Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Written on the Wind

1956, US, directed by Douglas Sirk

From its arresting opening sequence, Douglas Sirk's glorious Technicolor melodrama plunges to the seamy underbelly of the American dream, and the decayed ugliness that underpins the opulent lives of a Texas oil family (there seems to a be a special decadence, both literal and moral, associated with oil dynasties, something that, a couple of decades later, Dallas exploited to great success, giving us a vicarious glimpse into a kind of gorgeous imprisonment). Lauren Bacall's Lucy Moore is swept into this world by Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), an oil-fueled playboy aware that he is a failure in his father's - and perhaps, more tragically, his own - eyes, never able to measure up to adoptive son Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson; the characters' names could hardly belong to another genre, or another era). It's a fairytale that has something sour at the centre from the very beginning: there's something cold in Bacall's expression as she surveys the excess, which moves her later to say that it seemed "beautiful at first, and then I thought how ugly it would be... in the morning", a despairing commentary on post-war boomtime consumerism (it doesn't prevent her from ultimately buying into the idea).

Sirk's film gives the lie to the notion that there's no concern with class in American society, using scenes in a local dive bar to effectively comment on the two sides of the tracks, with the working-class joint the site for recurrent slumming on the part of the Hadley siblings, unable to escape their small-town roots (though the nymphomaniac Marylee (Dorothy Malone) is held to a rather different standard than her older brother, a staple of the gossip columns). Sirk's use of lush colour to enhance the florid entanglements is complemented by his choice of camera angles as the story spirals towards its heady conclusion - the visual narration of Kyle's breakdown is especially effective - and he employs a brilliantly frenzied editing style in one of the film's pivotal sequences, intercutting a dancing Marylee with a horrific staircase tumble (less successful is an especially soapy "memory" sequence where Marylee recalls a lost childhood down by the river; the sequence serves neither the film nor Dorothy Malone).

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States