Dir. Douglas Sirk. Starring Robert Stack, Lauren Bacall, Rock Hudson
Written on the Wind is stuck in a really strange place for a movie. It chips at the very limits of frankness and decency for its time period, but to work well it has to go much further than all that 1956 could allow. The story of resentment and betrayal at the center of the film is intoxicating, the stuff of the best stories. Kyle (Stack) is the scion of a massive oil company and Mitch (Hudson) is some combination of Kyle’s oldest friend, chief apologist, and best employee. Kyle is a playboy, lewd and persistently drunk; Mitch drinks a little, but mostly tags along to bail Kyle out of trouble after he’s exacerbated the situation. Mitch, a geologist by training, has the professional and personal trust of Kyle’s father, Jasper (Robert Keith); Kyle has never had that trust, not even when he was a boy. Mitch picks up a handsome woman, a secretary in advertising named Lucy (Bacall); in the course of about eighteen hours Kyle seduces her, convinces her that he would stabilize himself for her, and marries her. Even though he’s gotten into more than his fair share of trouble for Kyle, this is the first instance in which Mitch resents Kyle. The friendship held up because the resentment was one-sided, and because the offended party was the one who still held all the cards. When Mitch takes on his own share of hurt, it’s only a matter of time until the Hadleys will boil over.
The fact that Kyle holds up his end of the deal, and that Lucy is the epitome of a “good woman,” only makes the question of what Mitch reads as a betrayal that much more fascinating. For a full year, Kyle is responsible with alcohol and contributes his fair share to society and to his family business. Mitch continues to be the unspoken hero of the oil business. Lucy has this lovely marriage with Kyle and ignores, or conveniently pushes away, the memory that Mitch wanted her first. It is a top-heavy situation, where the accumulated damage of the past can’t help but overcome the fragile structure at the bottom.
That’s a quick synopsis of the first twenty-odd minutes of the movie, which showcases the powerful energy that Written on the Wind tries to harness. But the film can’t quite wrap its arms around the issues at the heart of the picture because the trappings get in the way. When Kyle snaps, as he ultimately must, he does so because he’s afraid he’s sterile. If he reacted bitterly, going back to the bottle and sniping at his wife and best friend, that would be one thing. He goes off the deep end instead. He listens to the implications of his nasty sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone), despite the fact that the two have hated each other since childhood and he’s never trusted her before. He refuses to believe that the child Lucy tells him they’ll have is his, even though it is. He does not merely insult or scream; he gibbers with the kind of wide-eyed alcoholic desperation that we usually assign to expat writers in Paris. It simply isn’t enough. Offhand, the only American movie from the 1950s which has this much to say, implicitly or otherwise, about the male reproductive system is Anatomy of a Murder. Sirk and his team are at the very edge of possibility, but even that isn’t enough to credibly give Kyle a reason to live the last weeks of his life in an intoxicated stupor.
There is a missed opportunity to push the comparison between Kyle and Mitch, to inflect Kyle’s fear of being effete and unmanly next to a guy named “Mitch” who looks like Rock Hudson. When it works, it works; in true Sirk fashion, he puts Kyle next to a lavender I’ve never seen in a movie before. But there’s not enough of that. There’s too much drunk paranoia instead; there’s nothing especially engaging “my best friend is sleeping with my wife and also I am extraordinarily sloshed.” It may, once again, be reasonably scandalous for ’56 – there are scads of movie drunks before Kyle Hadley, though few are as destructive as him – but we lose the strength of Kyle’s resentment when his lifelong insecurity is replaced with a case of corn whiskey. It’s much too easy to blame the booze instead of blaming a man whose privilege has obliterated his ability to cope with his troubles. Dan (Robert J. Wilke, who is so underappreciated), the owner of a local dive bar, tries to talk a little sense into Kyle in one scene. You know, he says, if I had your money I wouldn’t be drinking in this dump. When Kyle asks him where he’d go instead, Dan stretches the limits of his imagination. I’d go to the country club, he says. There’s a deep sadness there, not just for Dan, who needs to get out more, but for Kyle. In the first act of the film, he takes Lucy (and Mitch, accidentally) to Miami on a whim. Is that all there is for me to go to? he must be thinking. Can I only go back to the country club? But then Kyle gets drunker. Sometime after that, he’ll try to buy Dan’s gun off of him to shoot Mitch with. Steps forward, like the subtlety in Dan, are blindsided and sent staggering back with the faintly ridiculous.
A few months ago, I rated two of Sirk’s ’50s melodramas, All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, among my top 100 American features. My trouble with the movie isn’t that it’s wildly emotional or an old-fashioned weepie, but that it doesn’t punch wearing kid gloves. All That Heaven Allows is this tremendously forceful movie that goes up to each of its characters, whacks them in the back of the head with a 2×4, and tells them to shut up and get back in line; we are swept along in the story of Cary and Ron because they ultimately decide to persist together in their unconventional way of life. Imitation of Life is an absolutely essential movie about race relations, passing, and how even well-meaning people do unforgivable things. (It’s been months since my last viewing and I’m still mad at Lana Turner.) Even Magnificent Obsession, which skips camp entirely en route to surrealism, is concerned with how privileged people abuse their positions and how they can atone for what they have. Written on the Wind falls short on those fronts. The consequences of alcoholism or, in Marylee’s case, nymphomania, don’t hit home with the steely power of the situations in those other movies. From a perspective of stakes, little more than the pride and security of a rich family is on the line, and this is not much of an incentive to glue our eyes to the screen. (Heck, Giant, released in the same year, is a better Rock Hudson movie about a rich Texan family losing its collective mind.)
Bacall is fine, but she doesn’t invite our sympathy like Jane Wyman or Juanita Moore. Marylee’s infatuation with Mitch – and the way she punishes everyone around her because Mitch loves someone else – is fine, as good as Malone could muster for a role that doesn’t ask her to do much else besides playact “slinky” for all of her scenes. But she does not attract our loathing like Turner or the half-dozen conventional ladies carping at Cary in All That Heaven Allows. Hudson doesn’t have enough to say; he’s got presence, as usual, but it’s too benign to make him threatening enough to add some real venom to the story. Even though Robert Stack has to try to convince us that he’s losing his mind because there’s a chance that he’s shooting blanks – even though sometimes it takes more than a year for a perfectly normal couple to conceive – he’s playing the most versatile game. At the beginning of the film, he plays a practiced lecher to perfection. He double entendres Lucy again and again. He offers to buy the advertising firm she works at with a single phone call. He sets up a suite for her at the hotel, trying to buy her with handbags, jewelry, a full closet, and an ocean view. (He minces words only slightly when he talks about why he brought her to Miami; a middle schooler of today would be able to guess his game.) But Stack also makes the reformed Kyle a character we can buy, leveling off the presumptuousness and the wild gleam in his eye while keeping the love of a good time intact. It’s a shame that so much of his performance requires him to talk about the good memories he associates with “drinkin’ corn,” like he’s escaped from a choral group which has only practiced “Rocky Top.”