Film screening: Wuthering Heights (1939)
Wuthering Heights (1939)
directed by: William Wyler
screenplay based on Emily Bronte’s novel written by: Charles MacArthur i Ben Hecht
starring: Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven
Film historians universally acknowledge this 1939 film to be an exemplary film adaptation. However, one can also regard it as an ideal example of a idiosyncratic and faithless variation on the literary model. This psychological and socially-conscious film came into existence as a result of Wyler’s neglecting of the second part of Bronte’s novel. The director focuses primarily on the relationship between the two main characters and on the madness of their love, madness - one hastens to add - construed from a social perspective. This creative and not routinised rendering warmed the hearts of US film critics who regarded the film highly: “Wuthering Heights” was more critically acclaimed than “Gone with the wind”.
This was the ultimate symbolic victory of Wyler, as the director of “Jezebel”, over the output of Selznick. The film’s links with “Jezebel” are more than palpable: they are strikingly obvious. Arguably, one could claim that the in-depth psychological portrait of the woman entrapped in violence, and socially-imposed duties, as depicted in “Wuthering Heights”, is close to the leitmotifs of “Jezebel” and “Heiress”. However, apart from the social topics that haunt the film, “Wuthering Heights” is characterised by highly seductive expressionism. Undoubtedly, the film’s most prominent feature is the director’s omnipotence, his authority over the audience. Wyler is not an ethnographer or a historian; nor does he want to replicate English moors in the United States. His directorial gaze is anamorphic, which is in turn a sort of phantasmic and internalised take on the human condition and the human’s presence in the untamed and unbridled rawness and primitivity of space/nature. That is why the movie retrospectively tells the story so as to make us - as viewers - tamed and subdued by the mythologising past tense distortion of any accompanying sense of nostalgia. For that reason, we are not disturbed by the overtly visible and purposefully executed meta-artificiality of the film, the theatricality of the on-screen spectacle since it all the more emphasises the metaphoric quality of the storyline, the fact that the narrative is subordinate to the psychological. The symbols of love and affection are demythologised and are rendered phantasmic idealisation, laying bare the psychological trauma of Catherine and Heathcliff. Romanticism, as the novel’s cultural background, is replaced by the director’s gaze and framing of the camera lens. Stuffy, almost suffocating, and half dark shots with painterly chiaroscuro. Anticipating the low-hanging ceiling, placed just above the heads of the protagonists of Welles‘ “Citizen Kane”. Yet another indirect reason that Wyler often was the forerunner of the film avant-garde of the post-war period. Altogether, Wyler’s “Gone with the Wind” seems more thriller-like than it is characterised by romantic conventions and construals. Perhaps, to the director’s mind, both genres in the end coalesced into one?
Wyler’s “Gone with the Wind” is also worth watching because it marks the film debut of England’s finest Lawrence Olivier. No other thespian after him has ever managed to create a similarly rich and broodingly effervescent Heathcliff. A modern post-Wyler viewer can only pity that due to Betty Davis’ indiscretion producer Goldwyn did not allow her to take on the role of Catherine. Still, Merle Oberon makes an almost captivating presence. Her effort is visible. Hard as she tries, we are convinced that only Davis could live up to the high expectations set by Olivier, or perhaps also Olivier’s wife was a match for the great Englishman.
Description of the series: “The Greatest of the Great - William Wyler - Monographic meetings - Auteur cinema across genres.”
“Our series, which has been going on for over two years, continues to take us on a specific journey across the meandering world of film classics. We will therefore aim to provide a generalised overview and offer a more synthesised take. To this end, the next leg of our journey is of monographic nature: a presentation of the output of one filmmaker, whose career is simultaneously a narrative about and into the history of cinema in general. Is is possible, however, to narrate the story (and history) of Hollywood through the filter of a biography and filmography of one director? In principle, the rationale seems flawed: how on earth could one person embody and encompass the entire mutli-vocal spectrum of cinema? Its diversity, polarisation, and ambiguities? Yet, there is one creator, one exceptional pioneer, a visionary whose output is not so widely remembered or acknowledged as it ought to be. He is the filmmaker to this day most often critically acclaimed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The creator who told magnificent tales through the medium of film but perhaps even more so expressed through it the specificity of cinema, pondering upon the autonomy and singularity of the art of the cinema. The creator who is a rare bird, a paragon of absolutely unique film vision in the US, a representative of uncommon American auteur cinema, but who concurrently practised genre filmmaking, shooting almost every genre film imaginable. The creator typified by genre diversity and simultaneously formally unique and aesthetically recognizable. As claimed by Stanley Kubrick, he was his tutor and master who taught the director of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ everything that was worth knowing. We are thrilled and overjoyed to invite you all to a meeting with THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT, with William Wyler. Let us familiarise ourselves with THE GREATEST OF HIS GREAT films.”
Rafał Szczerbakiewicz, curator