Written on the Wind

17/05/2023

   “In Written on the Wind I think I hit a fair balance, because you had the interesting characters, [Robert] Stack and [Dorothy] Malone, both brilliantly acted – and you had the counter-balance with Hudson and Bacall, being rather normal and not split within themselves.” (Sirk on Sirk) Director Douglas Sirk sees such an aspect chiefly in the acting, as he names those in the four leading roles. But this normalisation or fragmentation can be an aspect of mise en scene, with the actors a product of screen space as readily as actors of varying degrees of depth and texture. Sirk may have said that there was no point turning Rock Hudson into anything more twisted or more complex than he happened to be — Hudson was a good soul and the camera couldn’t see otherwise. “Before the camera you just can’t cheat. The camera has X-ray eyes.” (Sirk on Sirk) This needn’t mean that all villains are terrible human beings; this is after all acting. But a person’s face has at least to indicate villainy or complexity if that is what you seek. Much of the rest will come from the film’s style. It will come from the clothes a character wears, the places they occupy, the colours adopted in the scene, the music evident, the camera angles utilised. 

   We can do worse than see how this happens in Sirk’s Written on the Wind, a film like others directed by Sirk in the fifties that gave melodrama a deliberate form, seeing it not just as a narrative formulation but a stylistic one too. A melodramatic story would be one where a lot of events are piled on top of each other, a sort of quickening of drama. As Thomas Elsaesser says, looking at melodramatic plots in various 18th-century fictions: “The melodramatic elements are clearly visible in the plots, which revolve around family relationships, star-crossed lovers, and forced marriages. The villains (often of noble birth) demonstrate their superior political and economic power invariably by sexual aggression and attempted rape, leaving the heroine no other way than to commit suicide or take poison in the company of her lover.” (‘Tales of Sound and Fury’) But how does Sirk turn melodramatized story into melodramatic form? 

  Let’s begin with the beginning. We see a yellow sports car hurtling along the road at night, the road surrounded by pylons on either side and a nodding donkey in the foreground of one shot. It passes a silo saying Hadley oil company, and also a tall building with the same logo, before heading down a street. A sign tells us the population is just under 25,000 and then we see the driver. He is necking a bottle of spirits before arriving at his destination, pulling up at a leafy driveway to a large house with pillars at the front. 

    Some might view this as economic storytelling; others as an obvious account of a reckless man. Both would probably agree that the film has conveyed to us aspects of his personality: a playboy whose family owns Hadley oil, a man with a drink problem who has been up all night as the light suggests dawn. The car’s colour adds to the reckless sense. Maybe red would have worked just as well but blue, grey or black might have been too subdued. It helps that it is a sports car as well and that it is a hatchback as he drives without the hood on. 

    Verbal exposition is often regarded as inferior to visual storytelling, and maybe one reason why Sirk’s reputation has steadily increased over the years lies in critics viewing his work more from the perspective of mise en scene over narrative. The plots may have been exaggerated but so was the colour scheme, the camera angles and the music, all the better to engage the viewer without relying on dialogue that could make the drama seem too stagebound. It is partly why Sirk has influenced numerous filmmakers - Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes and Lars Von Trier, as if seeking in Sirk an aspect of the melodramatic that would suit their needs. We will say a bit more about this soon, but we can bring to mind another scene in the film. Here the playboy Kyle (Robert Stack) at the beginning has immediately fallen in love with someone, Lucy (Lauren Bacall) who works at Hadley’s New York office. He whisks her off on the plane alongside his childhood friend Mitch (Hudson), and from there they find themselves in Miami, with Kyle putting her up in a suite that shows if money can’t buy love it can help first in the process of seduction. It has a view of the sea, a settee and several chairs, plush rugs, a large double bedroom and then all the touches Kyle must have insisted upon: a bottle of champagne on ice, flowers in every corner, and a fulsome fruit bowl. When she opens the drawers, they are full of expensive-looking bags, and when she opens the closet there are ball gowns, fur coats and a hat for every occasion. 

     We might wonder how they got there, and who was behind delivering all these wonderful items. Kyle is a fast mover but his need to impress would surely have been a logistical nightmare. Or has he kept a suite like this in the hope he would someday meet a woman he was so enamoured by that he would want to give it to her all, and all at once? Or is this what he does for all his girls, possessing an exorbitant wealth that can make anyone he seduces feel special? Lucy looks troubled, as well she might, as if she has given thought to all our hypotheses in a split-second. Yet the mise-en-scene’s purpose isn’t quite to indicate any of the above but to capture Kyle’s insecurity; that a woman could only love him if he shows how much wealth he has to shower upon them. The son of an oil man, he reckons gushing matters, and Sirk shows us flattery in the most material of forms. Kyle doesn’t just tell Lucy how something is happening to him: that he can talk to her like he hasn’t been able to talk to anyone before, he flies her to Miami in a private jet and offers her the most elaborate of visual seductions. If “I love you” can be too flatly expositional, a statement of intent without any action behind it, Kyle has certainly put his money where his mouth is. 

    Such a scene is as hyperbolic as the opening and, while we might question Sirk’s visual overstatement, that doesn’t mean we can’t admire the mise-en-scene as characterisationally expressive. Taken together, the scenes tell us a lot about Kyle’s personality; his unhappiness and his neediness. Rather than seeing Written on the Wind as a series of cumbersome cliches, what about if we argue for its visual rhetoric, for its ability to put commonplace claims into stylistic form? Kyle is initially a miserable man and the film gives us plenty reason to recognise that unhappiness. In the opening scene, Sirk manages to indicate that the world is Kyle’s oyster but it is also a clam. There he is in his bright yellow sports car, a symbol of freedom, and he speeds along roads that show an oppressiveness he appears unable to escape. The pylons loom large and the family business so omnipresent the village appears to be encompassed by it. Sirk’s purpose is to show that cinema can visualise states rather than describe them. While some might still insist films like Written on the End, and other Sirks, Magnificent ObsessionImitation of Life and All that Heaven Allows, lack subtlety, it is also worth noting their impact on the possibilities of mise en scene as colour. 

     Films made in colour during the forties and fifties were rarely taken as seriously as those made in black and white. Colour was frequently used in Hollywood for melodramas, musicals, historical epics and sometimes Westerns. Serious dramas like Twelve Angry MenSunset BoulevardWitness for the ProsecutionAnatomy of a Murder, and Paths of Glory were in monochrome. When Vertigo was originally released it wasn’t admired for its colour; it was dismissed for the flaws in its story. Also, most of the great films from Europe, Japan and Russia were in black and white: Seven SamuraiWild StrawberriesElLa Strada and Diary of a Country Priest. But when reviewing Written on the Wind before becoming a feature film director himself, Francois Truffaut said: “in visual terms…Written on the Wind merits our attention….We watch Stack in the half-shadow of a blue bedroom, watch him dash into a red corridor and jump into a yellow taxi which lets him out in front of a steel-grey airplane.” These aren’t the tasteful colours of painting: “all these hues are vivid and frank, varnished and lacquered to such a degree that a painter would scream…but they are the colors of the luxury civilization, the industrial colours that remind us that we live in the age of plastics.” (The Films in My Life)

     We will say a few words about how Truffaut and others would go on to use colour in a more painterly way, but there was no doubt Sirk was one of the filmmakers in fifties Hollywood not just using colour but thinking about how it could be more broadly utilised. The difference between Rear Window and Vertigo is how colour becomes in the latter an expression rather than a designation, and we see it too in Nicholas Ray films Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger than Life. Colour takes on the form of a property, one that doesn’t serve the realistic depiction of place but the exaggeration of the milieu. 

      This expressionist approach needn’t only manifest itself in the colour but also in the use of music, the camera angles deployed, and the costumes characters wear. Obviously, style in cinema isn’t always ostentatious and many a film is stylistic in a very different way, and that is where we will return to Truffaut and others. But for Sirk music is as apparent as the colour, and camera angles are no less ostentatious. In one scene we see Kyle getting slump drunk and the film cuts from the motel he, Lucy and Mitch are drinking in, to the police arriving. The camera then moves in on one of the Hadley vehicles and the red of the car dissolves into a red filter as the film cuts to the father in his office. A couple of shots later Kyle arrives home, with Mitch carrying him on his back as we see them entering through a shot in the mirror. Later, after he has hit Lucy he goes down the stairs and leaves the house. Rather than following him out, the camera stops at the mirror and shows him leaving in its reflection, a sign of Mitch’s split personality. The moment Mitch slaps Lucy the soundtrack is loud, a cymbal clashing and a symbol understood.  

    Sirk’s film might be obvious. It is also visually and acoustically assertive, which led to many filmmakers of the sixties insisting that the form needn’t be invisible and that filmmakers could if they chose paint with colour, making the viewer very aware of the frame and the sound design. If we look at sixties films like Le Mepris, Blow-Up, Le Bonheur, The Passion of Anna and other works by the same generation as Truffaut (who would use colour so well in his 1971 film Anne and Muriel), we notice that colour possesses a property that makes the film resemble life but insists also on the art it is contained by. It gives the film a style. The elaborate tracking shots, the exaggeration of mise-en-scene, the use of mirror and the richness of colour would be apparent in such works even if they might seem very far away from the ostensible vulgar commercialism of Written on the Wind. They made the colour an aesthetic property we could observe, not just an expressionist aspect we felt. Sirk would be an influence all over again and more directly in the 80s and 90s, with Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul, Almodovar’s All About My Mother, Haynes’s Far from Heaven and von Trier’s Breaking the Waves all either indebted to Sirk’s tortuous and exaggerated plotting, or to his visual acumen. Both Haynes and von Trier, for example, insisted that we would be very aware of the form but no less engaged in the magnified emotion. Almodovar would combine colour and complication, creating a Sirkian world for the post-modern age, with canny sexual combinations meeting the most elaborate of set designs. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Written on the Wind

"In Written on the Wind I think I hit a fair balance, because you had the interesting characters, [Robert] Stack and [Dorothy] Malone, both brilliantly acted - and you had the counter-balance with Hudson and Bacall, being rather normal and not split within themselves." (Sirk on Sirk) Director Douglas Sirk sees such an aspect chiefly in the acting, as he names those in the four leading roles. But this normalisation or fragmentation can be an aspect of mise en scene, with the actors a product of screen space as readily as actors of varying degrees of depth and texture. Sirk may have said that there was no point turning Rock Hudson into anything more twisted or more complex than he happened to be Hudson was a good soul and the camera couldn't see otherwise. "Before the camera you just can't cheat. The camera has X-ray eyes." (Sirk on Sirk) This needn't mean that all villains are terrible human beings; this is after all acting. But a person's face has at least to indicate villainy or complexity if that is what you seek. Much of the rest will come from the film's style. It will come from the clothes a character wears, the places they occupy, the colours adopted in the scene, the music evident, the camera angles utilised.

We can do worse than see how this happens in Sirk's Written on the Wind, a film like others directed by Sirk in the fifties that gave melodrama a deliberate form, seeing it not just as a narrative formulation but a stylistic one too. A melodramatic story would be one where a lot of events are piled on top of each other, a sort of quickening of drama. As Thomas Elsaesser says, looking at melodramatic plots in various 18th-century fictions: "The melodramatic elements are clearly visible in the plots, which revolve around family relationships, star-crossed lovers, and forced marriages. The villains (often of noble birth) demonstrate their superior political and economic power invariably by sexual aggression and attempted rape, leaving the heroine no other way than to commit suicide or take poison in the company of her lover." ('Tales of Sound and Fury') But how does Sirk turn melodramatized story into melodramatic form?

Let's begin with the beginning. We see a yellow sports car hurtling along the road at night, the road surrounded by pylons on either side and a nodding donkey in the foreground of one shot. It passes a silo saying Hadley oil company, and also a tall building with the same logo, before heading down a street. A sign tells us the population is just under 25,000 and then we see the driver. He is necking a bottle of spirits before arriving at his destination, pulling up at a leafy driveway to a large house with pillars at the front.

Some might view this as economic storytelling; others as an obvious account of a reckless man. Both would probably agree that the film has conveyed to us aspects of his personality: a playboy whose family owns Hadley oil, a man with a drink problem who has been up all night as the light suggests dawn. The car's colour adds to the reckless sense. Maybe red would have worked just as well but blue, grey or black might have been too subdued. It helps that it is a sports car as well and that it is a hatchback as he drives without the hood on.

Verbal exposition is often regarded as inferior to visual storytelling, and maybe one reason why Sirk's reputation has steadily increased over the years lies in critics viewing his work more from the perspective of mise en scene over narrative. The plots may have been exaggerated but so was the colour scheme, the camera angles and the music, all the better to engage the viewer without relying on dialogue that could make the drama seem too stagebound. It is partly why Sirk has influenced numerous filmmakers - Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodovar, Todd Haynes and Lars Von Trier, as if seeking in Sirk an aspect of the melodramatic that would suit their needs. We will say a bit more about this soon, but we can bring to mind another scene in the film. Here the playboy Kyle (Robert Stack) at the beginning has immediately fallen in love with someone, Lucy (Lauren Bacall) who works at Hadley's New York office. He whisks her off on the plane alongside his childhood friend Mitch (Hudson), and from there they find themselves in Miami, with Kyle putting her up in a suite that shows if money can't buy love it can help first in the process of seduction. It has a view of the sea, a settee and several chairs, plush rugs, a large double bedroom and then all the touches Kyle must have insisted upon: a bottle of champagne on ice, flowers in every corner, and a fulsome fruit bowl. When she opens the drawers, they are full of expensive-looking bags, and when she opens the closet there are ball gowns, fur coats and a hat for every occasion.

We might wonder how they got there, and who was behind delivering all these wonderful items. Kyle is a fast mover but his need to impress would surely have been a logistical nightmare. Or has he kept a suite like this in the hope he would someday meet a woman he was so enamoured by that he would want to give it to her all, and all at once? Or is this what he does for all his girls, possessing an exorbitant wealth that can make anyone he seduces feel special? Lucy looks troubled, as well she might, as if she has given thought to all our hypotheses in a split-second. Yet the mise-en-scene's purpose isn't quite to indicate any of the above but to capture Kyle's insecurity; that a woman could only love him if he shows how much wealth he has to shower upon them. The son of an oil man, he reckons gushing matters, and Sirk shows us flattery in the most material of forms. Kyle doesn't just tell Lucy how something is happening to him: that he can talk to her like he hasn't been able to talk to anyone before, he flies her to Miami in a private jet and offers her the most elaborate of visual seductions. If "I love you" can be too flatly expositional, a statement of intent without any action behind it, Kyle has certainly put his money where his mouth is.

Such a scene is as hyperbolic as the opening and, while we might question Sirk's visual overstatement, that doesn't mean we can't admire the mise-en-scene as characterisationally expressive. Taken together, the scenes tell us a lot about Kyle's personality; his unhappiness and his neediness. Rather than seeing Written on the Wind as a series of cumbersome cliches, what about if we argue for its visual rhetoric, for its ability to put commonplace claims into stylistic form? Kyle is initially a miserable man and the film gives us plenty reason to recognise that unhappiness. In the opening scene, Sirk manages to indicate that the world is Kyle's oyster but it is also a clam. There he is in his bright yellow sports car, a symbol of freedom, and he speeds along roads that show an oppressiveness he appears unable to escape. The pylons loom large and the family business so omnipresent the village appears to be encompassed by it. Sirk's purpose is to show that cinema can visualise states rather than describe them. While some might still insist films like Written on the End, and other Sirks, Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life and All that Heaven Allows, lack subtlety, it is also worth noting their impact on the possibilities of mise en scene as colour.

Films made in colour during the forties and fifties were rarely taken as seriously as those made in black and white. Colour was frequently used in Hollywood for melodramas, musicals, historical epics and sometimes Westerns. Serious dramas like Twelve Angry Men, Sunset Boulevard, Witness for the Prosecution, Anatomy of a Murder, and Paths of Glory were in monochrome. When Vertigo was originally released it wasn't admired for its colour; it was dismissed for the flaws in its story. Also, most of the great films from Europe, Japan and Russia were in black and white: Seven Samurai, Wild Strawberries, El, La Strada and Diary of a Country Priest. But when reviewing Written on the Wind before becoming a feature film director himself, Francois Truffaut said: "in visual terms...Written on the Wind merits our attention....We watch Stack in the half-shadow of a blue bedroom, watch him dash into a red corridor and jump into a yellow taxi which lets him out in front of a steel-grey airplane." These aren't the tasteful colours of painting: "all these hues are vivid and frank, varnished and lacquered to such a degree that a painter would scream...but they are the colors of the luxury civilization, the industrial colours that remind us that we live in the age of plastics." (The Films in My Life)

We will say a few words about how Truffaut and others would go on to use colour in a more painterly way, but there was no doubt Sirk was one of the filmmakers in fifties Hollywood not just using colour but thinking about how it could be more broadly utilised. The difference between Rear Window and Vertigo is how colour becomes in the latter an expression rather than a designation, and we see it too in Nicholas Ray films Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger than Life. Colour takes on the form of a property, one that doesn't serve the realistic depiction of place but the exaggeration of the milieu.

This expressionist approach needn't only manifest itself in the colour but also in the use of music, the camera angles deployed, and the costumes characters wear. Obviously, style in cinema isn't always ostentatious and many a film is stylistic in a very different way, and that is where we will return to Truffaut and others. But for Sirk music is as apparent as the colour, and camera angles are no less ostentatious. In one scene we see Kyle getting slump drunk and the film cuts from the motel he, Lucy and Mitch are drinking in, to the police arriving. The camera then moves in on one of the Hadley vehicles and the red of the car dissolves into a red filter as the film cuts to the father in his office. A couple of shots later Kyle arrives home, with Mitch carrying him on his back as we see them entering through a shot in the mirror. Later, after he has hit Lucy he goes down the stairs and leaves the house. Rather than following him out, the camera stops at the mirror and shows him leaving in its reflection, a sign of Mitch's split personality. The moment Mitch slaps Lucy the soundtrack is loud, a cymbal clashing and a symbol understood.

Sirk's film might be obvious. It is also visually and acoustically assertive, which led to many filmmakers of the sixties insisting that the form needn't be invisible and that filmmakers could if they chose paint with colour, making the viewer very aware of the frame and the sound design. If we look at sixties films like Le Mepris, Blow-Up, Le Bonheur, The Passion of Anna and other works by the same generation as Truffaut (who would use colour so well in his 1971 film Anne and Muriel), we notice that colour possesses a property that makes the film resemble life but insists also on the art it is contained by. It gives the film a style. The elaborate tracking shots, the exaggeration of mise-en-scene, the use of mirror and the richness of colour would be apparent in such works even if they might seem very far away from the ostensible vulgar commercialism of Written on the Wind. They made the colour an aesthetic property we could observe, not just an expressionist aspect we felt. Sirk would be an influence all over again and more directly in the 80s and 90s, with Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul, Almodovar's All About My Mother, Haynes's Far from Heaven and von Trier's Breaking the Waves all either indebted to Sirk's tortuous and exaggerated plotting, or to his visual acumen. Both Haynes and von Trier, for example, insisted that we would be very aware of the form but no less engaged in the magnified emotion. Almodovar would combine colour and complication, creating a Sirkian world for the post-modern age, with canny sexual combinations meeting the most elaborate of set designs.


© Tony McKibbin