Wuthering Heights

Written by:
Nigam Nuggehalli
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Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (Modern Critical Interpretations)

(1986), Harold Bloom (Editor)

William Wyler was not just one of the most important directors in American movie history; he was at various times the most controversial as well. His notoriety did not have the contemporary ingredients of sex or politics. Rather, there were raging debates about his style of filmmaking. His admirers were in love with his obsessively professional and ‘neutral’ manner of filmmaking. Wyler did not take sides in a script; he executed the plot with a machine-like efficiency. His shot composition, production values, and art direction were the most impeccable in the industry. Critics have called his directorial style cold and bereft of passion.

In the fifties and sixties, when Wyler’s star began to fade, the knives came out. The auteur theorists claimed Wyler had no style and that his movies lacked any aesthetic value. Agree or disagree, it is undeniable that Wuthering Heights and The Little Foxes are amongst his best movies.

Based on the melodramatic novel by Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights is about the doomed love between Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Cathy’s father finds Heathcliff as an orphan in Liverpool and brings him home to the delight of Cathy and the envy of her brother, Hindley. Over the years, Cathy and Heathcliff fall in love with each other. But fate intervenes to deny Heathcliff’s aspirations. Cathy’s father dies, leaving the way for Hindley to become the master of the household. Hindley promptly reduces Heathcliff to a stable boy. Cathy marries the rich and cultured Edgar Linton though still pining away for Heathcliff. Heathcliff’s attempts to reunite with his sweetheart has disastrous consequences.

Wyler executes the movie with clinical precision. Wuthering Heights is portrayed as an imposing and mysterious fortress bathed in snowfall on the outside and in somber candlelight on the inside. The rooms are furnished in classical Victorian fashion with heavily draped beds and oval portraits on doors. Wyler follows a similar approach at Thrushcross Grange, where Cathy and Edgar Linton live. He adroitly films Victorian party scenes where the well dressed men and women dance to waltz and other ball room dance music of the period. The camera pans from a group of adults to a group of kids dancing to the same tune, an effective way of showing how upper class Victorians were schooled early in social graces.

Wyler, with cinematographer Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane), makes clever use of deep focus shots. In one scene, Heathcliff comes to meet Cathy at Thrushcross Grange. Cathy and her husband are in the foreground and Heathcliff is seen coming from the background. Since both Heathcliff and the couple are in focus, the viewer can see both the emerging figure of the changed Heathcliff and the tension in the body language of the couple. It’s a fascinating mise-en-scene.

Laurence Olivier, who played Heathcliff, was already a major theatrical presence in England, and this movie established him as a matinee idol in the United States. He looks the part in the movie: dark, brooding, and imposing. But his eyes betray the cool composed actor within. Instead of blazing with passion and frustration, Olivier’s eyes are curiously blank and uninterested. Merle Oberon, who plays Cathy Earnshaw, has been universally criticized for her listless acting. It is an unfair criticism; in the crucial love scene of the movie where Heathcliff and Cathy meet at her deathbed, Oberon is far more convincing than Olivier. With the camera lingering on Cathy’s face, Wyler gives it the longest take in the movie. Oberon’s face registers surprise at finding Heathcliff with her and slowly, the astonished look morphs into a dazzling look of joy. It’s a virtuoso performance.

As in the book, the movie ends on a tragic note. Heathcliff is unable to unite with Cathy, but in a departure from the book, Heathcliff and Cathy are shown walking hand in hand in their afterlife, visiting their favorite place, Penistone Crag. There was some controversy over this scene. Wyler did not want it but Sam Goldwyn (the producer) insisted on it. This innovation was one of numerous interventions by Goldwyn to ensure that the movie would not be a commercial failure. In fact, after the movie became a big hit, Goldwyn is said to have quipped “I made Wuthering Heights, Wyler only directed it.”

Goldwyn’s hand was not the only hullabaloo from the production. Apparently, Olivier and Oberon hated each other. Oberon accused Olivier of spitting at her in the love scenes. Olivier himself ran into trouble with Wyler because he resented Wyler’s exhausting style of filmmaking. After yet another take, Olivier is said to have exclaimed “For God’s sake, I did it sitting down. I did it. I did it with a smile. I did it with a smirk. I did it scratching my ear. I did it with my back to the camera. How do you want me to do it?” Wyler replied “I want it better,” and that pretty much sums up Wyler’s directorial style. Owing to Wyler’s pugnacity, and in spite of Sam Goldwyn’s bragging act, Wuthering Heights stands as a testimony to a great American director’s ability to bring out the best in his actors.

– Nigam Nuggehalli

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