Written on the Wind is so over-the-top in every aspect of its being, some may find it campy and ridiculous (which it is). However, I find it brilliant in its use of excess because the film’s characters’ problems are so trivial, elevating their problems to such a high degree of importance and severity seems to be the only route in delivering a movie worth watching.
This notion of excess is an important aspect of the mode of melodrama. The film is not subtle at all. From the acting to the costume, everything is brought on full force. Like a stage play, each character in the film has a want or need and in order to express these wants or needs to the audience, the actors in their respective roles cannot be subtle.
A predecessor to shows such as Dynasty and Dallas and even Desperate Housewives, the film is about rich people and their trivial woes, what I like to call first world problems. Without any financial issues to worry about, the rich fret about things those who are not rich would not usually be troubled with. Kyle Hadley is constantly emasculated by and in the shadow of his best friend Mitch Wayne. Mitch is in love with Kyle’s wife, but cannot make a move in order to honor the marriage. Kyle’s sister Marylee wants nothing but Mitch and is always acting out to attract his attention. Jasper, the father of the Hadley siblings, just wants to see his children be happy. This small family, Mitch included, is toxic and by film’s end, two of them are dead, another is left alone.
Kyle’s wife, Lucy, is the newcomer to the group, a stranger, who has nothing to contribute but trouble. Her appearance is the thing that causes the chain of events that spiral out of control and conclude with Kyle’s death. The film concluding with her and Mitch riding off into the sunset, finally able to be with each other, does not give the audience a warm happy feeling. This happy ending is tainted by the death of two people (some can even argue three, with Lucy’s miscarriage).
The look of the film enhances the effect of its campiness and excess. The set is intentionally artificial in its look, even the exteriors feel fake (the city sidewalks, the lake Marylee frequents). The costume design uses color to illustrate character traits.
At the beginning of the film, Kyle and Lucy are shown to be wearing similarly toned clothing of a silver-gray color, while Mitch wears brown earth tones. As the film progresses, Lucy and Mitch’s colors seem to synch up. For example, in the scene where Lucy and Mitch meet Kyle at the bar, Mitch and Kyle seem to have switched colors, Mitch wearing gray and Kyle wearing brown.
This switch can be interpreted as Mitch, with Kyle incapacitated by his insecurities and drinking, taking over his role as Lucy’s lover.
I’ve read theories on the film that Kyle only married Lucy to ease his father’s worries that his son might be gay. This theory is plausible in the colors associated with Lucy. It isn’t only until after Jasper Hadley’s funeral that she begins to wear green (an earth tone), and it remains her main color throughout the remainder of the film.
Marylee, somewhat of a wild card and sex maven, is frequently in pinks and reds. The brilliantly edited death scene of Jasper Hadley has Marylee draped in red, fawning over a photo of Mitch in an overtly sexual manner. The scene, enhanced by the irregularly tempo’d jazz piece, shows not only the character’s sexuality, but also the unpredictability of Marylee’s character.
The level of artificiality in this film, I believe, is making a statement on the woes of the affluent and their triviality. If the film were directed by anyone other than Sirk, and taken to a level of subtlety and seriousness (a la Welles), would it be a film worth watching?