The best of Bronte

FILM

Film Column

April 25, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Since MTV has just announced its intention to produce an update of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, it's a relief that you can see the classic William Wyler version this Sunday at 6 on Turner Classic Movies. (It's part of TCM's series The Essentials, with director-actor Sydney Pollack as host.)

Wyler's peerless romance from 1939 doesn't need a contemporary angle to tug the audience immediately into a romantic, haunted vision of the Yorkshire moors. Its melancholy pull isn't a matter of special effects; until the end, the ghosts remain offscreen. The picture's greatness arises from its aching beauty and the astounding piece of acting at its core: Laurence Olivier's performance as Heathcliff, the stableboy locked in destructive thrall with a country squire's daughter. Wyler ignites the 32-year-old Olivier's gift for irony, his feral potency and his unique dynamic sullenness. With a Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur script that acutely extracts the central relationship from Bronte's novel, the director and a crew of Hollywood's finest - cinematographer Gregg Toland, art director James Basevi and editor Daniel Mandell - create a mood of thwarted yearning and sustain it for 100 minutes.

Olivier overshadows Merle Oberon, who plays the capricious, moody Cathy. Still, moment by moment, she displays enough conviction and sensitivity to make Wyler's stylized conceptions work. The closeups of Oberon's febrile eyes - when she dreams she's seeing Heathcliff and then realizes that she is seeing him - bring the movie to fever pitch. Alfred Newman never scored a movie with more suppleness and eloquence: his plaintive theme for Cathy whistles on the wind. The screenplay doesn't try to encompass Bronte's violent extremes. But Wyler and Olivier succeed in imbuing Bronte's blasphemy - Heathcliff's renunciation of any power that denies his love - with both a turbulent, demonic undertow and the ennobling feelings of heroic tragedy.

`Indemnity' at Charles

William Wyler and Billy Wilder were close and droll enough as friends to take credit for each other's movies when fans or critics scrambled their close names. One of Wilder's masterworks closes out the current calendar of the Charles' Saturday revival series: Double Indemnity, the chilling 1943 adaptation of James M. Cain's novel. Co-screenwriters Wilder and Raymond Chandler excised some extravagant rhetoric and stuck to the plot of a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) and a lust-struck insurance agent (Fred MacMurray) murdering her husband and trying to outsmart the agent's best pal, a Javert-like claims investigator played by Edward G. Robinson.

They knew that Stanwyck didn't need Cain's line, "I think of myself as Death sometimes." One look at her and you get that she's a sensual death-dealer: There's something uncanny and eternal about how she snares MacMurray's eager-to-please agent. Her voice is both harsh and seductive, a steel purr, and her movements walk the tightrope between lewdness and propriety. Stanwyck was the perfect Wilder actress and a Tinseltown rarity: a thoroughly unsentimental big star.

Showtime: noon. Admission: $5. Information: 410-727-FILM or www.thecharles.com.

Cinema Sundays

"We're too specialized: the idiot savants of comedy," Catherine O'Hara quipped when I asked her several years ago whether director Christopher Guest and his stock company - the gifted group behind those cult classics Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show - would ever have a breakout hit. But Best in Show ended up grossing $19 million (it cost $6 million to make). Expectations are even higher for Guest's new improvisational extravaganza, A Mighty Wind, starring Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer as that renowned trio the Folksmen, reuniting for a Town Hall memorial to a deceased folkie impresario.

The film receives its Baltimore premiere this weekend at Cinema Sundays at the Charles, with Murray Horwitz, director of the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, as guest host.

Coffee and bagels: 9:45 a.m. Showtime: 10:30 a.m. Admission: $15. Information: 410-727-FILM or www.cinemasundays.com.

Local efforts

Creative Alliance tonight holds a unique local event: a celebration of the best films and videos of all kinds made at local colleges. The evening blends juried screenings and votes for audience favorites with a beer-and-cake bash. It's $5 for non-members, $3 for members at 8 p.m. at 413 S.Conkling St. Visit: www.creativealliance.org.

Levinson presents

Barry Levinson, who launched the Maryland Film Festival in 1999 with the premiere of his documentary Diner Guys, will jump-start this year's edition when he is presents an opening-night screening of the film that taught him what moviemaking was all about: Elia Kazan's 1954 Academy Award-winner On The Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint and Rod Steiger.

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