Alright. This is the thread for GROUP 1 to post their critiques on.
To begin, KONRAD, with his critique for Written On The Wind, Douglas Sirk.
Konrad, take it away. :D
yeah, I will… after lunch :)
Written On The Wind (1956)
I rarely enjoy any American movie made before 1960 due to couple of reasons. First of all, most of these pictures were shot completely on a lot with tacky concrete & paper sets, lollipop decorations including ridiculous lighting solutions – a case when a character lits up a match and the whole room is suddenly filled with light would be the best cliche. Second of all, big chunk of these movies has become completely irrelevant with time either in terms of acting, directing or the way stories are told on the screen. If some of these melodramas have retained their romantic appeal, it’s because they are closer to genre pictures and are watched exclusively by die-hard followers. Although it’s not fundamentally their fault, the world of cinema has moved on irreversibly in the late 60’s leaving a lot of these artifacts in the corner as worn-out newspapers. As constant change is a rule not only for the cinema, but for the culture in general, no cigarette can be smoked twice.
This motto apllies perfectly to „Written On The Wind”, a movie that might have been good one day, but in the universe of present it seems like a carton box full of dried leaves. There’s not much to watch, even less to think and talk about, cause where would it’s value be anyway? In cringeworthy, absolutely unconvincing acting of the cast – lead actors do not even know how to use face muscles to show emotions – which causes this particular, heavy back sweat overlapped with cry in your head „how long till the end?” Or maybe in a soap-opera type screenplay, where a man who loves a girl finds out that somebody else loves her, but in fact is loved by another girl in the same time, whose love is logically not reciprocated (she doesn’t know yet she’s a lesbian and will fall in love with a girl, whom that first guy loves), on which this movie is built? Some would say that costumes are not too bad. All right, but this is not a pirate story (basically a „costume movie”), where they are atmosphere building essentials, so down with this argument!
Still, we might ponder for a while a style of directing as the strongest element here, linking visually romantic intro with the action in form of retrospection. However, film is bumpy without any basic respect for it’s story timeline. Director cuts it short introducing all characters in 15 minutes, rising them in 5 and after jumping the gun folllows a dull, tragic romance script going mostly after exploits as the climax is actually incorporated in the intro and cannot serve anymore as a hidden device. We know from the start what to expect, we just don’t know when it’s gonna blow. Do I like that kid of stories? No, I actually hate them for the plastic aura, giddy construction, industrial sweet bitterness, seemingly real emotions and forced happy end! In fact, where would we be without happily married couple riding towards the sunset? I guess, whacked out in the bushes trying to put all pieces back together, wouldn’t we. No way, man! I just don’t buy this sort of crap!
Personally I’ve had a REALLY hard time with this vintage Hollywood’s best trying at first focus on the story, but I was disillusioned after about 20 minutes. Then I jumped to observing the acting performances and I still don’t know which one left me weary first. When I finally got to analysing camera movements and cinematography, I concluded they were very conservative even for the late 50’s. Certainly, this was a product of the Hollywood machinery, therefore nobody was taking it as a work of art, even worse as going down this road was unacceptable. Made buck, good. Didn’t make buck, let’s drop the director and his artsy-fartsy approach (Orson Welles was a very significant exception).
What really made me mad though was complete absence of humour in this movie, for instance „I Was a Teenage Werewolf” (made for a dime by AIP in 1957) is a clumsily directed, low budget flick with a baaaad screenplay, cheap effects and acting much worse than that one featured in „Written On The Wind”… but it’s hilarious and after 55 years easily holds on to it’s pure entertainment values, while this spiked with budget, high aiming product fails miserably to deliver anything but depression-caused hiccup, which you need to cure afterwards with two joints and three rounds of whisky! Hey, wait! On second thought, it may serve it’s purpose as a brainwashing tool for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I want to speed through a few aspects of Written on the Wind that, though lacking, or hardly the main problem with the film. First the cinematography is lush and expansive where gritty might have worked better. This is not an outsider looking in on the rich picture (like Wilder’s Sabrina). This is a problems with the rich soaper. The music is another issue; the four aces title song has a folksy quality that again seems at odds with the sweeping (read overblown and loud) music that the film uses to over score every dramatic development. The main issues of the film are with the script and especially the acting. We could give ourselves all kinds of handshakes for seeing this as a commentary on the dirt lurking beneath a high class milieu, but I think that is to overstate the film’s qualities.
It starts off well, guy goes speeding through town, we see the population sign so know it is a small town. We see all the oil wells and the car the guy is driving and know he must be important to this oil town. He is drunk and everyone main character reacts to his state as he comes driving up to a large property. He dies.
So far so good, but then we are shown the rest of things in flashback, Mitch (Rock Hudson) flirts with Lucy (Lauren Bacall) who is an office gal. Lucy is then almost immediately getting married to Kyle, despite the fact that she has more chemistry Mitch, with Kyle’s father even. One has to assume that the reason she is marrying him is related to money, since that is the only indication we are given.
Kyle is shooting blanks. This makes him feel less than manly. He has a gun and cheap booze fetish which will end with predictable results.
Mitch is a bachelor (and here it is hard not to get easy laughs based on Rock’s orientation) who is not interested in Kyle’s sister Mary Lee despite the fact that she is kind of sexy and fun and would not be married to someone like Kyle if she was really into someone else, a stand up girl if you ask me.
High drama surrounds all these characters, but never compelling drama. When Stack does not rely on his monotone style that defined his career he is really rather silly and hard to take. When Bacall is reduced to dutiful wife bullshit, feminism is moved back a peg.
yeah, so at least we’re through with this piece of crap :)
Okay, here goes:
Douglas Sirk was anything but a subtle filmmaker, so in his honor, I won’t be subtle either: Written on the Wind is all about the penis. From penis envy to sterility, everything in this film relates to the phallus. If you doubt this, just look at the film’s climactic shot: Dorothy Malone’s Marylee Hadley sitting in her father’s brown office at his brown desk in a grey suit with her hair in a tight bun, cradling a model of an oil derrick like it was one of the glasses of liquor she and her brother clung to in earlier scenes, while being watched over by a portrait of her father in a brown suit holding that same model like it was a prostitute that owed him money, looking right at her.
In case you’re wondering why I mention the colors of the room and the clothes, well, that’s because Written on the Wind is art directed to within an inch of its life. Night shots are all deep, dark blue, with cars the only splashes of bright color – since we’re supposed to be paying attention to them and where they are going. The color palette is almost comically limited – costumes and interiors are all kept to either red-brown or blue-grey, with splashes of pink, white and green (a necessity for outdoor scenes and money) for emphasis. The characters themselves are color-coded: Rock Hudson’s Mitch Wayne (a name that could only be more masculine if it were, I don’t know, Rock Hudson) is brown, all the better to blend in with the dusty, dirty ranch he comes from. Robert Stack’s Kyle Hadley is in blue-grey, just a shade removed from the black oil in which his family made its name. Lauren Bacall’s Lucy Hadley (née Moore) vacillates between those two colors (BECAUSE SHE HAS FEELINGS FOR THEM BOTH!) when she isn’t in white (BECAUSE SHE’S AN INNOCENT!). Marylee is in shades of red (WHORE!), especially pink (BECAUSE SHE’S NEVER GROWN UP!), with the occasional piece of white when she wants to look particularly innocent and black when she’s at a formal event. Of course, all this gets thrown out the window after someone dies, when everyone wears black for one scene (BECAUSE THEY’RE ALL IN MOURNING!).
Interestingly enough, the Hadley Oil Company building is brown, and old Mr. Hadley also usually wears brown – the color of the son he wished he had (Mitch) instead of the color of the son he actually has (Kyle). Poor Kyle. Poor sad, sterile Kyle. If only he had known he was in a movie, he would have guessed his fate much earlier.
In fact, we the audience probably should have known his fate right from the very beginning, when Kyle’s bright yellow car careens down the roads of Texas, with a special shot of the phallic Hadley Oil Building, bottle of liquor in his mouth. He arrives at a house and stumbles in, leaving the door open so that the wind can dramatically blow in curtains and leaves. We see all the major players (with the names of the actors portraying them kindly displayed alongside, in case we didn’t realize that these are ACTORS playing FICTIONAL CHARACTERS) in single static shots, all brightly lit except Marylee, who grins mischievously in shadow. A gunshot, and Kyle staggers outside and collapses, as does Lucy, inside. What just happened? Well, unfortunately for anyone who likes instant gratification, it will likely take the rest of the film to find out, as the wind blows the pages of a calendar back, back, back as we go into the past to find out what led to this seeming tragedy! Ah, artifice!
And also: Ah, expediency! Everything in Written on the Wind is done to make sure the audience gets it with a minimum of effort. Lucy, Mitch, and Kyle are introduced within the first four minutes and in such broad strokes that there’s no way we could mistake them. And just in case you didn’t get where their story was going, Sirk not only places them in a triangle (BECAUSE BOTH MEN LOVE LUCY!), but when Kyle leaves in one scene, Sirk underlines it by having him reveal a woman in a bright red coat (BECAUSE HE’S GOING TO DIE!). Lucy and Kyle share their first kiss after the first mention of marriage, and before you know it we’re whisked away to some white room, lit in the blue of night (BECAUSE THEY JUST HAD SEX!). And if all that weren’t enough, the sets and clothes are color-coordinated to show where each man feels most comfortable (the offices are Mitch brown, bars and planes are Kyle grey), and which man has Lucy’s sympathies at any given moment. This continues unabated throughout the film: Unsure of how to feel about Lucy finding a gun hidden under Kyle’s pillow? Here’s some dramatic stabs of mysterious-sounding music! Wondering about the relationship between Mitch and Kyle? Whenever they leave somewhere, Kyle jets off in a car leaving Mitch behind in a cloud of dust (BECAUSE HE’S IRRESPONSIBLE AND HAS MITCH CLEAN UP HIS MESSES!). Not sure what to make of Marylee? Here she is, in garish pink, gazing lustfully (and drunkenly) at a man dressed in brown at a dive bar (BECAUSE SHE’S STILL IN LOVE WITH LOWER-CLASS, BROWN-WEARING MITCH!). Still not sure? Here she is, giving premium “O-face” to a soundtrack of her and Mitch’s younger selves before falling against a tree, fingering a carving of their initials in a heart while covering up Kyle’s initials on the same tree (BECAUSE KYLE IS THE FORGOTTEN HADLEY CHILD! AND SHE STILL LOVES MITCH!).
As you might have guessed from the above, Dorothy Malone walks away with the film. That she gets away with lines as groaningly bad as “a whiskey bottle’s all you’ll ever kill,” (FORESHADOWING!) is down to her talent, but the fact that she survived this film unscathed (and with an Academy Award!) when Sirk puts her in such a ridiculous, sublime sequence as when Marylee gets undressed and dances the mambo while her father simultaneously has a heart attack and dies is really down to Sirk himself. For all the camp, good and bad, intentional and unintentional, in Written on the Wind, the filmmaking is really very smart. The sequence I just mentioned is so brazen, especially for 1956, that it can only be applauded. In fact, it is very instructive as to how to view the film. This is a melodrama after all, and oversized emotions are the order of the day when it comes to melodrama. Why shouldn’t the filmmaking be likewise? This is where Sirk shows his mastery. For all the laughter the film might inspire (and laughter it gets, especially when Kyle stumbles out of a meeting with his doctor where he’s been told he is probably sterile and encounters a young boy giddily, nay, maniacally, bouncing up and down on a mechanical horse), the overdone-ness of everything is entirely of a piece with the material. Yes, it can largely be a matter of telling us what to feel instead of showing us (the music almost comically ramps up during the film’s biggest emotional moments), but when the telling is as masterfully, proudly manipulative as it is here, it deserves our attention and our respect.
But back to where we began: The penis. The schlong. The tallywacker. Phallic symbols are all over this movie. In addition to the Hadley’s oil derrick model and corporate headquarters, there are the many bottles of corn liquor Kyle clings to when he fears his penis is failing him, the long-barreled gun Mitch goes hunting with when his penis isn’t getting any, and of course, the giant tree Marylee clings to when she remembers her younger days with Mitch. Not to mention the literal dicks: The two men Marylee picks up when she’s desperate for what Mitch is clearly never going to give her. They couldn’t be more obvious Mitch surrogates if they tried: Lower-class working men dressed all in brown. But really, all this points to a director who knew exactly what he was doing. It all may be a bit much, but very carefully so. No matter how much attention you pay to Written on the Wind, you’ll get who these people are, where their sympathies lie, and what is going to happen to them. And, as a bonus, how big their oil derrick is.
Sorry I’m a little late… anyway, I liked it a lot more than you guys did – here’s why:
Written on the Wind is a film that you have to enjoy just for the sake of enjoying movies. It isn’t very ambitious – there are no subtle commentaries or statements (although Roger Ebert thinks otherwise), there’s no complications between goodguys and badguys, there’s not really even a moral dilemma. But Written on the Wind isn’t about that – it’s about pure, unassuming, simple, ridiculous romance, and that’s the only way it can be judged.
One of the best things about Written on the Wind is that it is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The colors are so perfect, vivid, and overstated that watching the film feels like eating candy. The garish colors are emphasized by Sirk’s functional, efficient framing and cinematography. His camera doesn’t often move, and characters usually stay in their own section of the frame, giving you more room to take in his expressive coloring.
The most obviously wonderful sequence in the film, and one that can really speak for the film as a whole, is when Jasper Hadley dies. First, Marylee starts playing some frenetic jazz while dancing in her room and changing. She is such a satisfyingly one-dimensional character, and Malone handles her wonderfully in the dance… plus, we get to see her in whatever kind of underwear that is 50’s women wear under their cocktail dresses! Her tortured father starts to walk up the unbelievably lavish staircase in his foyer, but the film keeps cutting back to Marylee and the angles at which Jasper is shot get more and more crooked. Meanwhile, the camera can hardly keep up with Marylee in her bedroom – it keeps making quick, sudden pans as Marylee goes from the far left to the far right and back again. The editing gets quicker, the music gets louder, and Jasper dramatically falls down his gorgeous staircase, which we get to see from two different angles! Mitch runs in to pick him up (so we can see how dutiful he is), Lucy looks on from upstairs, horrified (so we can see how nice, but ineffectual she is… the perfect 50’s woman!!), and Marylee sits down in an armchair and gleefully kicks her legs up and down in the air (so we can see how evil she is).
The scene, and most scenes in the film, blatantly spells out exactly who and what each character is. From there, it’s not hard to extrapolate what happens in the plot. The only thing left to guess is whether or not the evil Marylee will have a unexpectedly sudden change of heart at the end (SPOILER ALERT – she does). But the film isn’t about keeping you guessing, or even surprising you. It’s about gratifying that primal need we all have for romance and, much more importantly, drama. We’re never going to see the scion of an oil tycoon drunkenly slap his miraculously pregnant wife – we’re even less likely to see a face-slap cause a miscarriage! Written on the Wind doesn’t exist in our world – it exists in a wonderfully one-dimensional one, where we can all watch as broadly-drawn characters duke it out with each other for our own personal satisfaction. It is perfect escapist entertainment. I wish the real 50’s were like that!
Mubi community, please give feedback on these critiques for Written On The Wind, and tell us which one you liked best, and which one you liked least, and why.
DFFOO gets my vote with this because he judged the film on its merits, by stepping back in time to the 1950’s:
It’s about gratifying that primal need we all have for romance and, much more importantly, drama. We’re never going to see the scion of an oil tycoon drunkenly slap his miraculously pregnant wife – we’re even less likely to see a face-slap cause a miscarriage! Written on the Wind doesn’t exist in our world – it exists in a wonderfully one-dimensional one, where we can all watch as broadly-drawn characters duke it out with each other for our own personal satisfaction. It is perfect escapist entertainment. I wish the real 50’s were like that!
One for DFFOO. :) Thanks, Robert!
Dennis Brian gets my vote! :)
There was a very good reason Cahiers du cinema under Bazin had the policy of “he who likes the film best gets to review it.”
DFFOO gets my vote. The rest of the reviews should be filed under “Crimes Against Cinema.”
Two for DFFOO, one for Den.
Also, for the record — I have to state again that you should be reviewing analytically not emotionally. Does the film work? If so, why? If not, why?
I will also vote for DFFOO, but style points to Dan Bayer for the whole phallus thing. (You wouldn’t happen to be a frequent visitor of the Denver airport, would you?)
DFFOO’s review judges the film as what it is and what it’s trying to be, whereas the other reviews basically say “I don’t like the style of old Hollywood, therefore I don’t like this film, for the attributes it has typical of old Hollywood.” They also seem to read like a series of unrelated impressions rather than a structured essay.
Three for DFFOO, one for Den.
I have to agree with Jerry Johnson:
Quote: There was a very good reason Cahiers du cinema under Bazin had the policy of “he who likes the film best gets to review it.”
Nevertheless Dan Bayer gets my vote, for his elaborate observations. It doesn’t matter if I’ve seen the film (i have), and it doesn’t matter if i like it (I do) – when I read his piece I get some things explained I may not have seen myself. And it’s funny, and it’s witty. And it doesn’t try to act as if the film had to fulfill his wishes as the viewer – which i honestly don’t care about.
So we come to which one I liked the least. Dennis Brian’s and Drunken Father Figure Of Old’s were too short and inconsistent imo. Konrad doesn’t know what to do with the film (or plainly hates it), but at least he’s trying to explain why. So my “negative” vote for least convincing has to go to Dennis, becuase as he states "
I want to speed through a few aspects of Written on the Wind", which as he does doesn’t give me any insights whatsoever into the film. A fregmentary mood piece filled with opinions. Good for a short comment as a piece of ongoing discussion on a film. Nowhere near anything I would regard as a cohesive text on its own, that actually tries to tell me anything. Nothing wrong with it: but it surely would have benefitted from being at least twice as long.
i also like dan bayer’s review with its’ color scheme critique. it’s funny. i haven’t seen the film though :\
also den’s picture supports the ‘phallic’ theory lol
Three for DFFOO, 2 for Dan, one for Den. As in best so far. Konrad has sent me his votes separately.
Still waiting for more votes from the rest of the participants.
Am I supposed to submit a vote for someone’s critique? Should I do that on this thread, or should I pm you, Odi?
Drunk, by pm
^ HA HA HA, that came off sounding funny, Uli.
Anyone heard from Max?…
Anyone sent him a pm?
I contacted him on FB, where he’s easier to reach. Still no reply…
And I reminded him via FB on Saturday
Really enjoyed reading all of your reviews – I wouldn’t dare to evaluate which one is best, but I particularly like Dan Bayer’s (the phallic imagery really was blatant there at the end, no?) and DFFOO’s (last paragraph is very apt re:melodrama in general).
For my part, it struck me as a portrait of a generation that hasn’t grown up, is still stuck in a half-remembered childhood, that apparently has everything in the world at its fingertips but gets nothing out of it. A man like Kyle Hadley is stuck in a prison of his own making – a mental one. A rich man can be the dirtiest, most miserable bum in the world if that’s what he sees himself as.
And Kyle is the tragic hero of the piece, no question. From the beginning, he’s presented as a storyteller figure, a man whose flights of fancy and wild imagination allow him to play out fantastic romances and protracted escapes from reality. It’s how he wins Lucy over, after all; he lets her in on one of his adventures, one of his stories. It’s always men like that that are most susceptible to suspicion. His imagination runs away from him, and his best friend, who has always had everything but the spotlight – the respect of a father, the love of a sister – becomes the perfect Judas figure in the narrative he cooks up for himself in his mind. He is the poor, spurned husband, impotent in the face of his superior shadow, to whom he finally loses his wife, and then his wits. There’s something very theatrical and self-aware about all of Kyle’s misery; he wallows so dramatically because he’s in a melodrama, sure, but also because that’s the way he approaches the world, just like his equally miserable and displaced sister. She too cooks up a narrative for herself, one in which she is a guiltless victim of circumstances.
That’s not to say Mitch Wayne is guiltless – I find the way he treats Kyle throughout the film, particularly toward the end, to reek of condescension and the smug awareness of his own superiority – but ultimately it’s a film about people who feel powerless and compensate by selectively painting the world in broad strokes, trying to shrug off their own complicity or inability to adjust or whatever else. It’s a very despairing film, and I think that the simple, unassuming romance DFFOO remarks upon takes a backseat to that despair. The “wonderfully one-dimensional world” is that way because it’s filtered through the eyes of characters who don’t know how to deal with the world any other way.
^ Thanks much for this contribution, Malkin! Lovely to read more opinions about this movie.
My pleasure! Thanks to you and Uli for getting such a worthwhile project going.
Uli’s the driver and originator, I give him all the credit.
I’m just doing his bidding, because I like him. ;)
This past two weeks at work has left me so drained, getting ready for trade shows. I just finished watching the film. expect my writeup within the hour. This will no happen again.