Wuthering Heights (1939, William Wyler)

RECOMMENDED

Like nearly every adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel, this Hollywood picture adapts merely the first two thirds of Wuthering Heights, which is structured in a manner designed to explore the effect of the past upon the present, a theme that this Samuel Goldwyn production only superficially examines. I saw the film a number of years ago before I was particularly familiar with director William Wyler, who has since become one of my favorite classic Hollywood filmmakers, but while its virtues are now considerably more evident to me, it’s still a syrupy and often ineffective film. One enormous debit is the overbearing score by the usually reliable Alfred Newman, but one wonders if the florid romance of the music would make more sense applied to a movie that seemed to justify its emotive histrionics.

As in so many film adaptations of classic literature, it’s obvious whether one has read the book or not that far too much of the spirit of the original work, which already had achieved its highest possible form in printed prose, was sacrificed for tone or severed in favor of a more concise — too concise — narrative. We end up with the skeleton of a story that has no resonance, with characterizations that are distractingly inconsistent presumably because the emotional content of the novel is so condensed. Like a lot of great literature, it filters down to a lot of petulant brattiness when acted out with little sense of language or metaphor. With the shedding of the novel’s basic structure, we have instead much business about literal ghosts, something that’s trite here next to the more effective points about self-denial and class. Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) is an effective asshole but we only seem to getting half the story, filled out by his overexplanatory voiceover and an admittedly formidale shadow that seems to hang over the picture at any moment he’s not in it. (“What about [harp trill]… Heathcliff!?!?”) The soap opera pays off on some level; the series of romantic confrontations in the last half-hour are riveting.

Unsurprisingly, Wyler directs the film quite well, staging and photographing it like a German horror movie, and it’s only too appropriate: These are very serious people, and love is a matter of vast, earth-shaking importance for them. The one parallel experience, it seems, is death. The self-insistence of “I love you; I do” has masochistic implications eclipsed only by the characters’ penchant for minutia that’s meaningless out of context — “I shall let you hold my hand, underneath my fan” — and the degree that Cathy’s line “No one will ever kiss me again but you” seems more significant because it’s a lie. Wyler loves all this repression and the burning-hot desire just under its surface; one wishes he had been permitted to apply all this to an original screenplay or at least something without all the obligatory stretches of credibility that mark a semi-faithful classic adaptation. He weaves gracefully in and out of rooms, even if he’s a little stodgier outdoors, and Gregg Toland’s sinister photography is glorious and equally conscious of the Gothic thing it secretly is. These two would make at least one masterpiece together with The Best Years of Our Lives, which is delightfully anticipated in a deep-focus scene that has Cathy searching around the room and seeing Heathcliff — but you notice, if you’ve seen both films, how greatly reduced your response is here.

Olivier gives what might be his best and subtlest early performance here, and there is enough of him to dominate the narrative and the audience’s intended identification (asshole or not), which is probably not a great service to Cathy. Heathcliff is nevertheless the perfect Olivier character, the sort of wronged bastard who inspires pity but then can spit out a line like “If your heart were only stronger than your dull fear of God and the world” and generate both admiration, eroticism and loathing in a single turn. His impulse to put women under lock and key is obviously despicable, but fits in with the film’s slightly sadomasochistic undercurrents. The introduction of Heathcliff and Cathy as children gives the movie a largeness and resonance that it, sadly, quickly sacrifices. But David Niven is underwhelming as his rival Edgar Linton, Geraldine Fitzgerald is a rather lifeless Isabella (whose transformation is inexplicable here thanks to a sharp and sudden time lapse), and Merle Oberon, while a terrific Cathy, is simply incapable of carrying the story, particularly on the staid and stonefaced tone it sets for itself. Her unpredictable mood swings are made too distant from the audience to be properly empathetic; compare Scarlett in Gone with the Wind and imagine how easy it would be to make her seem mad if the film weren’t so focused on her emotions. Repression derails Cathy’s life; desire is forbidden by the racial and sexual attitudes of the time.

It’s not entirely her fault, to be fair. Compressed down for time, Cathy simply makes no sense. Her changes of heart are distant from and inexplicable to the audience, and she often flies off in opposite directions in the span of two sentences. Even more than that, I just wish the consistent sense of sweep that would justify all the lofty language about love was here — but here you can no more grasp the compassion that made Wyler great than you can in, say, Ben-Hur. Despite a few strong scenes (and splendidly sharp lines, my favorite being “it’s not very Christian talk but at least it’s coherent”), this is the claustrophobic normalcy of classic Hollywood cinema suffocating a strong novel — but it remains essential, and somewhat fun, viewing.

[Expanded from my original and much less diplomatic review, posted in 2005.]

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