1. Wuthering Heights. Ellen notices that Heathcliff has left.
ever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same. And Linton's is as different as frost from fire. My one thought in living is Heathcliff. Ellen, I am Heathcliff. Everything he's suffered, I've suffered. The little happiness he's ever known, I've had, too. Oh Ellen, if everything in the world died and Heathcliff remained, life would still be full for me.
Cathy has come to know her heart, but it is too late. Hearing only her slighting remarks, Heathcliff has run out into the storm and quitted Wuthering Heights. Desperately, Cathy seeks him in the rain, making herself seriously ill; months later she ends up marrying Linton after all.
What's apt about this scene is its tragic irony. For too many decades, film viewers have put themselves in the position of Heathcliff: we've been bad eavesdroppers; we've jumped to conclusions; we haven't listened attentively all the way through. Like Heathcliff, who walks into the kitchen so smoldering from slights and shame that moments earlier he's smashed his "dirty hands" through a win-dowpane, we've listened with preconceptions, with a chip on our
shoulder, and we've only been open to that which confirmed our expectations.
Since the birth of the cinema, we've chanted a mantra: "Film is a Visual Medium." Films must tell their stories visually—editing, deep focus, lighting, camera movement, and nifty special effects are what really count. Dialogue, on the other hand, is just something we have to put up with. John Ford encapsulated these sentiments in a 1964 interview: "When a motion picture is at its best, it is long on action and short on dialogue. When it tells its story and reveals its characters in a series of simple, beautiful, active pictures, and does it with as little talk as possible, then the motion picture medium is being used to its fullest advantage."1
Try this experiment: show this scene from Wuthering Heights to anyone and ask them what they like best about it, and they are bound to point to the neat trick with the candle flame, a visual effect.
Ask them what they like least about the scene, and they're equally bound to point to the line, "I am Heathcliff." For besides serving as a metaphor for faulty eavesdropping, this scene haunts me because it also exemplifies why so many have scorned dialogue for so long—it contains a line of dialogue so outrageously bad that it makes one squirm with discomfort. The sentiment—being such soul mates that one can't tell where one ends and one's lover begins—is so corny that it's embarrassing. The phrasing is too naked, too preposterous.
"I am Heathcliff" is easy to scorn. But before we rush to judgment, we might note that the script is by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, a writing team famous for cynicism and wit in plays and films such as The Front Page (1928) and Twentieth Century (1934). Moreover, the line itself is straight out of Emily Bronte (as is the whole scene), and in the novel, it sounds important, not jarring. Is the phrase itself really so terrible, or is the problem in Merle Oberon's strained performance, with her eyes stretched wide and her phony pause? (According to reports, Wyler was dissatisfied with her playing of the scene and made her do it again and again, until she left the set in tears.)2 Or is the flaw actually in Wyler's own direction? After all, someone decided to emphasize the line through a long pause, a dolly-in, a flash of lightning. Would "I am Heathcliff" be palatable if it had been downplayed, thrown away in a sad mumble, by an actress with the skill of Emma Thompson?
Or could the difficulty lie elsewhere altogether, not in the film, but in viewers' expectations? Why is the line's heightened rhetoric so embarrassing to contemporary ears? Isn't this style appropriate, even required, for a gothic melodrama? Why does such a bald expression of love make us squirm?
It is worth admitting, here, at the outset of a defense of film dialogue, that not every line in every film is felicitous. Yet if we allow ourselves to focus too intently on this one bad line, we are repeating Heathcliff's folly. The rest of the scene's dialogue surely merits attention. We might notice that it is through conversation that Cathy actually discovers her own feelings and reveals them to the viewer. We might pause over the complexities of Ellen's strategies—first her attempt to forestall Cathy, then her endeavor to draw her out and lead her to knowledge in an almost Socratic fashion. Cathy's narration of her dream is a key foreshadowing of the story's events, for Cathy does die, but she does not rest quietly in the afterlife, her soul returns to Heathcliff and Wuthering Heights. And as for the dialogue's style, the metaphors concerning frost and fire, heaven and earth are richly evocative. Note, too, that Heathcliff's manner of speaking—he claims to "belong to her more than [his] own soul"— exactly matches Cathy's both in substance and in tone. One mark of these lovers' connection and their separation from everyone else is that they speak the same impassioned rhetoric. It is the dialogue, not the flickering flame or Gregg Toland's skillful deep-focus cinematography, that actually gives the scene its substance.
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