[Criterion releases Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession this week. In celebration, I offer this essay, which was originally published on GreenCine in 2007]
Halfway through Written on the Wind (1956), after oil baron Robert Keith has been bluntly confronted by the tawdry affairs of his alcoholic daughter Dorothy Malone, the dialogue drops out and the driving rumba takes over the soundtrack. Malone kicks up a storm sashaying in her girdle, perversely proud of the discretion that has wounded her upright dad, while Keith walks the staircase and out of camera, only his hand in tight close up as it grips the banister and shivers in convulsions before Keith pitches down the spiral staircase: a heart attack, appropriately enough, as his heart is finally shattered by his bad seed daughter. The camera feels almost alive as it rushes with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall, the “good” kids Keith never had, as they run to his side, while Malone obliviously rumbas to her private tune. It’s a moment of pure baroque cinema that puts the opera back in soap opera, a delirious rush of melodramatic extravagance in hyper-real Technicolor gloss.
Written on the Wind is the mad masterpiece of Douglas Sirkâ€™s great glossy, giddy melodramas, the (largely Technicolor) films of the last decade of his career that made his auteur fame. He turned suburbia into a storybook-pretty but socially arid prison of conformity and high living mansions into tarnished nurseries of corrupted values and festering jealousies. Simply reading their plots might cause the uninitiated to regard his canon as some perverse auteurist joke, but under the kitschy trappings and absurd situations is an ironic (back before irony had become the cinematic norm) and at times surreal refraction of the American self image.