Bruce Springsteen is the greatest rock & roll artist in the history of American music, and his crowning achievement (at least as far as a song goes) is the eponymous single off The River, his ’80 double album detailing further small town love and heartache. Opening with a plucked guitar and haunted, wailing harmonica, Bruce narrates the misspent youth of his greatest faceless protagonist – who gets Mary pregnant, receives a union card and a wedding coat for his nineteenth birthday, and ends up slaving away in poverty for the Johnstown Company, the spark ignited with his child bride fading with each passing day. But in his mind, he’s always down by the river, caressing the curves of Mary’s body after enjoying the soulful cleansing of its cold waters. These nights were endless and comforting; an innocence that faded with age, as it does for all men and women. Those were the days when everything was easier, and Mary’s breath while he held her close was the only music he needed to hear.
Nearly thirty years before Springsteen wrote his devastating five-minute masterpiece, Douglas Sirk approached the same sense of failure with Written on the Wind, his ’56 follow-up to the “woman’s weepie” duology of Magnificent Obsession (’54) and All That Heaven Allows (’55). Where those two pictures saw Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman wrestling with overwrought melodramas and burgeoning romance under societal pressure, Wind is a steamy, Texan funhouse reflection of the sprawling epic Hudson shot with George Stevens the same year (Giant). Far from the ranches of that magnum opus, Sirk crafts a near surrealist work of jet setting love, sex and impotency, as his trashy tendencies inject a healthy amount of lurid pulp into the usual soapy histrionics. It’s a work that earned both its supporting players – a blustery Robert Stack and sizzling Dorothy Malone, heightened to gigantic proportions – Academy Award nominations, with Malone taking home a trophy right when it appeared as if her career was done for good (thus solidifying Sirk’s late period love for tarnished angels). The sordid story pushed the steadily weakening Hays Code to its moral limits, as what seems tame by today’s erotic standards was downright scandalous to theatergoers during the mid-'50s.
The key catalyst to Written on the Wind’s creation was producer Albert Zugsmith (who also helped shepherd Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil in ‘58) luring Sirk outside of Universal-International’s comfy confines and into the independent arena. Zugsmith was one of the greatest early examples of a system-bucking maverick, hoping that working free of stale studio mandates would lead to boundary-exploring artistic awakenings. As television was being introduced into every home across America, and programming was expanding on each network (though was still mostly limited to family fare), it was visionaries like Zugsmith who were working to keep spectacle alive at movie houses. The vibrant color of Sirk’s eye-popping Cinemascope photography (courtesy of go-to DoP Russell Metty) was certainly showing up the grainy black and white transmitted to your standard idiot box. But there was also a certain level of hucksterism Zugsmith applied to his projects that nearly tipped over into pure exploitation. Sex and violence couldn’t be found in your living room, and since box office numbers were dipping thanks to Zenith Electronics reducing sets to blue collar prices, the Code relaxed and helped usher folks back into auditoriums. Zugsmith knew this and made sure Written on the Wind was marketed across the board as “the frankest motion picture in history!”
Written on the Wind is an incredibly violent movie, even though only a single shot is fired (by accident, no less). It’s an expressively bombastic take on wealth, privilege and the casual assaults those who enjoy both perpetrate against others around them. The fact that much of Sirk’s mega drama takes place in a town named for its central dysfunctional family shouldn’t be lost on the audience for a single second. Like Mitch Wayne (Hudson), we are outsiders invited into this world, but the Hadleys can have us catapulted out just as quick, regardless of how close we’ve become over drinks. Theirs is a guileless universe of sex and oil derricks, where the sweetest pieces of property and people can be bought and sold like any other commodity. No thought is paid to the psychic damage they inflict upon anyone who gets in their way, as the goals are almost exclusively short term – fleeting pleasures of flesh and fancy meant to numb private wounds they dare not show the world, be it possible impotency or the scorn of a childhood crush’s rejection. It’s classic Sirk, only now his trademark deep reds and blues are replaced by wild, assaultive pinks and violets – a visual reflection of Wind’s demonstrative savagery.
Like Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind is rooted in another '50s equivalency of Gatsbian Jazz Age frivolity, as all the money in the world can’t mask the failure and frustration Kyle Hadley (Stack) feels upon discovering that he may be sterile and thus unable to conceive with his new bride, Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall). Of course, this comes after he’s brutally accosted Lucy with diamonds and trips to Florida; a blitzkrieg of affection that essentially breaks the poor administrative assistant down less than twenty-four hours after Mitch introduces her to his business associate. Meanwhile, Kyle’s sister Marylee (Malone) has become the Hadley harlot – picking up stray men in bars and at gas stations and imagining Mitch’s face every time she closes her eyes while they pump away on top of her. Liquor is never enough to make the siblings overlook their hurt, as wealth and fucking become sedatives they indulge on a daily basis.
Sirk wisely diverts attention away from Hudson and Bacall’s characters (whom he readily admitted to finding “boring” when discussing Wind in interviews), making Kyle and Marylee the corroding emotional core of this Brechtian reactor. From the stunning opening credits – where Kyle speeds in his yellow sports car, downing a bottle of corn as Marylee peers out from the shadows, waiting for him to arrive home to brutal conflict with Mitch (who harbors his own fascination with Lucy) – we’re swept up in this hurricane of big battered dreams. These are society’s elite, and they’re more damaged than any of the dirt smeared workers who are injured on the rigs which deliver their fortune. Not a novel concept, for sure, but in Sirk’s hands, it makes for grand, eloquent trash cinema that adheres to his usual modus operandi of smashing high art and the low kitsch together like a kid with matchbox cars. Just one look at those stunning title credits (which may be cinema’s greatest) allows us to know what sort of hot house theater we’re getting ourselves into.
Yet it all comes back to the river. Just as a tiny wall calendar’s pages flip back in rapid succession, acting as an antiquated time machine, Marylee’s memories of playing in the current of their local body is the key to understanding who these people are. Written on the Wind is a story about children who were never allowed to grow up, thanks to the wild successes their births bestowed upon them. The entire world is a toy chest, brimming with playthings that have price tags hanging from them, and the Hadleys’ pocketbook is an unending reservoir of resources with which to purchase these opulent trinkets. Both Springsteen and Sirk see the river as a symbol of arrested happiness, suspended in liquid just as an insect gets caught in fossilized amber. Neither one of these creators’ characters can return to that state of being, and the refusal of basic happiness causes them to fall into depressions that lead to resentment and emotional violence, leveled at the ones they love the most.
Written on the Wind screened on glorious 35mm as part of Drafthouse’s month long Majestic Tears program. If you live in Austin, buy your tickets here. If not, you can pick up the Criterion Collection release below.