BMEotD #175 Written on the Wind (1956)
As was universally acknowledged in the wake of her passing, Lauren Bacall burst onto movie screens with two of the most incandescently sexy performances of all time, teasing out her every verbal sparring with future husband Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep till the back-and-forth of words become indistinguishable from rhythmic exchanges it wouldn’t do to show onscreen. That bright flame couldn’t help but dim; in later films Bacall, lovely till the end, adopted a carriage more aloof and respectable, desirable still but now more distant. One of her greatest films, Doug Sirk’s Written on the Wind, uses this reserve to brilliant effect.
She’s first seen during the opening credits, rising from bed in an elegant mansion—not seductively, but slumped over in exhaustion and pain. A man charges through a door, a gunshot rings out, a body stumbles to the ground as dead leaves swirl around; from there we flash back a year to advertising executive Lucy Moore (Bacall) enduring a whirlwind courtship from oil scion Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), who follows lunch at 21 with a spontaneous flight down to Florida, escorting her to a hotel room bedecked with purses and gowns. Bacall, knowing the score, angrily heads back to the airport, a display of decency that has Stack chasing after her in fumbling, heartfelt contrition. This turnabout impresses Bacall more than any flaunting of wealth could, and they’re soon married. Family friend Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) tries to caution her away from Stack, and further warning signs abound—Stack’s bonhomie is belied by the pistol he keeps under his pillow, and first meeting with sister-in-law Marylee (Dorothy Malone) is an epic thrust and parry of frosty brickbats. But Bacall is convinced her love for Stack can heal the poisoned family, and soldiers it out. Of course we’ve already seen the bad ending; it’s just a question of how the crack-up comes.
Sirk, a master at deploying actors to suit his expressionistic purposes, sets up a deliberate dichotomy between the Hadley siblings and the “decent” couple trapped in their orbit. While Stack and Malone, all frenzy and motion and twisted neuroses, race around in sports cars and dance furious mambos, every pleasure they grasp a mask for two lonely, desperate wrecks, Bacall and Hudson move with sleepy languor, as if they were walking underwater. Bacall’s famous slow appraisals stiffen to apprehension, judging every word that comes from Stack’s mouth, weighing her options before joining her husband at the dinner table or leaning in to give him a kiss. It’s a world away from the flirtatious intimacy of her debut, and a reminder she had a lot more to teach you than how to whistle.