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WRITTEN ON THE WIND
1956 - Douglas Sirk
United States
31
Opening Shot

Written on the Wind opens like a Technicolor noir as we see a car racing home to a tragic death, followed by a flashback in time (which details the story leading up to that point)...

The Film

The film opens with a dark noir tone before quickly shifting into a classic Technicolor melodrama, and ultimately the quintessential film of director Douglas Sirk (the definitive master of 1950s Hollywood melodramas). This is less a film of plot then it is of cinematic expression through imagery. The brilliance lies not so much within the dramatic elements of the narrative, but more so in the emotions captured through the visual expression of the films artistic creation and direction. Every detail within the composition is carefully and richly textured with depth and meaning. Through shadows, lighting, and especially colors, the films symbolisms and characterizations are developed. Russell Metty's (who worked with Sirk on 10 films) Technicolor cinematography is stunningly displayed with a beautiful deep focus. The performances are all very strong from the four leads, but it is Dorothy Malone who really shines in the best performance of her career. Written on the Wind is simply a masterpiece ahead of it's time. Ultimately the film is one of personal frustration and failure (most notably through sexuality). There are some flawlessly executed moments (the montage of the fathers death is especially masterful) and the film effectively ends with a telling visual sequence in which we see Mitch and Lucy together and MaryLee alone (with a contrasting shot of her father holding the oil well). Written on the Wind is a rare achievement of filmmaking at its most artistic. It remains a masterpiece and one of Sirk's most expressive and greatest films.

The Filmmaker

Douglas Sirk grew up in Germany where he made his earliest films during the 1930s. His different politics forced him to leave Germany for Hollywood in 1939. His first film in America was the anti-Nazi war film Hitler's Madman in 1943. Sirk would direct a variety of different films (noirs, comedies, crime thrillers, even musicals). In 1954 Sirk signed a contract with Universal Studios and the films that followed would define his career and rate Sirk as the master of the melodrama. Sirk's mastery can very often be ignored and his approach certainly divides audiences. Some audiences deeply involve themselves into the emotions of the story and characters, yet others may laugh at the ridiculousness of Sirk's glossy style. Yet this divide is in many ways an intended contradiction by Sirk. His films are a combination of deeply emotional social melodrama while at the same time examinations on the ideas or expectations of social melodrama. It is as if his films examine the viewer as much as the characters and narrative itself. Above all Sirk is one of the very greatest visual masters of expression through composition. Every detail is so carefully (and even mechanically) composed in order to express Sirk's cinematic language. His films are art in every way and the more you look into his work the deeper and more meaningful they become, as it is very often what is behind the surface. Sirks films are films of layers and he would use the composition of the frame to symbolically represent this. Sirk would present an artificial world full of unnatural lighting, decorative sets, and bold Technicolor. He would frame the camera with doorways, reflections, mirrors, and windows to heighten the expression of an artificial world. However underneath the surface of these colorful worlds lie dark and serious human emotions and social issues that are very powerful (and for the 1950s pretty groundbreaking). Much of what Sirk intends to express is captured through visual metaphors within the composition. Those willing to explore deeper, will understand Sirk's artistic mastery that makes him one of the worlds truly great filmmakers. His melodramas are about surfaces and the layers within. Though he creates an artificial world at the surface his films are far from being escapist or shallow, as within are very authentic human emotions and behaviors.

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