Wide Angle: Tapping a rich vein

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The re-release of Written on the Wind gives audiences a subversive antidote to the traditionally innocent image of Fifties America

Bobbysox and high-school dances, drive-ins and milk bars... all too often the 1950s are held up by Hollywood as the decade of lost innocence. One look at Douglas Sirk's 1950s masterpiece Written on the Wind should help to dismiss that filmic fallacy. More kitsch than Starship Troopers, more melodramatic than Titanic, the film is re-released this week, giving 1990s audiences a chance to drink deep on the cynicism of an earlier age.

"I adopted a position of irony and that doesn't go down well at all with an American audience," lamented Douglas Sirk of his 1956 soap opera. Parodying the smiling nuclear family of Eisenhower's America, Sirk gave his melodrama the look and feel of a pulpy dime-store novelette, its lurid Technicolour matched only by the sensational machinations of the rich but depraved Dallas oil dynasty it observed.

The film stars Lauren Bacall as a sensible secretary who marries emasculated playboy Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) and finds herself sister-in-law to the sexually voracious Marylee (Dorothy Malone). After watching hopelessly as his daughter picks up men from the wrong side of the tracks, tycoon Robert Keith enlists the support of Kyle's straight-arrow best friend (Rock Hudson) to keep her under control - but he, too, gets sucked into the Hadley's moral quagmire. Encompassing jealousy, nymphomania, impotence, and violent death, the tribulations of the Hadley clan make the Ewings's home life look like one big picnic.

"Not simply epic trash, but meta-trash" was critic J Hoberman's verdict in the Village Voice when a fresh print surfaced in New York 10 years ago. An accurate summation of the levels of directorial artifice that make watching Written on the Wind a more rewarding experience than, say, laughing knowingly at the hilarious (but let's face it, inestimably dull) sci-fi sensationalism of the same period.

Plush and overblown, Written on the Wind mirrors the mass consumption of the decade by offering audiences a feast of emotional and decorative hyperbole. Whether furnishing the Hadley mansion with a grand sweeping staircase, representing patriarchal power with Freudian oil pumps or colour- coding his characters in expressive primaries, "less is more" was never Sirk's philosophy. Engorged with style and symbolism, one might worry that Sirk's narrative would be subsumed, but the director manages to milk his family tragedy for all it's worth. While the decent old money of America's past is represented in a neoclassical white mansion, decadent siblings Kyle and Marylee speed around in their shiny sports cars picking up who and what they desire, their sensual vices a poor substitute for their spoiled souls. Charting the corruption and human failure that lie beneath the Hadley's material comfort, Sirk offered a critique of America's complacent affluence. Unsurprisingly, Universal's aggressive marketing campaign for the film chose to ignore such uncomfortable undercurrents, ironically even setting up a special tie-in with the CBS game show Strike it Rich, which organised a Miss Strike it Lovely beauty competition to coincide with the film's release.

Despite an Oscar for best supporting actress, Dorothy Malone (above) certainly didn't strike it lucky in her role as Marylee. After 12 years of slogging away playing nice brunette girls, the actress dyed her hair blonde and provided the film's most famous scene by cavorting around her bedroom to hot jazz in nothing but a negligee, as her father suffered a fatal heart attack below. It's a glorious moment of Sirkian irony, but one which produced another, more bitter irony for the actress.

After her Oscar, Malone found that "instead of getting better, my parts just got worse". Blind to the gulf between appearance and reality so heavily underscored by Sirk, casting agents typecast Malone as the blonde nympho from then on.

`Written on The Wind' is re-released on 9 Jan

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