Written on the Wind (1956)

When it’s on: Saturday, 27 June (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

I have to confess that during the 1980s I had a bit of a thing for glossy American soap operas (I was young!). There was Dallas, of course, and whilst the controversy over who shot JR was a little before my time, the saga of feuding oil barons remained a weekend staple. Shoulder padding Dallas to one side was Dynasty, Aaron Spelling’s tale of Denver rich folk, their dysfunctional families, Joan Collins being a bitch, and the underlying moral that whilst money might not buy happiness, it does pay for perfectly layered and feathered hair. As a youngster, I wondered why British soaps were working class, whilst America went for lavish, money-soaked tales. The answer, I suppose, is that the likes of Coronation Street was inspired by gritty, kitchen sink dramas of the sixties. In the USA, they had Douglas Sirk.

As with that ill-placed enjoyment of glossy drama from the decade of excess, I admit to liking Sirk’s movies, in particular the series of stylised melodramas he churned out during the 1950s. I could justify my guilty pleasure by highlighting the ‘parody’ element of these incredible films, the sense that beneath those furrowed brows and longing looks was a sneering critique of contemporary American life and values, but the reality is that I just enjoy a good drama. Check out those titles – Magnificent Obsession! All that Heaven Allows! Imitation of Life! Overblown brilliance, no? Many of these titles are collected on the Directed by Douglas Sirk set, which has been available for some time at a very reasonable price, and features beautifully cleaned up films about beautifully cleaned up people with murky morals, minds in torment and a penchant for staring longingly into the middle distance of a studio set lavishly dressed up to look like a location shoot. My favourite on the set, incidentally, is Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, which is more of a comedy and not nearly as sweet natured as the first viewing might suggest.

Sirk’s muse was Rock Hudson, that square-jawed, effortlessly handsome actor who seemed custom built for lead roles in romantic dramas and comedies. He was already a star by the time the pair collaborated on Written on the Wind, so much so that he could turn down the opportunity to play the eponymous Ben-Hur, but this sort of thing fit him perfectly and played on his apparently stolid masculinity. Hudson has a dog of a job in this film. He plays Mitch Wayne (what a name!), the less wealthy, childhood friend of oil patricians Kyle (Robert Stack) and Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone), holding everything together whilst the gruesome brother and sister drink and fornicate their way to soulless oblivion. On the Hadley payroll as a geologist, Mitch’s real job is to look after Kyle, like a professional companion, steering him away from his bottle-shaped obsessions. He even finds him a wife, Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall), allowing Kyle to sweep her into marriage whilst secretly loving her himself.

For a time, Lucy Moore is able to steady Kyle’s ship and keep him off the booze, but it’s a temporary reprieve only. Hadley’s a powder keg; the lit fuse is his doctor advising him that he is unlikely to be able to have children, which sends him straight to the bar where clearly all kinds of seediness is par for the course. Meanwhile, Marylee is the classic cat on a hot tin roof. Never standing still, her longing for Mitch is not reciprocated, so she takes on pretty much any man she meets to the evident despair of her father, Jasper (Robert Keith). As she comes to realise that Mitch only has eyes for Lucy Moore, Marylee plays on Kyle’s alcohol-soaked paranoia to suggest there’s something more than friendship going on between them, sending him into a murderous rage.

That’s an entire season’s worth of drama condensed into one 95 minute plot, and it never really lets up. Sirk carefully builds the tension, introducing his characters as bold outlines and then allowing the story to take over, building to the accidental death that ushers in the film’s climactic moment of redemption. It’s incredibly ‘soapy’, the sort of exaggerated crisis that by now we’ve seen a million times, but it’s well acted by people whose personality types can be defined quite universally in the taglines blasting out from the above poster image. Of the four, Bacall is wasted as the good girl, the straight arrow who represents a way out for Kyle and later Mitch. There’s an awful lot more to the actor, yet no less a figure than her husband, Humphrey Bogart, suggested she take the role during a fallow period in her career. Hudson also gets the more thankless part, though unkind critics have suggested that playing Mitch – all background brooding and occasional physicality – was appropriate for his wooden acting talents.

Really, the stage belongs to the terrible Hadley siblings. Despite having everything, there’s an ever present air of resentment within Stack’s Kyle towards Mitch, the sense that his friend is the better man, and everyone – especially Jasper – knows it. The implication that Mitch and Lucy Moore are embarking on a romantic relationship seems to strike him as an inevitability, drink and violence his solutions. Stack was Oscar nominated, but the acting award went to Malone instead as the blousey Marylee. She gets all the best moments, dressing like a vamp and dancing wildly in her room while her father dies outside. Her part, as a nymphomaniac, is emphasised by the sheer number of phallic symbols she possesses and holds, culminating in the model oil derrick she fondles at the film’s end, as she contemplates a future as head of the family business. It’s good stuff. The inquest, where she first accuses Mitch of committing murder before changing her plea, is a sure-footed glimpse of someone growing up before the cameras. She’s bad, but she doesn’t have to stay that way.

Both Hadleys hark back to a single memory of childhood bliss, the pair of them playing in a lake with young Mitch the natural third party. Marylee returns to it and reminisces, the soundtrack of their years old banter returning to her, sighing contentedly as she recalls his words of tenderness. Keen eyed viewers should note the obvious – none of it is real. The lake is a tank, the surroundings stage dressing; it’s all artificial, which is where the deeper meaning of Written on the Wind becomes apparent. Beneath the overdone human drama is a sense that it’s weightless, having no importance in the wider sense. If these are American lives and the story representative of the things that matter to them, then what is there to like, or even desire about any of it? Sirk was a German, leaving his homeland in the 1930s with his Jewish wife and a set of left-leaning politics that could only have landed him in serious trouble. It must have been maddening for him to witness the decadent American lifestyle after he’d seen the way Germany was going and the fragility of human existence, and his 1950s films cast a harsh light on it, all the colour photography, gloss and glamour rendered meaningless against genuine human suffering

The most telling shot in Written on the Wind comes just after Kyle has been told about his low sperm count by the doctor. Crashing angrily out of the surgery, he passes a small child who’s happily riding on a toy horse. The juxtaposition is devastating, and yet Kyle’s still a man with everything, untol reserves of cash and resources. And it adds up to absolutely nothing.

Written on the Wind: ****

North West Frontier (1959)

When it’s on: Sunday, 13 May (12.45 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

It’s easy to picture Michael Palin and Terry Jones, struggling for inspiration over a new comedy show, then stumbling across a screening of North West Frontier and suddenly realising the genius of writing a series of ripping yarns. That’s what this film is – a boy’s own tale, set in the days of the British empire and focusing on breathless adventure.

The plot is simplicity itself. It’s 1905. The northwest border of the British empire in India is a hotbed of tension between the Hindu maharajah and Muslim rebels. As the latter besiege a fort held by British forces protecting young Prince Kishan, a daring scheme is hatched to get the boy to the safety of Kalapur. Leading the party of escapees is Captain Scott (Kenneth More), who decides the best route to safety is boarding a knackered old shunting train, the Empress of India and breaking the blockade. The engine carries a ragtag complement of passengers, along with the prince’s governess, Mrs Wyatt (Lauren Bacall). The story concerns the various plights and pitfalls faced by the party as they make their way through hostile countryside, pursued by rebels, whilst doubts are raised over the loyalties of one of the passengers…

North West Frontier (which was released in America as Flame over India, presumably to avoid confusion with some Hitchcock film that has no doubt since lapsed into obscurity) is essentially Stagecoach in the hands of a British production team. No doubt this has something to do with the script, based on a screenplay by Frank S Nugent, who was a regular collaborator with John Ford. Just like Ford’s classic western, much is made of the fabulous setting, Geoffrey Unsworth taking on cinematography duties and photographing the Indian desert lovingly (it’s Spain really, but who’s counting?). J. Lee Thompson directs. He brings the same sensibility to North West Frontier as he displayed in his hit from the previous year, Ice Cold in Alex, at heart a road movie that elicits maximum tension from the situation rather than things happening.

The passengers encounter a raft of problems on their journey, mainly involving makeshift repairs to the rail track that has been sabotaged by the rebels. As they work, replacing the damaged track before them by lifting bits from behind the engine, there’s a sense that the enemy’s never far away and is closing in. Herbert Lom is on hand as a Dutch-Indian journalist, initially providing a cynical complement to More’s plucky officer but later emerging as a traitor. His efforts to do away with the prince are slowly exposed and Lom has a lot of fun in his role as an oily villain. Wilfrid Hyde-White’s ex-pat is the archetypal fish out of water, gurning and mugging in reaction to the plot’s twists and turns.

It’s a fine couple of hours’ entertainment, the only real sign of dating appearing in the shape of I S Lohar as the  comedy engine driver, Gupta. The film takes in an atrocity, probably its best moment as a trainload of passengers that has been waylaid by the rebels lies in the Empress’s path. When it left the fort, it was teeming with people, sat inside, on the roof and clinging to the sides, and now everyone’s dead, bodies strewn all over. It’s a scene designed to show the British sense of pall at such nastiness, and also to give Mrs Wyatt a moment of American independence as she ignores Captain Scott’s orders and goes on board the train of the dead to collect a living baby.

The tension between More and Bacall develops into romance, though theirs is a chaste courtship with little of the steam she delivered in her American films. All the same, the sight of go-to British character actor, More, and noir veteran Bacall getting it on has the feel of two worlds colliding.

North West Frontier: ***