Wednesday, 5 August 2009

William Wyler's 'Wuthering Heights'

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Looking at the barrage of overrated and over-produced contemporary films it is easy to forget that film once aspired to be an art form. One such film is William Wyler’s 1939 underrated version of Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights which is, for me, the best film adaptation of that novel. Whilst the film deals with only the first 16 chapters of the novel’s 34, it compensates by capturing perfectly the emotional essence of the book, which for me resides in the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff. When read in light of having seen this film, the rest of the novel’s 18 chapters seem almost like an afterthought or padding.

Wyler’s use of camera, lighting and mise-en-scene take much from the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, which is to be expected since many of this school’s filmmakers and technicians had, by the early 1930s, relocated to Hollywood and become part of mainstream film production there. This expressionist style is well suited to the film, as it provides a visual equivalent to the novel’s gothic atmosphere.

The film quite deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Original Score, by Alfred Newman. Indeed, it is difficult to separate film and score, so entwined and essential are they that they become almost dyadic. To listen to Newman’s score alone is a deeply emotional experience.

However, Wuthering Heights did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture, which went to the unfortunately titled Gone With the Wind. In my view, this was an oversight because Wuthering Heights is the far superior film. One cannot help but suspect that Gone with the Wind won because it was an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which dealt with a “big” subject. However, for me, the really timeless and universal themes are dealt with in Wuthering Heights.