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WRITTEN ON THE WIND

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Robert Keith
Director:  Douglas Sirk
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.77:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Trailers, Melodrama Archive
Length:  99 Minutes
Release Date:  June 19, 2001

Film ***1/2

Written on the Wind is a superb tale of failure, frustration and fear in the confines of a wealthy oil family.  It combines a sense of family drama almost akin to a Eugene O’Neill play with Douglas Sirk’s keen eye for imagery to build a movie that rises above simple melodrama into a thoroughly satisfying story.

With a teasing prologue, Sirk lets you know that murder is on the horizon in the Hadley family…and by telling the majority of the story as though it were the past and not the present, he creates a singular sense of doom in the intertwining lives of the participants.

Kyle Hadley (Stack) and Mitch Wayne (Hudson) are childhood friends, though something about their friendship seems uneasy.   Kyle lives the life of a rich, carefree playboy who likes hitting the bottle as much as throwing his money around.  Mitch is more of a somber and sullen fellow, loyal but quiet, and seemingly in a habit of standing by his friend through thick and thin and bailing him out of trouble from time to time.

As the real story opens, both men meet Lucy Moore (Bacall) and begin to fall in love with her.  Kyle, whose carefree attitude about money and women actually masks some deep insecurities, eventually convinces her to marry him and move into his home where his aging tycoon father Jasper (Keith) and wildly spirited sister Marylee (Malone) also live.

Each of these characters is unfulfilled and tormented by what’s out of reach.  Mitch begins to plan his getaway from the house and business of the Hadleys because of his feelings for Lucy.  Marylee leads a scandalous life, picking up bad men here and there, because she loves Mitch.  Kyle is plagued by sexual insecurities, especially when he learns he might not be able to bring Lucy a child.  Jasper is frustrated by the wayward way his children live, not understanding why Kyle drinks or why Marylee misbehaves.

With that much unfulfilled longing under one roof, tragedy is clearly waiting in the wings, and it begins to unfold in ways I’ll leave for you to discover.  Suffice to say, a misunderstanding here, a wrong word there, and this fragile house of cards begins to collapse.

The cast is terrific across the board, but special mention must go to Robert Stack for his Oscar nominated performance.  If you only remember him from his deadpan roles in the Zucker brothers movies or from “Unsolved Mysteries”, you’ll be quite surprised by the potency and depth of his acting here, bringing the troubled Kyle to tragic life.  Dorothy Malone actually snagged a Best Supporting Actress statuette for her work, and Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall both shine like the stars they are.

But as usual, the real star is director Sirk and his sense of visuals.  All of his trademarks are here, from his careful use of mirrors and colors to his clearly pronounced symbols.  The wind, as imbedded in the title, is clearly representative of things being stirred up, and it always makes its presence felt at the most crucial moments.  Notice also the gun motif, and how Sirk pays close attention to the presence of firearms in his scenes.  Or the use of a model oil rig, prominently displayed in the portrait of Jasper…other characters unknowingly mimic his pose throughout the movie.

But the script by George Zuckerman also deserves mention…his words explore the basics of human frailties in touching ways, and his characters embody the essence of longing, frustration, love, anger and more.   He created perfect material for Sirk to visualize, and the combined effort is deeply effective.

Video ****

This is an absolutely gorgeous anamorphic transfer from Criterion.  Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor vision is digitally preserved in full glory.  The palate is wide, and every color rings out with vibrancy and brightness.  There are no distortions or evidences of fading anywhere.  Image detail is remarkable from start to finish, including Sirk’s famous deep focus shots that, at the time, pushed the limits of Technicolor film technology.  The print itself is surprising clean and free of telltale marks and debris.  Though almost a half century old, this film doesn’t look its age at all…an outstanding effort.

Audio ***

Though a simple single channel mono soundtrack, this audio presentation merits a better than average rating for its cleanness, clarity of dialogue, and satisfying amounts of dynamic range, often created by Frank Skinner’s musical score.

Features **

The disc contains trailers for this film and Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, plus a “Melodrama Archive”, which uses text and pictures to outline and detail the director’s career.  Only complaint:  navigating the pages for some reason is surprisingly slow.

Summary:

Written on the Wind is a fitting film to commemorate the career and style of Douglas Sirk.  An emotional story filled with characters unable to let themselves be happy, and a strong visual style that relies on images as much as words to tell the tale are the key elements of Sirk’s body of work.  This remarkable looking transfer from Criterion makes this a must-see for the curious or for fans of good, classic cinema.