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Wuthering Heights

In William Wyler's 1939 version of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, actress Merle Oberon is Cathy. The spoiled, difficult beauty who becomes the dark and tempestuous other half of Heathcliff — one of literatures primo romantic bad boys — Oberon's Cathy is violent passion incarnate. "I am Heathcliff" she announces as per Bronte's famous words, and she is. The refined yet stormy actress found a kindred soul in Cathy, creating the best performance of her career. Her co-star, Laurence Olivier, was impressive, though those who love the novel know he's not the perfect Heathcliff. Olivier was able to skillfully slip into Heathcliff's skin, but Bronte probably wasn't imagining an Olivier when she scribed her sensitive yet violent, sexy yet brutish brooder. Had she been able to watch pictures, she'd probably conjure up Marlon Brando or Benicio Del Toro. Nevertheless, Wyler's rich, gothic telling of Bronte's classic has spoiled us for decades as no other filmmaker has bettered him. Not Luis Buñuel, who made a very loose adaptation in 1953, and certainly not Robert Fuest, whose 1970 version is reviewed here. Could Fuest advance the sexual intensity, gothic raging, and captivating unease via film in his more permissive times? No. The story concerns the foundling Heathcliff, a dark, gypsy-like boy who is brought from the streets of London to the farmhouse of Wuthering Heights in the remote Yorkshire district during the end of the 18th century. Initially a happy boy with an adopted father who loves him, Heathcliff (Timothy Dalton) spends his days with his father's daughter Cathy (Anna Calder-Marshall), running through the moors, and eventually professing their undying love for one another. But Heathcliff's life is turned asunder when the old man dies and he is henceforth treated poorly by the rest of the family — even Cathy is horrid to him at times. Still, he and Cathy's special bond remains (in modern, less-Bronte terms, they get off by being mean to each other), but when she plans to marry into Yorkshire's other prominent family, he erupts with revenge. Heathcliff leaves Wuthering Heights to travel and then returns a mixture of worldly refinement and fierce baseness. Wuthering Heights is a great love story, but not in director Fuest's or his cast's hands. The young Dalton looks hunky and brooding, and he's well spoken, making for the best cast member here, but his amour must be met by the extraordinarily dull Calder-Marshall, who all but ruins the film. As Cathy, the actress is unattractive, whiny, and is neither elegant nor dark enough to play the tumultuous Cathy. Thus, Dalton and Calder-Marshall's sexually aggressive, mutually masochistic love scenes play very silly. The filmwork, which some have praised, doesn't help matters, its gothic vision absolutely wan. Fuest's direction is lackluster, looking like a cross between an especially pallid episode of Masterpiece Theater and a juicy '70s horror movie ("Last House on the Left" pops into one's head while Cathy runs through the moors). This just isn't gothic romance — until Benicio Del Toro and Martin Scorsese team up for a stab at Bronte, stick to Wyler's gorgeous 1939 version. MGM's DVD offers a crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), but the film still looks washed out and uninteresting. The English audio comes in Dolby 2.0 mono for what is a dialogue-heavy film (subtitles are in English, French and Spanish). Supplements include trailers for Fiddler on the Roof and The Princes Bride. Keep-case.
—Kim Morgan

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