Saturday, March 6, 2010

Written on the Wind

"Written On the Wind" (Douglas Sirk, 1956) Consummate trash is still something to be celebrated, and "Written on the Wind" is consummate trash; so soap-opera it squeaks, it has pretensions towards Tennessee Williams but with dialogue straight out of Indiana Jones, and sophisticated airs that smell a little fetid, like last night's twelve course meal left in the sink.

But it's directed like a dream (with the occasional diversion into night-sweats) by
Douglas Sirk, who may be the most manipulative film director since Hitchcock, steering an audience's sight-lines like a Dutch master, by means both sly and obvious.

There's been
a bit of a kerfluffle on the cin-terwebs recently over Sirk's worth as a director. Well, it's one thing to design the sets and wardrobe and choose the colors and decor, but it's quite another to orchestrate all those things and design a course through it to make an image that complements, makes explicit or counters the words on the script-page (that, at the time Sirk was working, had to be approved by a censor, mind you). Call it "Dancing through the Hays Code" and Sirk's direction cuts quite a path of stylish elegance while presenting the mire of the "comfortably well-off." It's a bit like trying to keep your dignity running through a cow-field.

The story is about the Hadley family, thick—almost gooey—with the oil business, and something of a gusher when it comes to spilling their muck in all directions, soiling those in their vicinity. Take Mitch Wayne (
Rock Hudson), son of a farmer who worked the Hadley property and school-chum to the Hadley scum of a scion, Kyle (Robert Stack), an intense guy who always comes on a little strong to the ladies. Mitch, on the other hand, is hard-working, poor, and a perfect gentleman. Even when Kyle sweeps Lucy, the girl Mitch has his eye on (Lauren Bacall), off her feet and out of Mitch's grasp with a dazzling display of Hadley life-style. Simple enough. Then toss in Kyle's sister Marylee (as in "...we roll along")(Dorothy Malone*), who's been in love with Mitch since they were kids, and things get real complicated. In fact, they get as wild as the wind, which blows and batters the Hadley Estate in a show of Nature's distaste—a protest as violent as Akira Kurosawa's dust-devils.

Not too worry, though. Sirk is the tour guide through this E-ticket sexual Disneyland. Enjoy the ride (and keep your hands in the vehicle at all times).

Let's start off with something safe. Women's heads as a proscenium arch—their curiosity points us to and frames the principals.

Sirk used a moving camera sparingly and with a great deal of control. He let you see what he wanted you to see when he wanted you to see it. In this set-up, the eye would wander to what's around the corner (the garish red on the wall attracts your eye)—patience, Sirk will take you there in a minute. In the meantime, there is a large mirror, incongruously in front of the check-in desk, that allows you to see the characters coming out of an elevator before they approach the lady at check-in. Your eyes move to that. Sirk likes to make entrances interesting by having them reflected in mirrors.

After a bar fight that leaves Kyle defeated and humiliated, everybody's showing him the door without saying anything, the beaded curtain forming a light-weight barrier. When he violently goes through it, the body of Dorothy Malone's character Marylee will follow the sway of the beads before she turns and follows her brother.

Where do your eyes go? The camera has followed Bacall and Hudson into the bar, where they stop, looking for Stack. If their body positions didn't point you in the right direction, Sirk has put Stack between the two brightest things in the room—the white-shirted bartenders.

Lucy and Mitch bring the drunken Kyle home to recover—that's Mitch climbing the stairs in the background, Kyle's the limp sack over his shoulder—while a mortified Lucy explains to father Jasper...well, *sigh* it's probably a story's he's heard before.

And if you think the director's taking this florid stuff too seriously, brothers and sisters, you aren't looking close enough. Get out your de-coder rings. There'll be a quiz.

Doesn't get more obvious than couldn't show sex on the screen in the 50's (without pan-aways to roaring fires and crashing ocean waves)—but you can show this and it isn't any surprise when Marylee is revealed to be having an affair with the pump-jockey (who for a perverse bit of trivia is played by Grant Williams, "The Incredible Shrinking Man").

This is an insert shot. It was deliberate and could have been edited out without hurting anything, and yet it remains. It occurs when Lucy tours the hotel suite Kyle Hadley has arranged for her and opens a drawer...of clutch-purses. How many purses have been snapped in anger (and in men's faces) over the cinematic war between men and women during the Hays Code? Lots, because purses with those snapping openings were a metaphor for a woman's genitalia. And when a woman got mad at a man--SNAP!--she would loudly shut the purse...thereby showing her disdain for the man by metaphorically denying him sex (Things were that complicated in the Hays Code days). Lucy should have inferred how much Kyle played around by this little collection and ran like hell. *

Kyle Hadley starts this conversation on the right side of the frame in front of the bed, then as he becomes more ardent, the bed is uncovered. And oh, by the way, rival-for-Lucy's-affections Mitch is seen in the mirror between them, but because he's on a different plane from Lucy and Kyle, he could be on another planet. So, although he comes between them, he's little (diminutive, in fact) threat. There's a lot of triangulation in this family.

Some friend. Now here's Kyle's sister Marylee (
Dorothy Malone) a hyperbolic hyphenate of dipso- and nympho-manias.* She's been in love with Mitch since they were kids, and despises her brother with a passion that practically pops the buttons off her blouse. Sirk makes sure we see her pouring the booze in the Cinemascope frame. Or she's so drunk, she has to hold it that close to avoid spillage.

Marylee in her well-ordered, yet cluttered room. The room is orderly, tidy—everything in its place, including her intended in a thick, wrought-iron frame—with the occasional wild errant splash of color...that being red—including her phone. Looking at this angle from above, the angles of things would look crazy and at odd angles--they're directing your attention to her, but she's small and trapped by her surroundings. Of course she is. Her room is a reflection of her own roiling mind, shadowed and complicated and morbid like a funeral hall.

Speaking of reflections, Sirk does a lot with this shot. Marylee plunks herself down, inserting herself into Lucy's mirror (she likes the attention), and adjusts her hair as Lucy brushes. Marylee thinks they're just alike, with their attachments to Mitch and Kyle linking them...but she's alone, posing in that mirror. She is the storm to Lauren Bacall's calm, seemingly incapable of remaining still, where Bacall is all stillness. They're counter-points, not reflections.

Dysfunctional family portrait.
Father Jasper Hadley (Robert Keith), old and frail and ineffectual, has put all his strength into his oil business—check out his portrait—and his kids have run out of control (Their mother's dead—they probably ate her after they were born, like the spiders they are).

Your turn! Now what (oh, what) could Sirk be saying with this shot?

Nothing. I just like this shot. Thanks for playing. Exits by the mirror on the wall. Mind the gap.

* Malone won an Oscar for her role. It's easy to see why—she put a lot of work and jitter-bugging energy into this performance (see the video). Even at 24 frames per second it's hard to keep up with her. Both Malone and Bacall had worked with Bogart in "The Big Sleep" (Bogart, by the way, hated this movie and told Bacall she should stay clear of this sort of material).

** If you think my theories are a bit far-fetched, I can only remind you of the story of the woman who went to a psychiatrist who gave her a rorshach test. "Now, what does this remind you of?" he asks her, and she says, "That's a vagina." "How about this one?" "That's two people making love." "Interesting, what do you see in this picture?" "That's another picture of making love." "And what's this one?" "Well, that's a penis." "Well, it's obvious," says the shrink. "You're obsessed with sex." "I am!" says the woman. "You're the one with the dirty pictures!"

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