Sunday, September 30


Wuthering Heights

How many ways are there to segue from a Blog-A-Thon on William Wyler to one on Luis Buñuel? More than you might think. Flickhead, the host of the latter 'Thon, has illustrated one pathway by posting a terrific photograph with the two men posed less than a yard apart from each other (Wyler's standing next to George Cukor, who's standing behind Buñuel). It was not the first time the directors had rubbed elbows. In 1971, in celebration the Cannes Film Festival's 25th edition, both men were among a group of twelve international auteurs honored. The others were Lindsay Anderson, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, Rene Clement, Frederico Fellini, Vojtech Jasny, Masaki Kobayashi, Orson Welles (who was not present at the festival) and Serge Youtkevitch. You may say, "wait a minute, that doesn't add up to twelve!" Blame the New York Times article of May 13, 1971 from which I obtained this list, for coming up one short. Wyler biographer Jan Herman wrote that there were five directors honored, not twelve: Wyler, Buñuel, Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Rene Clair. Obviously further research on this gathering is merited.

Another clear path between the two directors is that they, with apologies to Yoshishige Yoshida, Peter Kosminsky, Suri Krishnamma, Robert Fuest, A.V. Bramble and Jacques Rivette, directed the two most enduring film versions of Emily Brontë's novel Wuthering Heights. It seems Buñuel had the idea first, as the book was a favorite of his surrealist crowd in the early 1930s. According to Francisco Aranda's Luis Buñuel: a Critical Biography he worked with Pierre Unik, and briefly with Georges Sadoul as well, to write a screen adaptation shortly after the completion of Land Without Bread in 1932. But Buñuel would not have the ability to get the project off the ground until after he'd established himself as a director of narrative features in Mexico. Wyler's Wuthering Heights was released in 1939, earning numerous Oscar nominations and establishing Laurence Olivier as an international star. Buñuel would not begin revising his old script until 1952. The film was shot in 1953 and released in 1954 under the title Cumbres Borrascosas (the title the Brontë book was known by in Spanish translations). Later it was retitled Abismos de Pasión.

Both the 1939 American version and the 1954 Mexican version of Wuthering Heights were filmed in their respective countries' Southwestern scrub desertlands. Wyler's version had its outdoor scenes shot in the still-rural outskirts of Los Angeles. Buñuel, according to biographer John Baxter, shot the film
at the hacienda of San Francisco de Quadra in the barren uplands of Guerrero, near Taxco. Critics noticed immediately that this was pretty odd country. Thunderstorms crash and flare each night, but dawn reveals a land as parched and bare as the slopes of Paracutin. Most of the trees are dead, but Eduardo, the effete Hindley character, still finds plenty of butterflies and insects for his collection.
But Buñuel's Wuthering Heights makes no reference to geography, and indeed changes the names of its characters so that Cathy becomes Catalina (played by Irasema Dilián), and Heathcliff becomes Alejandro (Jorge Mistral). If Wyler's version attempted a recreation of Brontë's Yorkshire, down to the vast quantities of Calluna vulgaris imported from England and planted on the hillsides, Buñuel's version seems set in its own unique landscape if not land, an arid one all the better to inflame the illogical passions of the characters.

Buñuel wanted to enhance the l'amour fou aspects of Brontë's novel, and one way he achieved this was by beginning the film at the moment of Heathcliff/Alejandro's return upon having made his fortune. By spending so much time with Heathcliff, Catherine and Hindley as youths, Wyler's film explains the tragedy of the romance quite plausibly. He shows how the connection between Heathcliff and Cathy is sown, and also how their class differences must keep them apart. Buñuel, by contrast, simply drops us into a world in which the fundamental bonds and barriers between the characters have long since been established, and insists we pay attention instead to just how they are resisted. As Sue Lonoff de Cuevas has so succintly put it, Wyler's version of the romance is "sentimental" and Buñuel's "anti-sentimental."

This despite a romantic-style musical score adapted by composer Raul Lavista from Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Buñuel had used this music before, in both Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or. When discussing these two films, and specifically in reference to the latter, Peter Conrad has written, "An orchestra happens to be playing Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which treats love as a mystical rapture; for Dali and Buñuel, it is more like a demented regression." In Wuthering Heights Wagner's themes are rapture and regression all at once, the Liebestod endowing the final sequence in particular with a great deal of its disturbing resonance. Watching it recently, I found myself wondering if it was at all possible that Bernard Herrmann might have seen Buñuel's film before being inspired to masterfully borrow the same theme to signify the l'amour fou of Vertigo. Vincent Canby, in his 1983 review of Buñuel's Wuthering Heights, suggests that the film had not played in New York City (Herrmann's lifelong home) until 1976, except perhaps at one of the city's Spanish-language theatres. It's intriguing to imagine the composer catching a Mexican Buñuel film at a place like the Elgin (which played only Spanish-language films in the 1950s), but the connection is most likely to be happy coincidence, I suspect. Yet, apart from its placement in the final scene, Buñuel was not happy with the music in Wuthering Heights. At least, he said as much later in life. Aranda quotes him:
It was my own fault. My negligence. I went to Europe, to Cannes, and left the composer to add the musical accompaniment; and he put music throughout the film. A real disaster. I intended to use Wagner just at the end, in order to give the film a romantic aura, precisely the characteristic sick imagination of Wagner.
But Baxter notes that the director did not leave for Europe until April 1954, after the music track for the film had already been fixed in place. And Aranda quotes Buñuel again, this time from an interview that took place while he was in Cannes that year serving on the jury that selected Gate of Hell as top prizewinner: "For Cumbres Borrascosas I put myself into the state of mind of 1930; and since at that time I was a hopeless Wagnerian, I introduced fifty minutes of Wagner." Here Buñuel seemingly is taking personal credit for the abundance of music in the film, and in the context of a discussion of how much he generally dislikes film music, too. So did he change his mind, or just his tune? Another subject for further research, it appears.

More reviews of Buñuel's Wuthering Heights well worth reading include: Ed Gonzalez's take at Slant, Fernando F. Croce's capsule at CinePassion, and a review newly-written for this very Blog-a-Thon by Robert Monell of I'm In a Jess Franco State of Mind.

And if you're in the Frisco Bay Area wondering when your next chance to see a Buñuel film on the big screen might be, it looks like you may have to wait until December 17th, when Belle de Jour will be brought to Artists' Television Access along with a post-film discussion. It's part of a series devoted to silver screen sex workers presented by Whore! Magazine to benefit the health care efforts at the Mission District's St. James Infirmary. This fall at ATA looks particularly busy with interesting screenings in general, including the Other Cinema fall program, the ATA Film and Video Festival October 10-12, a continuing series of Guy Debord films, a stint as a venue for the 11th Arab Film Festival (which has just released the full contents of its program), and an October 26th evening of music and film entitled Roman Meal that you really do not want to miss. Trust me on that one.


I've not seen Buñuel's--or anyone's--film version of Wuthering Heights, but I do have Abismos de pasión sitting around on an old vhs somewhere. You've just explicated a lot of the fascinating reasons why it should move up near the top of my to-see pile ...
I'm glad you liked this, Zach. Two weeks ago I hadn't seen anyone's version either, and I watched both of these on VHS. I'd like to try the Rivette version next, but it's uncertain how soon I'll be able to get around to it.
Excellent review, Brian. I think Bunuel wanted the music in as an ironic commentary throughout. He may have changed his mind after experiencing the result on the big screen. He was supposed to be near-deaf and his later films have NO music, which I like.
I enjoyed your review Brian and I learned a lot about the film. As I mentioned over at Robert's blog, this is a Bunuel film I haven't seen, but I would really like to. Sadly, no one locally seems to have it for rent at the moment, so I may have to track down a VHS copy for myself.

I would love to see something like this on the big screen. The only Bunuel film I've managed to see in a theater was Belle de Jour and it was amazing.
I'd love to see that one in a theatre! It's one of my very favorites of his films; I put in the disc to get that last screen-capture, but couldn't resist watching about half of the film all over again.

Over the past several years I've tried to catch about as many of his films as I can whenever they come to local screens; I've seen Un Chien Andalou, L'Age D'Or, Land Without Bread, Los Olvidados, Nazarin, Simon of the Desert, and his final three films at various local theatres. But there are still so many gaps. I can't think of another filmmaker I'd rather see a complete retrospective visit town for right now.

Robert, thanks for your thoughts on Buñuel's use of music. Your theory about his changing opinion after seeing the film in a cinema is very plausible. In the same Cannes 1954-era interview that I quoted from, he singled out one of the films in competition that year, Arne Sucksdorff's the Great Adventure (which incidentally screened at the Castro a couple of years ago, though I missed it) for praise due to its employment of long stretches of film with no music used.
You reminded me that I did see Un Chien Andalou at the Surrealist Art exhibit when it was in San Francisco but the screen was mid-size. Not very large or too small. They played a lot of great surrealist films during the exhibit.
I'm sorry I missed that. I saw Un Chien Andalou and Las Hurdes on a shorts program at the Red Vic.

Speaking of which, I don't think I've mentioned that theatre's newest calendar yet. This weekend they're hosting the Found Footage Film Festival. The calendar ends with the local premiere of Hannah Takes the Stairs.
An excellent piece, Brian! It took me a while to get to read it what with all the Buñuel mania -- but it was well worth the wait.

Thanks for joining the blogathon!
Thanks for being such an inspirational host, flickhead!
Clever way to connect the two filmmakers, the two blog-a-thons, and compare/contrast the two films, Brian. Nice. Taking a cue from your post I looked over some of the various opinions on the Buñuel flick printed in the Times over the years...Eugene Archer writing on April 7, 1968 calls it "one of his few out and out failures." March 11, 1973, Carlos Fuentes writes that the movie is a "nightmare of miscasting," but credits the final scene in the tomb as having the value of "20 William Wyler versions." The 1983 Canby article you mention claims that this is probably the Buñuel work "that's most full of riches" for fans of the director's movies. I haven't viewed Buñuel's version yet, but now I must see what happens in that final scene.

And (very) loosely connected--did my least favorite Bond really play Heathcliff?
Thanks so much for the comment-expansion of this piece, Thom! It's particularly interesting to compare and contrast the final scenes of the two versions, though I didn't really want to get into it here (spoiler territory, you know). Wyler always detested the finale of the 1939 version, which Goldwyn had shot with stand-ins against Wyler's will when he refused to tack on an "up" ending. Whereas in Buñuel's version...well, I still don't really want to go there. Suffice to say, it's not what usually would be called an "up" ending. But as you've read, it's quite the memorable scene!

I like both Wyler's and Buñuel's versions, but on a single viewing of each don't think either film is among its director's very best films. Further viewings might easily change this opinion though.

As for Dalton as Heathcliff, it is rather difficult to imagine. But back when I was a teenager and Bondologist, I actually thought Dalton had a very good take on 007, at least on his first try. If only his second Bond film License to Kill hadn't been such a fundamentally terrible movie, it would have been interesting to see him continue in the role. I haven't revisited either film since the 80s.
Here's something interesting in light of my mention of Bernard Herrmann and Buñuel's film: I had not realized that Herrmann had composed a Wuthering Heights opera in 1951. More information can be found here.
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