picture might well find this boring, tacky and highly tawdry, while those who prefer a more human-oriented entertainment will find their seventh heaven here.
This is, quite simply, a sensationally entertaining film, epic in every sense except its running time (a lean, mean 99 minutes), that I can’t see how to improve. Sharply hilarious dialogue (”I can think of much better things than making small talk.”), two career-best performances, and sheer whirlwind energy mark this one out as the high watermark of women’s pictures in the 50s. It was adored then, it’s still adored now (by those in the know), and as Pedro Almodovar, king of kinky Spanish cinema, famously said: “I have seen Written on the Wind a thousand times, and I cannot wait to see it again.” Watch out, old boy, I’m gaining on you.
A benchmark transfer if ever there was one. Utilising the 35mm interpositive, Criterion has yielded an extraordinary anamorphic 1.77:1 transfer from the source material, even more stunning when you consider (to my knowledge) there was no digital restoration work performed at all. For a film nigh-on 50 years old, this is beyond astonishing. For the second time this review, I have no qualms in handing out a full 10. There are occasional tiny specks and scratches, but very, very rarely – reelmarkers are also evident, which may or may not irritate you. There is a very fine layer of grain to the image, which only adds to the film-like appearance. Now the good stuff: the colours are impeccable and rock solid, with no hint of bleeding or smearing, retaining their candy-coloured Technicolor glow, but without the over-saturated look of some lesser transfers. There isn’t a trace of edge-enhancement to be seen anywhere, although sharpness and detail, even in darker scenes, is always astonishing. Contrast and brightness are dead on, and the compression is flawless, with no artefacts or pixelation anywhere.
A phrase I’m not particularly fond of, but seems thoroughly appropriate here, is that it genuinely looks as if it were filmed yesterday. It’s astounding, not least because of the eternal youth of the source material, but the care and attention dedicated to doing justice to such fine elements that is so readily apparent. In many ways, I prefer this to “superior” transfers such as Citizen Kane, because they don’t look like film, without any hint of grain and a total lack of print damage or reelmarkers – it looks too digital for my comfort. Call me eccentric, but I want my transfers to look like celluloid – a very flawed, very beautiful recording medium.
A very impressive monaural recording. The obvious dynamic limits are obvious, but there’s no distortion, hiss or damage, and a rich, silky sound from start to finish, as befits such a glossy score.
Two widescreen non-anamorphic trailers, in fairly good condition are available for this film and All That Heaven Allows. Neither contain spoilers, summarise both films very nicely, and have all the over-dramatic title cards, wipes and effects that you could hope for.
The only other extra is staggeringly extensive filmography for apparently Sirk’s entire film output divided into three sections: Germany, America and Universal. A decent, informative amount of text accompanies each film, with around a dozen stills or more for each title (featuring both publicity shots and advertising). It takes a fair old time to get through the whole thing, and it’s the second best filmography I’ve as yet seen (the best being the Powell & Pressburger entry on Criterion’s The Red Shoes). Trust Criterion to go above and beyond the call of duty on such a standard feature. 23 chapter stops are included, which are perfect dividers for the film’s many events.
A wee bit of a shame over the relative lack of extras for such a deliriously superb film (especially with total rubbish getting special edition re-releases at the drop of a hat), but with the quality of the film’s presentation (and the fact many different Sirk-related supplements can be found on Criterion’s All That Heaven Allows) dulls the pain somewhat.
There a few films as singularly enjoyable as this, or can boast such outstanding quality on their DVD presentation. Criterion have hit their mission for “gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality”, and then some.
If such a phrase isn’t a contradiction in terms, it’s pure class.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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