Wuthering Heights (1939)

William Wyler | 1hr 44min

The year 1939 was a tough one for any filmmaker who isn’t Victor Fleming to direct an adaptation of a classic novel, especially when they are competing with such resounding Technicolor successes as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. But even in spite of being slightly overshadowed, William Wyler still manages to create the definitive cinematic interpretation of Wuthering Heights, delving deep into the relationship of Cathy and Heathcliff, two twisted lovers who cannot separate themselves from each other.

A handsome, young Laurence Olivier, exerting magnificent screen presence as Heathcliff.

Though much credit must be given to Emily Brontë for crafting such a compelling narrative and rich characters to begin with, the masterful translation from page to screen that writers Charles Macarthur, Ben Hecht, and an uncredited John Huston undertake shouldn’t be undervalued. There are sacrifices that are made from Brontë’s original text, most notably the entire second half about the children of Cathy, Heathcliff, and Hindley, but in implementing these changes the focus of Wuthering Heights remains on its core group of characters. Given that there are moments where some of the heavier emotional beats are little rushed over, it is indeed rather fortunate that this film isn’t any denser than it is.

At its centre is the strong-minded Catherine Earnshaw, whose relationship with surrogate brother and lover Heathcliff becomes the tragic obsession upon which everything else hangs. Merle Oberon doesn’t have the magnetism necessary to pulling off a famous literary heroine in the same way as someone like Vivien Leigh, though it must be a doubly tough task when trying to stay afloat in any scene against a handsome, young Laurence Olivier. How fitting he is for Heathcliff, being a relatively fresh-faced newcomer to the film industry and yet exuding a magnificent, self-possessed screen presence. He especially plays well into the air of mysterious confidence about Heathcliff, even before discovering his fortune as an adult. It is as if the brooding lover possesses some precognisant awareness that he is destined for greatness, and as such holds tightly onto oaths of vengeance against those who wrong him.

A combination of excellent blocking and deep focus in shots like these.

Over time, Heathcliff becomes the personification of Cathy’s childhood home, Wuthering Heights – or perhaps it is the other way round, with the manor absorbing his foreboding austerity, gradually dimming from bright, natural light into gloomy shadows. Wyler’s collaboration with Gregg Toland is an important one, as the cinematographer who would go on to shoot Citizen Kane puts his deep focus to excellent use here in capturing Wyler’s layered staging of his ensemble within the minimalistic, Dreyer-like architecture of the manor. Rusticated furniture, stairs, and beams that act as dividers between characters, tall, waxy candles rising out of sparse walls and tables – the impression Wyler creates in his stark mise-en-scene is that of a tomb, literally and figuratively trapping the souls of its inhabitants. The outdoors are for the living, where young lovers go to frolic and flirt, but within Wuthering Heights, a stale deathliness hangs in its air. Cathy even feels so bound to this place that she can’t imagine her spirit ending up anywhere else, foreshadowing her own real fate.

“I dreamt I went to heaven, and that heaven didn’t seem to be my home. And I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth. And the angels were so angry, they flung me out in the middle of the heath, on top of Wuthering Heights.” 

Magnificent staging of actors within this austere, Gothic mise-en-scène, trapping the spirits of the living and deceased in the tomb-like manor.

Eventually, we arrive at Thrushcross Grange, and suddenly we find Wyler sweeping us into a whole new world. So often we are kept at a distance from it, peering through windows, doors, and over garden walls like an outsider, but when we move inside, the décor is everything that Wuthering Heights is not, opulently adorned with chandeliers and white columns. Wyler also lifts his camera off its tripod here to elegantly float it through the space, bringing a delicacy to this aristocratic world. In a ball scene the camera observes the dancing in the reflection of a wall mirror, before drifting through the splendidly-dressed crowd, rising up to a high angle, and then proceeding to move between rooms, letting this smooth shot play out for a full minute before cutting.

Splendid framing through windows at Thrushcross Grange, keeping Heathcliff on the outside of a world he doesn’t belong in.

If the sullen Wuthering Heights is Heathcliff, then Thrushcross Grange is Edgar, the rival suitor with from a wealthier, more stable background. Both tug at Cathy’s heart and mind, and yet in the end it isn’t even a conscious decision which decides her fate. “I am Heathcliff,” she proclaims, as if the choice was baked into the very fabric of her own intrinsic identity, thereby yielding to the dark allure of her eerie, limbo-like childhood home. With such a rigorous dedication to turning the architecture of these settings into characters, Wyler cuts right to the heart of Emily Brontë’s novel, submerging his tragic paramours in a ghostly melancholy that haunts them through life and death.

Wuthering Heights is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and Kanopy.

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