Directors such Pedro Almodovar, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes have all cited Douglas Sirk as an influence on their work. The master of melodrama, Sirk favoured artistry and over-realism in films like his 1956 masterpiece Written on the Wind.
Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone star as Kyle and Marylee Hadley, siblings and heirs to an oil fortune. Their wealth, alcoholism and sexual problems emphasise their dysfunction in contrast to their love interests, decent Lucy (played by Lauren Bacall) and down-to-earth Mitch (played by Rock Hudson).
The saturated colours, lush score and stylised performances all contribute to Written on the Wind’s heightened drama. Everything is exaggerated in the world of the film, by design.
By dialing up the excess, especially in scenes like when Kyle tries to impress Lucy by taking her to a swanky hotel suite and giving her an extravagant new wardrobe, Sirk exposes the shallowness of materialism. The rich characters are also deeply unhappy.
Hudson (whose fascinating life story just got an utterly bizarre fictionalisation on Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix show Hollywood) appears in 8 of Sirk’s films, often playing characters who embody Sirk’s attempts to subvert archetypes of American masculinity.
The social issues touched on in the film are dealt with a frankness that was surprising to audiences of the buttoned-up 1950s. When sexual topics came up in movies, they were typically treated as grave and serious matters.
But Sirk’s films always have a certain archness to them, a sly wink. It’s not outright parodic, but it is slightly satirical.
This tone that Sirk struck – ironic melodrama – would go on to become the primary tone of soap opera, a genre of media dedicated to exaggerated storytelling. It’s impossible to watch Written on the Wind without thinking of its influence on the classic ‘80s soaps Dallas and Dynasty, both of which also revolved around the exploits of super-rich families in the oil business.
Even if Written on the Wind remains somewhat underappreciated in the pantheon of classic cinema, Sirk’s mastery of the visual look and mood of his films has had a profound and lasting effect.
Image from Criterion.