Directed by William Wyler, written by Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht and John Huston from Emily Bronte’s only novel and starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. Could there have been any chance that it wouldn’t be among the best movies ever made?
Wuthering Heights (Samuel Goldwyn) is, so far, the best picture of the year, such outstanding foreign films as Grand Illusion and The Puritan not excluded. It leaves The Citadel and Pygmalion far behind. It is a solid, beautiful, and convincing piece of moving-picture art unspoiled by the concessions to outworn formulas or the avoidance of decisiveness at the crucial point which are the two foremost reasons for the low level of even the more ambitious undertakings of the great industry. One consideration seems to have dominated this production of the movie version of Emily Brontë’s famous novel of a century ago: faithfulness to the selected theme of passionate love.
Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht of Gunga Din shame have made surprising use of their great talents and their better selves in adapting the Victorian novel for modern appreciation. They have limited the story to the essentials: Cathy’s betrayal of her love for the sake of clothes and a gentle home, the eternal conflict of the female, and Heathcliff’s return and—I almost said revenge, but what comes so liberatingly through at the end, in one of the most moving deathbed scenes ever shown, is the realization that Heathcliff is not a psychopath but a great character. His actions destroy Cathy’s body but save her soul. They destroy him but rescue their love. Depth triumphs over shallowness. Tragedy is not patched over with convenient compromises but is resolved. Thus, the inner story with the strength to strengthen is told in terms of a poetic realism which is in itself a triumph. There is no cheap line, no silly by-play. Every detail serves the whole.
Such a script needs a director who is more than a first-class technician. William Wyler, whose Dodsworth is still memorable, takes with Wuthering Heights a great step forward. He avoids any superficial effect, aims always at the heart of the theme, and reaches it in the most simple and at the same time the most subtle way. A little detail: note how the light plays on Cathy’s face while Heathcliff’s remains in shadow as they look through the window at the ball in the neighbor’s mansion; the whole approaching conflict is given in the lighting. So, with a hundred other masterly handlings of movie means, Mr. Wyler recreates the mood in which alone the story is able to live. Take the beautiful, somber, and romantic landscape in which he sets the walls of Wuthering Heights. Wyler never succumbs to the common temptation to use the magnificent scenery as a spectacle in itself. There are moors, clouds, trees, and rocks, snowstorms and rain storms, but stronger and more beautiful than nature remain man and his passions. If I object to one thing it is the image at the very end of the lovers walking side by side up to their “castle” in the rocks. This device does not aid but rather suppresses the imagination. Otherwise there are only economy and truthfulness. Wyler subdues his excellent technique to serve his ends; he does not display it. The actors are always led to the limit of the possibilities of the theme but with the greatest of taste and the most careful balancing of the values involved.
The cast is faultless. Merle Oberon looks the Victorian heroine and Laurence Olivier the uncompromising man. Both play with legitimate modern overtones which stress the eternity of their conflict. David Niven as the gentle husband and Geraldine Fitzgerald, a newcomer of great promise, as his sister give equally perfect performances. Special mention for Flora Robson as Ellen, the maid, who tells the story. A flawless supporting cast and a generous production help to instrument the symphony. Last but not least, for all this we must thank Samuel Goldwyn, who, let us hope, will not soon sever his connection with serious movie art, newly established through this picture.
After Wuthering Heights it seems impossible to review the normal run of pictures of the past two weeks. Therefore I only list them as seen:
Three Smart Girls Grow Up (Universal), a feeble vehicle for the charming Deanna Durbin; Alexander Graham Bell (Twentieth Century-Fox), “one of the sweetest box office stories ever told”; Dodge City (Warner Brothers), a new low in technicolor; Midnight (Paramount), praised as one of the best comedies of recent years but too plot-conscious.