Wuthering Heights (1939): Death Be My Destiny

Wuthering_Heights_(1939_film).jpgIt’s almost instantly reasonable to clump this cinematic adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights with other contemporary pictures swirling with gothic menace like Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre. The latter film, of course, is based off the novel of another of the Bronte Sisters, Charlotte.

We might be able to give it some credit as the first of the lot while it also somehow managed to be one of the most high profile pictures in a year that has been lauded for the spectacular nature of its output. Its true 1939 was a staggering year for Hollywood. The list is too extensive even to begin attempting.

William Wyler was continuing his string of successes throughout the 1930s before WWII, and Wuthering Heights, in particular, would see the formation of a fruitful partnership with Gregg Toland, the cinematographer renowned for his perfecting of deep-focus photography. It was used in this picture and most prominently in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and then again in The Best Years of Our Lives, also with Wyler.

The story itself streamlined and truncated from the original work begins with the dark mood of the eponymous estate roosted over by a brooding man named Heathcliff and his gaunt wife, frail old housekeeper, and his hounds. But we are provided a flashback to happier times evoking childhood and the glories of the Yorkshire Moors covered by vast expanses of heather (actually imported from England to California).

How it diverges from the tales of Dickens or even Charlotte Bronte’s work is by offering a portrait of elders who are not nearly puritanical but actually show a pretense of actual Christian charity. What is there is a warmth girded around them and a hospitality and prodigal nature toward the less fortunate.

Mr. Earnshaw is a model of such a man as he brings a besmirched orphaned youth from his travels on London back to his estate and he adopts him as his own son. As long as the man lives young Heathcliff finds great joy in life treated as a full member of the family. Out of his childhood blooms his lifelong affection for his adopted sister Catherine. Their friendship grows out of horseback riding and wishful dreaming of castles and knights on the rolling plains of their homeland. They could not be more contented.

Ironically, behind the scenes, we have two talents in Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier who could not have been more antagonistic. Though young, Oberon was a fairly established actress in Hollywood, admired for her exquisite beauty. Laurence Olivier was just coming into his own as a film actor. His presence and dashing looks are irrefutable, though he had only recently dabbled in the medium following his already illustrious career on the stage.

Their projections are all but believable and ultimately rapturous even if the illusion is somewhat broken by the realization that the two actors abhorred each other off-camera. Part of the resentment might stem from the fact Olivier’s lover and soon-to-be wife Vivien Leigh had been passed over the leading role. But we must fall back to the story.

Mr. Earnshaw’s own son Hindley (Hugh Williams) vindictively maintains a grudge against Heathcliff that began the first day he ever set eyes on the other lad. He was never going to be anything but a stable boy.

Inevitably comes the day when Mr. Earnshaw passes on and the warmth once bathing his dominion is so quickly scrubbed away by the younger Earnshaw. He pushes Heathcliff out of the house to take care of the horses and treats him as he always has, as a mere pair of dirty stable hands, Meanwhile, the conceited rival becomes crippled by alcoholism and gambling debts.

Though they have confessed their undying love, the fact that Heathcliff can never achieve any amount of success to fund their childhood fancies, Catherine grows up impatient and bitter. Impatient to find a man who can make her happy by means of the world. Heathcliff now scorned seemingly leaves for good and she finds such an affluent suitor in Edgar Linton, David Niven with another thankless part, doting over her good-naturedly.

What ultimately arises in the final act is a vindictive battle of raging jealousies and contorted love affairs. Heathcliff begins to court the sympathetic younger sister Isabelle Linton (Geraldine Fitzgerald) which immediately receives the ire of not only her older brother but Cathy as well. She and her future sister-in-law have at it and yet soon Cathy is taken by illness because though she’s too proud to admit it, truthfully she still desires Heathcliff.

The most piercing love stories are those that are unrequited or worst yet lost out on based on the passage of time and changing circumstances. Where regrets and misfortunes pool up in such a way crippling what could have been so joyous. It speaks to a human desire for abiding, even eternal, romantic contentment. Heathcliff rashly prays to be haunted by her — for the ghost of her to torment him — because he cannot live without his soul. That is, Cathy.

What’s more, he is all but granted the wish that never seemed attainable in life, provided by a near transfiguration of the ethereal and the eternal. It’s a deeply powerful and moving apotheosis but upon closer observation, it also bears the responsibility in creating myths around romantic love. Because even in this modern age inundated by themes and testimonies of passion we cling to the idea that love is an eternal force when evoked and instigated between two people.

However, it’s only a half-truth because even as we look at the narrative of Wuthering Heights the messiness and the heartbreak that’s found all the way throughout the story, such final departures do not fit the origins of the story. They cannot line up in the real world either and it is true this is a picture that relies on the outskirts of the imagination and the hinterlands existing on the edges of the moors and the frames of the film itself. This is where love is able to survive in this almost unknowable, illusory world where it is not bounded by the ephemeral things we know to be true.

Reminiscent of some of Frank Borzage’s most enthralling romances, love is spiritual — a religion all to itself — ably transcending the throes of death. That’s the sentiment anyway, observed most curiously by the maid Ellen (Flora Robson) as, “Trying to tear away the veil between death and life.”

Because with Wuthering Heights, were it to maintain a real-world authenticity to the end of its days, we would rue the day we ever saw it and be bitter and downtrodden for the tragedy we had just witnessed. Life and film cannot always be interchangeable. As long as we understand this,  there’s a good chance we can avoid being damaged by such fallacies on the other side of the written page and the celluloid screen.

4/5 Stars

Review: Rebecca (1940)

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” ~ Joanne Fontaine in Rebecca 

In normal circumstances, voice-over introductions rarely resonate but for some reason, the ethereal tones of Joan Fontaine opening Rebecca leave a lasting impact and that’s after well nigh 80 years.

This was Alfred Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood and it truly is a stunning debut but if you take a step back and see who was working behind the scenes, it soon because fairly plain that this was as much of a David O. Selznick film as it was a Hitchcock one, if not more so. Because Selznick had Hitch under contract and he was following up the grandeur of Gone with the Wind (1939) with another costume drama positioned to be a smash hit.

Though Rebecca was slightly less ornate and preoccupied with its more gothic sensibilities, Daphne du Maurier’s novel was nevertheless ripe for a Selznick treatment with a sturdily constructed story and quality production values all across. And of course, you have the acting talent which while not necessarily head and shoulders above all of Hitch’s previous works was nevertheless top of the line.

First, of course, is Laurence Olivier providing a great deal of import to the part of one of our protagonists, George Fortescue Maximilian De Winter, the tortured man of breeding whose life is stricken with past tragedies. But equally crucial is Joan Fontaine’s role as the unnamed woman who subsequently becomes the second Mrs. De Winter after a whirlwind courtship in Monte Carlo. She began as the meek lady in waiting for a boorish socialite Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper only to fall in love with the older man.

Fontaine inhabits the role with a breathless wide-eyed timidity that’s immediately attractive and makes her the object of our sympathies. She always gives off the appearance of a frazzled little deer in the headlights like she doesn’t quite know what to say or what to do in the presence of others whom she deems more important than herself.

It’s that very quality that drew me to Fontaine from the outset the first time I saw Rebecca and no doubt a similar quality that draws Maxim de Winter to her character. There’s an undeniable innocence there full of an angelic beauty that exerts itself each time she interacts with others, eyes wide with mouth agape. That in itself is an immaculate illusion given Fontaine’s own life full of estrangement. Here she is faultless and demure.

And that comes into focus even more clearly because Maxim can often be an unfeeling man, swarmed with past demons though he might be. Put them together and he’s certainly the dominant figure. The same goes for their arrival at his stately home Manderley. The current Mrs. De Winters is totally overwhelmed by this grand estate and the staff that frequent its halls.

The shining example is the apparition of a housekeeper Ms. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and it’s a career-defining role for a character actress who always could be imperious and a little unscrupulous. But she was never as harrowing as the fiercely loyal woman who starts playing mind games with her new employer.

You also have the incomparable George Sanders playing his English gentleman with biting wit and a touch of blackmail. He becomes pivotal to the story for the very sake that he speaks up on the deceased Rebecca’s behalf as much as Mrs. Danvers does. They adored this woman that Maxim loathed so deeply by the end of their relationship. And it’s in this chafing that the ultimate conflict is uncovered — the type of conflict that threatens to rip Maxim away from his new love and splatter his reputation in the courtroom drama that ensues.

Much like Laura (1944) in her eponymous film, Rebecca lingers over the entire narrative and haunts its frames from start to finish. Yet in the latter work of Otto Preminger, the lady actually makes an appearance on screen incarnated by the entrancing Gene Tierney.

Here Rebecca is a specter who never tries to show herself. There is no physical semblance of her, only signs and references of her being — most memorably the scripted letter “R.” Because, truthfully, she doesn’t need to show her face. She almost wields more power without being seen. It’s that rather unnerving feeling of impending dread that’s hanging over the audience as much as it does Mrs. De Winter.

In the end, Hitchcock didn’t exactly get the murder that he would have liked but in any case, it does not fully take away from the impact of Rebecca. Instead of being a film of overt actions it starts to work on our psyches as a sterling psychological exercise matched by its deliciously dark atmosphere. The mental distress is heightened by the eerie interiors marked by layers of shadow and the shrouded impressionistic seaside that envelops the De Winter compound. Fittingly, Manderley is razed to the ground once and for all.

Ironically enough, though the production is very much on the Hollywood scale, it’s probably the most “British” film that Hitchcock ever made in America based on not only the subject matter but the majority of the acting talent because on top of Olivier and Sanders you have such esteemed character actors as C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce, Melville Cooper, and Leo G. Carroll (a Hitchcock favorite).

Still, he was blessed with the best talent he had at his disposal since the infancy of his career, in part because of his move across the Atlantic. Joan Harrison who would become one of the most prominent and only female producers in Hollywood turned in work on the script along with Robert E. Sherwood with the score being composed by Hollywood icon Franz Waxman. Even if the players at work are not necessarily evocative of the many trademarks we usually attribute to the director, that hardly makes Rebecca any less of a delight.

Furthermore, there is something inherently honest about the lead portrayals throughout the film. Not necessarily because they’re realistic but they are full of fear and hatred and emotion and you see it in the words and on the faces of the characters. This is hardly a playful film. It’s not trying to subvert drama with humor or dry tonal reversals. But it’s candid in its despair as much as in its joy.

For all their intrigues and complexities in technical feats, storytelling, and psychology, sincerity is not always something you look for in a Hitchcock picture. Here it works. Casting this devasting love story up against the backdrop of gothic horror makes it all the more affecting. The marriage of the talents of David O Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock turns out to be a surprisingly bountiful proposition. Even if it wasn’t made to last.

5/5 Stars

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Brando_-_Leigh_-_1951Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski. They’re both so iconic not simply in the lore of cinema history but literature and American culture in general. It’s difficult to know exactly what to do with them. Stanley Kowalski the archetypical chauvinistic beast. Driven by anger, prone to abuse, and a mega slob in a bulging t-shirt who also happens to be a hardline adherent to the Napoleonic Codes. But then there’s Blanche, the fragile, flittering, self-conscious southern belle driven to the brink of insanity by her own efforts to maintain her epicurean facade. They’re larger than life figures.

In truth, A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those cases where play and film are so closely intertwined it’s hard to pull them apart. And there’s so many connecting points. Tennessee Williams helped to adapt his initial work and Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden all transposed their original stage roles to the screen while Elia Kazan took on direction once more.

As such it became the showcase of The Method, the shining beacon championing that long heralded yet controversial movement born of Stanislav Konstitine and disseminated in the U.S. by such instructors as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. It was from this latter teacher from whom Marlon Brando honed his craft and it’s true that he was one for the ages. The Greatest by some people’s account.

But before this film, Vivien Leigh was the biggest name on the marquee and she, of course, had ties to Laurence Olivier, the apex of Shakespearian actors and arguably the most reputed actor of the age until Brando came along. In Streetcar, you can invariably see the thin link connecting such luxuriant Hollywood offerings as Gone with the Wind to the evolution of cinema with later classics like The Godfather because it’s physically there on the screen.

Vivien Leigh, forever synonymous with Scarlet O’Hara and Brando’s own brand of sometimes brutal authenticity. She wavers and sashays through her scenes, clinging to the set and delivering her lines as pure searing drama. Whereas Brando just is. This animalistic force of brawn stuffing his face with chicken and moving through his home like he actually lives there. It’s social realism but it’s also a conflict on multiple levels that goes far beyond the main tension within the film itself.

Within the narrative, it is certainly a clash of culture, dialect, and acting styles and we’re never allowed to forget it anytime Stanley (Brando) or Blanche (Leigh) are in a room together. Still, they are not the only players in this film and Kim Hunter lends an added layer to the conflict as she simultaneously yearns for the romantic passion coursing through Stanely while wanting to protect her sister from harm. It’s a precarious tightrope to walk and Hunter makes it heartwrenching. Beyond her, Karl Malden plays Mitch, one of Stanley’s old war buddies who nevertheless exhibits a softer side that is easily taken with Blanche’s cursory level of class.

So in the end, Blanche’s fall not only harms Stella but Mitch too as he sees his heart get hurt and he feels lied too. But the one who fairs the worst is, of course, Blanche herself as she becomes completely overtaken by her delusions of grandeur. The fact that she goes for magic over reality ultimately becomes her undoing.

Today Streetcar does come off as stagy and yet Kazan is still able to personify the sticky, grungy, sweaty atmosphere of New Orleans — palpable with its billowing cigarette smoke and humidity. It somehow functions as this odd dichotomy between the theatrical and utter realism. In one way at odds and in another married perfectly because the juxtaposition only draws out the drama even further.  And the fact that the film pushed the boundaries as far as content easily heightens the drama. Stanley’s attack on Blanche is not only in a verbal or emotional sense but physical as well and we have little problem believing Brando in his role.

It also struck me that in her final moments Blanche feels hauntingly reminiscent of Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd only a year prior. But her delusions are far more pitiful because she never was anything and yet she still tries to cling to this sense of pride in her upbringing and the looks that once were. She constantly needs the affirmation and adulation of others to reassure her in her fears and frailties. Always putting on a pretense — a face to get by — but she’s the only one she’s able to deceive in the end. It’s one of the preeminent tragedies of the 20th century and its actors guide it into transcendent territory.

4.5/5 Stars

Spartacus (1960)

91a01-spartacus_sheetaIn this epic film starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick, a slave turned gladiator leads a revolt against the Roman empire. Spartacus leads his fellow plebeians in a sacking and burning of the countryside while slowly gaining followers. Along the way he is reunited with his love (Jean Simmons). However, soon all hope of triumph or escape is gone and Spartacus must face the Roman legions in one final battle. Utterly overwhelmed by the other forces, his followers are slaughtered and taken prisoner. With all hope gone he must kill his friend (Tony Curtis) and then face death himself by crucifixion. But all is not lost because his wife and child do get away allowing his legacy to remain. Overall this film is good but it does have flaws, one of them being the casting of Tony Curtis with his New York accent. Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov all have important roles in this film as well.

5/5 Stars

Rebecca (1940) – Alfred Hitchcock

This film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Laurence Olivier with Joan Fontaine, was adapted from the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name. The story begins in Monte Carlo where Max De Winter (Olivier) and a young woman (Fontaine) have a chance meeting as she is working for an older lady. Soon she learns that his previous wife died the year before. Fairly soon the two of them are attracted to each other and Max has plans of marriage and returning to his Manderley. However, back home the fairy tale is over and the new Mrs. De Winter is constantly tormented by the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Pretty soon Max himself seems to have changed. Confused Mrs. De Winter must learn what happened to Rebecca, the lady who was so enchanting. When she actually finds out the truth it is almost too much to bear. Like many Hitchcock films this one is certainly worth watching and it was actually his first American film. Olivier, Fontaine, George Sanders, and Judith Anderson all have very good performances.

4.5/5 Stars