Despite its enduring stature as one of the most exquisite novels ever written, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) has yet to receive a definitive screen adaptation. If only by default, the most acclaimed version to date is a 1939 drama starring Laurence Olivier as brooding romantic antihero Heathcliff. Yet by dint of the era in which it was made, the Olivier movie is chaste, even though the level of implied sexual tension is high, so there was ample reason to revisit the material in the '70s, by which time restraints upon the depiction of taboo subjects had loosened. Ironically, however, pushing cinematic boundaries is not the defining characteristic of the 1970 Wuthering Heights, which was a rare venture into the world of highbrow cinema for B-movie specialists American International Pictures. Although Patrick Tilley's intelligent script both accentuates the lurid elements of Brontë's story and adds a few dark flourishes (such as intimations about Heathcliff's parentage), the movie is, by comparison to other pictures released at the same time, as restrained as the 1939 version was in its day.
Making this stylistic choice even more surprising is the involvement of director Robert Fuest, who later made his name helming gory but visually inventive thrillers including The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Rather than running with the supernatural elements of Brontë's tale, Fuest and his collaborators offer a straight transposition of the novel, albeit with a handful of additions to and/or deletions from the original narrative. What emerges from this creative process is a movie that's perhaps a bit too respectable. The image-making, mood-setting, and storytelling are all exemplary, but leading actors Anna Calder-Marshall and Timothy Dalton fail to generate the necessary romantic heat. Make no mistake, this isn't some uptight Masterpiece Theatre take on Brontë. Quite to the contrary, this Wuthering Heights is filled with betrayal and cruelty and heartbreak, often pitched at a high level of emotional intensity. The minor but important caveat is simply that the actors living inside Fuest's artfully composed frames don't reach the transcendent heights, no pun intended, to which they aspire.
Still, there's a lot to admire here. The underlying story, of course, is remarkable—a twisted ordeal of capricious fate, overpowering love, and spiteful violence set against the metaphorically rich backdrop of remote estates dotting the hills and valleys of the English moors. Contributing fine elements to the movie are cinematographer John Coquillon, whose claustrophobic and crisp images capture the story's inherent fusion of danger and intimacy; composer Michelle Legrand, whose plaintive melodies speak for the characters' tortured souls; and title designer Maurice Binder, who sets the atmosphere perfectly with grim tableux of ragged peaks juxtaposed with overcast skies. Plus, even if Calder-Marshall and Dalton seem too controlled to get lost inside their animalistic characters, the performers look their parts thanks to unruly hair and wild eyes—the image of Cathy and Heathcliff as two halves of one otherworldly entity comes across clearly.
Wuthering Heights: GROOVY