Written in the Mirror
Watch the over-the-top Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s for the color, costume, design, emotion — for sheer guilty pleasure. If you catch yourself over-indulging, pull back from the spectacle to wonder how he does it, what technical magic or tricks are at work. Or lean in from another angle to focus on the irony, politics, and symbolism.
One moment in the masterpiece “Written on the Wind,” 1956, highlights Sirk’s technological and narrative genius (still image below). Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall) is in her bedroom in front of a mirror, combing out her hair. What can be more relaxing? Sirk sits her down to take a breath after an inconceivable whirlwind six weeks. Surrounded by diamond plated mirror and soft pink colors in her half of the shot, she is a princess, a star: the moment is hers. From some no-name town in Indiana, she escaped to Manhattan and did very well as a big-time advertising executive’s assistant. She had a few flings, but careful and controlled ones, as she is clever and beyond attractive enough to end up in Greenwich, CT with a trophy husband, mortgage, two kids, and a brilliant poodle. One lucky day six weeks back, Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), who manages the huge Hadley Oil account, stopped in unannounced while her boss was out. Mitch is an earthy, quiet, perfect hunk of a geologist, and asks her to come with him to meet the Hadley owner’s son, so she could take credit for progressing the ad campaign. Her options open wide — go out for inclusion, ambition, excitement, carousing — maybe love? The son, Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), a playboy and drinker, is so rich and carefree that he flew his own plane to New York for a sandwich. Both men are obviously smitten with Lucy’s sass, figure, and style, but Kyle falls hard. He flies her that evening to Miami and places her in a moonlit ocean view suite with closets full of furs and dresses, drawers of purses and jewelry, and flowers. But Lucy, no prostitute and angry at the implication, abandons the fantasy and jumps in a cab to the airport. Her point made, her dignity remains intact. The sensitive scion Kyle chases after her, and with profuse apologies sweet-talks her off the plane just before take-off. Because he had a wounded side only exposed to her, she surrenders . . . wakes up naked and married. Now, after a six-week, fabulous beach honeymoon, where most miraculously of all the playboy has not touched drink nor hat-check girl, she combs out her hair in her Texas mansion home, basking in the glow of true love.
The film to this point has focused on ratcheting up the melodrama, but now something different is at work and we wonder what and why. It is not Lucy Moore in the mirror, which is the center of the frame, but someone wearing a white blouse, matching Lucy’s. By switching the person in the mirror through a technical maneuver, Sirk has switched main characters. Via a jarring camera angle that removes Lucy from her own bedroom mirror, we are coerced into accepting the switch. Whatever this woman says will now have authority.
Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone), is Kyle’s platinum blonde knock-out of a sister, flounced seductively onto a chair, an Aphrodite. She mocks Lucy’s wet-behind-the-ears naivete, her brother’s weakness, and declares it only a matter of time before Kyle is again drinking and carousing. There are implications that Lucy married him for the money. Marylee is Bacchus making faces, full of mischief. The interaction between new sisters-in-law is extremely personal with each looking into the other via a mirror as they are meant to see themselves. Tension is forced upon Lucy – loving-wife Lucy vs gold-digger Lucy. The Goddess Discord has put a crack in Lucy’s calm, perfect world.
Who is Marylee, really — Aphrodite, Discord, Bacchus — and what is she after? In the first part of the film, Sirk has gained our trust that he will deliver multi-dimensional characters, so we assume Marylee is multi-dimensional too with her own star journey, her own life story, and conflicts. Indeed, Malone’s stunning performance of this volatile anti-heroine in her own right won a Supporting Actor Academy Award. Her needs and desires, her joyful dancing, laughing, and crying, will lead to family-altering moral choices.
Sirk, like Hitchcock in Rear Window, has also not forgotten his audience – the viewers, the voyeurs. He often disrupts shadows and lines of sight to cause tension and activate the audience’s mind. Here, Lucy’s mirror is at an impossible angle. She cannot possibly see herself, and where would Marylee even be placed in the room to be seen by the audience in the mirror while avoiding our seeing the camera, too? There appears to be no camera, just us as the audience forced to look in a mirror. We are not just voyeur to an extremely tense introductory meeting between Lucy and Marylee: we are in the room, becoming characters ourselves, who then can be viewed as well.
What is Sirk’s intention? We start with Lucy and Marylee as either beautiful objects or opportunities for catharsis. If we ogle Marylee sitting on the chair in the mirror, we are Manet’s audience staring at a lounging Olympia. If we glance slightly to the right at Lucy, we are Manet’s customer at “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere,” staring at a hired girl about to pass us a drink. The new wife plays as a hired employee; after all, she was most recently an advertising employee dependent on Hadley Oil for career advancement. We can choose to focus on either or both, but Sirk’s women stare back with volition and power. Come what may, they own their dreams and decisions. They hold their ground, or they decide to give in for a price. By suggesting multiple motivations with which we prioritize our focus, destabilizing our taking our perceptions for granted, Sirk forces us to reflect. In Sirk’s America we are all corrupted and corruptible, subjects and objects within a consuming capitalist culture.
Hans Detlef Sierck was born in Hamburg to Danish parents and grew up in Denmark and Germany. He studied art, philosophy, and science, and especially loved and translated Shakespeare and the Ancient Classics, whose grand tragic and comic themes subtly permeate his films. He trained in the theaters and film houses of Weimar Germany and fled with his Jewish second wife to Hollywood, where he literally and figuratively made his name, Douglas Sirk. (His first wife and son became strident Nazis). He eventually abandoned Hollywood at age 60 to shuttle between Germany and Switzerland, where he died at 89.
Sirk often mocks the Bourgeoise and capitalism, but this scene showcases another side of America. With camera and mirror, Sirk built a world that William James, a leading 19th century pluralist philosopher and psychologist, would have endorsed. Manipulating the uncertainties of a multi-perspectival drama, Sirk, as master story-teller and detailed craftsman, makes Lucy’s, Marylee’s, Kyle’s, Mitch’s, and even the viewer’s own manipulated experiences simultaneously necessary and untrustworthy. Try as we might, call it negative capability or quantum physics, there is no way to force-fit our dreams and discriminations of what is actually happening into one view. To Sirk, a film is an amalgam of words, things, shots, subjects and objects, emotions and analyses, an ever-shifting set of perspectives. As a most democratic spirit, his influence on directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, champion of the down and out and oppressed, was profound both in style and content. Goddard, incongruous for the maker of Breathless and other New Wave classics, was also in thrall, stating, “Sirk’s latest film sets my cheeks on fire.” The practical influence emerged years later in more contrived painterly films such as Contempt, an Iliad/Odyssey mash-up that plays with themes of beauty, money, volition, and control, also concerns of Whisper on the Wind.
As Paul Schrader elucidates in “Transcendental Style in Film,” an essay on Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, with Tarkovsky added in later versions, cinema can be slowed to engage the viewer and multiply possibility. Schrader references Deleuze, who argued that cinema shifted from one of narrative movement that takes advantage of our mind’s evolved disposition to take images and snapshots and create a cohesive story to one that provides the mind time to reflect. This effect Schrader names a “growing crack in the dull surface of everyday reality,” or transcendence. While Sirk is primarily a narrative director concerned with space and color, he uses them to jar the viewer, and then provides adequate time to process and reach deeper meanings. In “Written on the Wind,” Sirk’s one shot of a mirror linking two women gives viewers the opportunity for soul-searching on the nature of reflection and relation, wanting and having.
Copyright ©2023, by David M. Rubin. All Rights Reserved.
David M. Rubin has a Ph.D. in biology. His recent stories, poems, and essays appear in Café Irreal, City Key, Ginosko Literary Journal, Last Stanza Poetry Journal (2022 Pushcart Nomination for Traumerei), Maudlin House, The Nabokovian, The Smart Set, Spinozablue, and others. He hopes to create connection and has moved to Bluesky @Six18sFoundry.bsky.social