A sports car races through the night, its driver taking swigs from a bottle of cheap booze as he powers on between the oil wells his father owns. He is Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), heir to a vast fortune, and is extremely angry as he pulls up to the family mansion as the blustery weather whorls the dead Autumn leaves around him, smashing the now-empty bottle and marching indoors. Shortly after there is a gunshot, and a figure stumbles out and collapses onto the driveway. So what happened? To answer that, we must go back in time to the previous year, and the moment Kyle met advertising secretary Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall)...
For many, Written on the Wind was the greatest melodrama its director Douglas Sirk ever made, the epitome of his signature way with a torrid tale with all the wealth of subtext he could pack into ninety minutes or so of what in later years would be fodder for the television soap operas: some have wondered whether eighties supersoap Dallas owed any debts to this particular effort. What set the Sirk movie apart was that you didn't have to scratch that surface too strongly to see all those emotions and frustrations running wild, and what had set them off in the first place, so one character's latent homosexuality sends him to the bottle, while another's inability to get the man she wants leads her to nymphomania.
No matter that as a case history, this was so over the top it would be hard to take seriously, for we were in the artifice of fifties Hollywood and you could regard the goings-on as sincerely or otherwise as you wished. Certainly there are those who see this as purest camp, yet the signs that Sirk was employing broad parody are few and far between for he appears to take these characters, no matter how close to cartoonish they become, as gravely as their situation would dictate. Therefore the two rich kids who are the most messed up are not sent up as figures of "serves 'em right" fun, even if audiences of the day could revel in scenes of those with privilege having a rotten time of it.
The sister in this terrible twosome is Marylee Hadley, played exceptionally by Dorothy Malone in the role which won her an Oscar. Although her character is exploited and derided as a "tramp" by the others, we can well see the pain of being unable to get close to the man she loves has brought about, and that Malone could make you feel sorry for Marylee as well as chuckle along with her excesses was the mark of a performance to relish. In many ways she is the wisest of the four main characters as she sees all too well the manner in which their personalities and environment has driven them to cause so much misery for each other and for those in their orbit. The fourth character? Mitch Wayne, played by one of Sirk's most preferred actors, Rock Hudson.
In contrast to Stack and Malone pulling out the stops, Hudson and Bacall are so square that we can tell they belong with one another immediately, but the lure of Kyle's money proves too much for Lucy to resist; Mitch may be his best friend from childhood, but that doesn't stop Kyle from taking advantage of whoever or whatever Mitch may want in his life. Yet with Hudson essaying the fine, upstanding chap who has learned he cannot get it all his way, and indeed might not get very much at all his way, this deepens the sorrow that for all the indulgent laughter Written on the Wind has generated latterly, offers more gravity than its reputation might have led you to believe. Not that there aren't scenes which will make you chortle, the most famous one being the intercutting between Marylee's frenzied dancing in her room wearing her underwear while her father is driven to a heart attack on the stairs below, but a lot of the appeal stems from Sirk really meaning what he saw as a sickness at the heart of fifties America, without disregarding how entertaining that can be to watch. Music by Frank Skinner.