Movie Critique - Wuthering Heights

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: A tale filled with poisonous love, complex characters, tormented souls; and a tragedy that evokes so many emotions in the viewer's heart and mind that one would feel drenched with them at the end.

Wuthering Heights is a 1939 American romantic drama film based on the 1847 novel of the same name by Emily Bronte. Directed by William Wyler and produced by Samuel Goldwyn, the film has Lawrence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Hugh Williams in the lead cast among others.

A farmer's daughter Catherine Earnshaw (portrayed by Merle Oberon) and an orphan Heathcliff (portrayed by Lawrence Olivier) who lives with them grow up as soul mates; having an obsessive love affair between them. But as adults this obsessive love turns tragic and they turn towards different partners - Catherine towards Edgar Linton (portrayed by David Niven) and Heathcliff towards Isabella Linton (portrayed by Geraldine Fitzgerald) - to spite each other; and inadvertently destroying four lives.

The adapted screenplay was provided by Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht and John Huston; although Huston was not credited for his contribution. The film used only the first 16 chapters of the book's total 34 chapters; thus ending the story in volume 1 of the book; hence we don’t see anything about their children. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Actor and Best Picture, but only won for Best Cinematography Black-and-White to Gregg Toland. The haunting music was given by the famous Alfred Newman.

The lead actors detested each other and created a world of problems for the director. And also Olivier was tired with the number of retakes Wyler made them do. It is amazing that they made such a classic. And the movie gave the stars a huge success making them famous instantly. Perhaps all the off-screen animosity helped for their characters Heathcliff and Catherine's love-hate relationship.

Since the adapted screenplay didn’t use the entire book, the ending was different from what Bronte intended to in her book; an ending that since has influenced several remakes over the years. Even the time of the novel setting and film setting are different. 

It is very clear that Laurence Olivier came from theatric acting into film. There are shades of him acting as if he was doing a live performance to the audience as opposed on a film. His stage experience definitely helps him as Heathcliff in the movie, a complex and torn character who first loves, then hates the love, then later torments the love; and much later regrets losing it and craves for it all over again.

Even when I read the book or seen so many other versions on film or TV, I always felt Cathy to be a complicated character - heart wanting Heathcliff, but mind and body chpsing the worldly pleasures that Edgar Linton offered which she couldn’t have if she married or went away with Heathcliff. And to get that worldly pleasures she bears abuse as well. I have seen many actresses portray the role, Oberon made a better Cathy than most actresses.

In the process of hurting each other, both Heathcliff and Cathy leave a wake of broken hearts beginning with their better halves. David Niven portrayed as Edgar Linton, had a year long affair with Merle Oberon which ended in 1936. Tensions between them were as natural as it could come although love scenes werent.

The only film I ever remember watching with David Niven in it was the 1963 American comedy-heist film, The Pink Panther. Other than that I don’t remember him seeing in anything else. Yet, he seemed so familiar.

This was Geraldine Fitzgerald's only Oscar nominated performance. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Isabella Linton. She makes a charming and unfortunate Isabella in the film. I remember seeing her as a femme fatale in the 1946 film noir The Three Strangers. She made a better femme fatale if I may say so.

Cecil Kellaway portraying the role of Earnshaw, Cathy's father, has a very brief role in the film. I remember him from a film I watched recently, the 1946 film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice as Nick Smith; and in one Perry Mason episode.

The opening credits end with lines talking about Wuthering Heights. The film is done in flashback mode. It has some powerful dialogues, courtesy of both the author as well as the screenplay writers. 

This movie reminded me of the 2009 TV adaptation I watched a few years ago. The dialogues in that were also as powerful as this one. 

"Everything he's suffered, I've suffered. The little happiness he's ever known, I've had too. Oh, Ellen, if everything in the world died and Heathcliff remained, life would still be full for me."
"How can you stand here beside me and pretend not to remember? Not to know that my heart is breaking for you? That your face is the wonderful light burning in all this darkness?"
"The moors and I will never change. Don't you, Cathy."
Heathcliff: My tears don't love you, Cathy. They blight and curse and damn you! / Cathy: Heathcliff, don't break my heart. / Heathcliff: Oh Cathy, I never broke your heart. You broke it!

A tale filled with poisonous love, complex characters, tormented souls; and a tragedy that evokes so many emotions in the viewer's heart and mind that one would feel drenched with them at the end. A beautiful adaptation of the most controversial book written at a time so many concepts in the book were considered taboo. Always makes my heart melt, sigh and drench!

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. The film was adapted to radio twice - first by Philip Morris Playhouse in 1941 and second on Screen Guild Players on 1946. Merle Oberon reprised her role in the 1946 radio adaptation.

b. The film inspired Kate Bush's first 1978 hit song Wuthering Heights.

c. The book inspired the 1966 Indian Hindi language movie Dil Diya Dard Liya.

d. Alice Ehlers as herself plays the harpsichord at the Linton's party.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. Doubles used for Olivier and Oberon in the final scene as they walk off into the beyond.

b. The window pane in Mr. Lockwood's room changes from being broken, to being intact, to being broken again.

c. When Cathy enters the room with Linton, her hand muffs are clearly seen. Then when she turns back to talk to Linton again, the muffs are gone. And it is not shown that she had put them on the table when she was turned around either.

d. As Cathy is running up the hill to meet Heathcliff, first you can see a shawl draped around her shoulders, then another shot you see a scarf around her neck and no shawl, then when she finally reaches Heathcliff she is back with a shawl around her shoulders.

e. When Heathcliff returns as a distinguished gentleman and comes to meet Cathy and Edgar, in that scene, a lock of hair keeps appearing and disappearing on Heathcliff's forehead.

f. When Cathy walks out of Wuthering Heights after talking to Heathcliff, when she opens the front door, you can see the set behind her for a split second.

g. When Ellen opens the door for Cathy and Edgar, in the far shot you can already see Cathy in the doorway. But when the same shot is shown in closeup you can see that the doorway is empty and Cathy walks into it after the door opens.


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