January 13, 2012
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Like the novel, "Wuthering Heights" opens with a traveler, Lockwood (Miles Mander) arriving to the estate of the title, looking for a place to stay the night. Lockwood is received in a quite rude manner by the master of the house, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier), but still, he is allowed to stay in an abandoned room upstairs. During the night, Lockwood is awaken by the voice of a woman calling him, and as soon as Heathcliff learns this, he runs away into the cold night. Lockwood remains puzzled, but then the housekeeper Ellen (Flora Roson) begins to explain how is it that "Wuthering Heights" ended this way. It all began when Heathcliff arrived to the estate, a poor orphan boy adopted by Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway). Working as a stable boy, Heathcliff develops a passion for Catherine Earnshaw (Merle Oberon). However, she can't reconcile her love for Heathcliff with her disdain for his lack of status. Heathcliff leaves broken hearted, and swears vengeance over those who mistreated him for his social status.
Adapted by two of the most prolific scriptwriters of their time, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, "Wuthering Heights" follows the classic pattern of most adaptations of the story. That is, it focuses entirely on the first half of the book, and omits the second generation's story. This abridged version of the novel is entirely dedicated to detail the passionate love between Cathy and Heathcliff, from its roots in childhood friendship to the way it dooms their adult life. Like the book, it's narrated as a flashback, and a fair share of time is dedicated to source of Heathcliff's anger: his rivalry with Cathy's brother Hindley, his undying love for Cathy, and his grudge against the society that humiliates him due to his lack of status. Certainly, Hecht and MacArthur's screenplay seems more interested in exploring Heathcliff's psychology than Cathy, whose character seems somewhat reduced by this condensation of the source material, less a complex and passionate force of nature and more a merely capricious and passive spoiled girl.
What truly elevates "Wuthering Heights" above the typical costume melodrama of its time, is the remarkable work done by two men: director William Wyler and specially cinematographer Gregg Toland. Wyler's vision of "Wuthering Heights" plays with the ambiguity of the novel, lavish when the characters are young, stark when they are older, truly reflecting the Gothic atmosphere that's present in Brontë's novel. In Wyler's film, atmosphere is the key, and the brilliant work of Gregg Toland plays an instrumental role in building up such a haunting atmosphere. Painting with shadows, Toland creates images of great beauty in "Wuthering Heights", fully capturing the brooding mood of the novel in his depiction of the Yorkshire moors. Wyler's narrative is particularly fluid and dynamic in the way he uses camera movements to wander through Wuthering Heights and its surroundings. All in all, Wyler's technique is impeccable, though the film feels a tad rushed by its last third, probably the result of the condensed screenplay and of course, his famous clash with producer Goldwyn.
The cast's performance is another one of the film's greatest strengths, with a remarkable turn by Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, in his debut in American cinema. While a bit old for the role, Olivier embodies nicely the image of the tortured Byronic hero of Brontë's novel, driven by his unconsumed passion for Cathy and his hatred for those who have scorned him. Olivier's performance is still a bit stagy, though he compensates it with a strong screen presence that often says more than his hammy delivery. As Cathy, Merle Oberon is effective, though nowhere near the level of Olivier's Heathcliff. Certainly her character is a tad underwritten, though Oberon does little to improve this. Quite the opposite is Geraldine Fitzgerald, who plays Heathcliff's wife Isabella and delivers a magnificent performance as the naive young woman in love with the wrong man. David Niven, who plays Cathy's husband Edgar is also underwritten, though Niven adds elegance and dignity to the role with great ease.
William Wyler's "Wuthering Heights" is a beautifully crafted film that manages to translate to the screen the passion of Emily Brontë's classic novel. However, certain elements prevent the film from being truly a masterpiece. Perhaps the most significant one is the way the screenplay seems to side with Heathcliff, leaving no room to other characters to breathe. The condensation of the novel may have had a hand in this, but it truly affects some elements, particularly Cathy's character, whose change from Heathcliff's loyal friend to ambitious socialité is perhaps too abrupt to ring true, and makes her character much less likable and difficult to relate (a problem since Brontë's characters aren't really likable to begin with). Cathy's husband Edgar is also diminished, and it would have helped to explore more the contrast of the differences between him and Heathcliff, beyond wealth and social status, that could have given more insight into Cathy's actions.
Nevertheless, those are probably minor quibbles result of a contrast with the novel, as such flaws do not really diminish the sheer power of Wyler's "Wuthering Heights". It's certainly a movie that demands to be seen, not only for the celebrated work of cinematographer Gregg Toland, but for the fantastic performance of Geraldine Fitzgerald (an actress often forgotten today). As a version of Brontë's classic, Wyler's "Wuthering Heights" may not be the most fortunate one, but judging it purely as a film, it's certainly up there with the many masterpieces that were released in 1939, often called (and not without a good reason) as the best year in the history of American cinema. Producer Samuel Goldwyn (who added the epilogue against Wyler's objections) considered his favourite, and he had pretty good reasons for that.