Certain directors dominate in one genre, traditionally it’ll be horror, or perhaps thrillers, but only one director has ever put their stamp on the world of the Hollywood melodrama – Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s career was, in years at least, brief spanning just 1935 until 1959 but often making several films in one.

Thanks to the Criterion Sirk’s 1956 film Written on the Wind gets a new lease of life. The story, written by George Zuckerman is famously based in part on the real life scandal involving Libby Holdman, a torch singer, and her husband the infamous tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds.

Zuckerman and Sirk change tobacco for oil, and the names, but the barbs remain in tact. Sirk paints a world filled with greys and blues, a cold and unfeeling world where people are never truly honest with themselves. Oil heirs Kyle and Marylee Hadley (Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone) are vice ridden, and incapable of seeing past their desire. In changing the fortune from tobacco to oil it puts the driving force of their addictions on their own personal failings and not the route of their money.

The film’s real focus, on the forbidden love of Kyle’s wife Lucy (Lauren Bacall) and best friend Mitch (Rock Hudson) is clearly drawn with a desire to reap the most from the situation. Hudson has the sort of movie star looks you’d hope for a big studio picture. Sirk frames him at times so that he fills the screen juxtaposing it with Stack being shot from afar so he appears dwarfed. Your eye is always drawn to Hudson.

Universal Pictures

Bacall is, as she always was, on top form. It’s not hard to see why the characters in the film are so besotted with her, she is fascinatingly magnetic on screen and gives a harder edge to Lucy than one might expect.

It being a Sirk film there is always the chance for big emotions, and as the film builds to it’s climactic court case there is an element that this could turn into farce, but Sirk’s natural inclination is to focus more on what is not being said than what is. Jealousy has poisoned the Hadley heirs, and their desire to own everything they want is destroying what is pure. There’s a clear allusion to their oil money and the devastation it causes natural beauty and the natural beauty of Lucy being smothered in the web of Hadley.

The film remains of the finest examples of coating a critique within a genre that might not be seen as anything more than fluff, but Sirk’s natural instincts to look at the darker elements of society pay off, especially when looked at with a historical context. His films are lush and filled with vibrant colours that bely the natural tensions of the time. For that, Sirk can still be seen in many filmmakers today.

Written on The Wind is available now. 

By Paul Klein

Paul Klein is a film graduate. His favourite film is The Lion King, he still holds a candle for Sarah Michelle Gellar and does a fantastic impression of Sir Patrick Stewart. Letterboxd: paulkleinyo