The Study of Filmic Speech
I'd like to start with a scene from William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939), a film I admire, even though many would dismiss it as the epitome of Hollywood pretentiousness—an overwrought, unfaithful, "prestige" adaptation of a famous novel. The scene that interests me—nay, haunts me—occurs perhaps a third of the way through the film, when headstrong, frivolous Cathy (Merle Oberon) comes down to the kitchen to tell the servant Ellen that her rich, upper-class neighbor, Edgar Linton, has just proposed to her. What Cathy does not know, but the viewer does, is that Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier), the poor, rough foundling her father adopted years ago, is in the outer passageway listening in on the conversation. The scene proceeds as follows:
Heathcliff opens the door to the kitchen. His hands are bleeding.
heathcliff: Has he gone?
ellen: Heathcliff, your hands—what have you done? heathcliff: Linton—is he gone?
ellen: What have you done to your hands? Oh, Heathcliff . . . What have you been doing? heathcliff: I want to crawl to her feet, whimper to be forgiven, for loving her, for needing her more than my own life, for belonging to her more than my own soul. cathy: (from the other room, off camera) Ellen . . . heathcliff: Don't let her see me, Ellen. ellen: No.
Heathcliff hides in the outer vestibule.
cathy: Ellen, I wondered whether you were still up. ellen: Has he gone?
All quotations of film dialogue, unless otherwise noted, have been transcribed from the screen. For details of screenwriters, studios, and so on, see the Select Filmography.
cathy: Ellen, I've got some news for you.
ellen: But the kitchen's no place for that. Let's come into the parlor— cathy: Come here. ellen: Please, Cathy.
cathy: Sit down. Listen. Ellen, can you keep a secret? Ellen, Edgar's asked me to marry him. ellen: What did you tell him?
cathy: I told him I'd give him my answer tomorrow. ellen: But do you love him, Miss Cathy? cathy: Yes. Of course. ellen: Why?
cathy: Why? That's a silly question, isn't it? ellen: No, not so silly. Why do you love him? cathy: Because he's handsome and pleasant to be with. ellen: That's not enough.
cathy: Because he'll be rich someday. And I'll be the finest lady in the county.
ellen: Oh. And now tell me how you love him.
cathy: I love the ground under his feet, the air above his head, and everything he touches. Ellen: What about Heathcliff?
cathy: Oh, Heathcliff. He gets worse everyday. It would degrade me to marry him. I wish he hadn't come back. Oh, it would be heaven to escape from this disorderly, comfortless place.
After these lines Heathcliff silently slips out of the house, a fact communicated to the viewer through the effect of showing a lamp flicker in the breeze of the opened doorway (fig. 1). Alas, Heathcliff has left too soon; he doesn't stay to hear Cathy further reveal her preference:
ellen: Well, if Master Edgar and his charms and money and parties mean heaven to you, what's to keep you from taking your place among the Linton angels? cathy: I don't think I belong in heaven, Ellen. I dreamt once I was there. I dreamt I went to heaven and that heaven didn't seem to be my home and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to Earth. The angels were so angry they flung me out into the middle of the heath on top of Wuthering Heights. And I woke up sobbing with joy. That's it, Ellen—I've no more business marrying Edgar Linton than I have of being in heaven. But Ellen . . . Ellen, what can I do? ellen: You're thinking of Heathcliff.
cathy: Who else? He's sunk so low, he seems to take pleasure in being mean and brutal. And yet, he's more myself than I am. What-
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