This posting is my contribution to the William Wyler blogathon at R.D. Finch’s blog The Movie Projector, running from June 24 to 29. Please do visit and take a look at the other postings, which are covering the whole of Wyler’s career and a lot of great movies.
There have been many film and TV adaptations of Wuthering Heights over the years. But I think it’s true to say that the first one most people think of is still William Wyler’s black-and-white classic from the great Hollywood year of 1939, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. This adaptation is not especially faithful to the book, and indeed cuts out the whole second generation, who take up nearly half the novel. However, its wild, rain-lashed melodrama does come close to the spirit of Emily Brontë’s troubling masterpiece, and is something which modern versions, even if closer to the book on the surface, struggle to match.
Wuthering Heights is a great Gothic novel, but the film version starts with more of a flavour of Gothic horror movies, as the new tenant Lockwood (Miles Mander) makes the mistake of reaching a crumbling mansion in the middle of a storm. He then has to stay the night in the bridal chamber, which hasn’t been used for years, and which has a broken window for the wind and rain to whirl in through. All this would of course have been fresher and less clichéd in the 1930s than it is now, but, in any case, Alfred Newman’s music and Greg Toland’s amazing moody cinematography build the tension to fever pitch before Cathy’s ghost is heard wailing in the distance, followed by the unforgettable scene of Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff reaching out of the window in hopeless pursuit of a ghost, crying out: “Cathy! Come to me, oh do, once more!” This is one of the film’s key scenes, along with the moment where Merle Oberon, as Cathy, confesses: “Nelly, I am Heathcliff”. It seems the most passionate moments in this movie come when the lovers are apart – and yearning for what they have thrown away.