Lies and Deception in Film and Literature

         If there was one overriding theme in the films and literary works presented in the class this semester. I believe it would center on lies and deception.

         In so many of the films we watched and literature we read, the characters went through life either living one way in public and another in private or living a life they did not want to live.

         I believe Sir Walter Scott’s famous quotation—“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”--can be applied to several of the films in class as an illustration.

         This theme can be applied to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, filmed in 1939 by William Wyler, because, in essence, both of the main characters, Heathcliff and Cathy, are lying and deceiving themselves. Both Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) and Cathy (Merle Oberon) want to be with each other, but neither is willing to swallow his or her pride in order to attain the relationship and life each wants to have.

         Cathy refuses to lower herself and give up her place in high society by running away with Heathcliff. Instead she continues to live in an unhappy marriage with another man, Edgar (David Niven). Heathcliff, on the other hand, does not seem to have the persistence necessary to finally win Cathy. He is flighty; he comes and goes, riding in like a knight and shining armor but fleeing again when he first realizes he may not get his way, then not showing up again for years at a time.

         Another literary work/film that conveys this theme is the 1880 novel Washington Square, by Henry James and the 1948 play The Heiress, by Ruth/Augustus Goetz and the 1949 film The Heiress, directed by William Wyler.

         In this work, the deception is easy to pick out. Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) is a charming young man who woos a naïve young woman with an awkward personality because she is very wealthy. While Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) believes Morris’ lies that he has fallen in love with her, her father (Ralph Richardson) tries to convince her of the truth about the situation.

         In the end, it turns out badly for both parties. Catherine is perhaps permanently emotionally damaged by Morris’ rejection; and, when Morris comes back years later, truly deserving her companionship, she turns him down. This goes to support Scott’s assertion.

         Perhaps the best two examples of theme can be found in the final two works studied—A Doll’s House and A Streetcar Named Desire. In Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 A Doll’s House, filmed twice in 1973 by Joseph Losey and Patrick Garland, the entire marriage of Nora (Jane Fonda/Claire Bloom) and Torvald (David Warner/Anthony Hopkins) is based not necessarily on lies but on deception. Their relationship is empty, and Nora exists only as a “doll” of Torvald’s. Both characters deceive themselves into believing this lie for a time and seem happy because of it, but in time Nora comes to see the truth of their relationship. Once again it ends poorly for both parties, as Nora leaves Torvald and sets out to live her own life.

         In Tennessee Williams’ 1949 play A Streetcar Named Desire, filmed in 1951 by Elia Kazan, Blanche’s (Vivien Leigh) deceptive character is the cause of many problems when she moves to New Orleans to live with her sister (Kim Hunter) and brother-in-law (Marlon Brando). Stanley sees through her lies from the get-go and attempts to make her leave by being persistently hateful toward her. It is soon discovered that Blanche had to move because she was run out of her small hometown after being the center of a sex scandal. When Stanley has had all he can take, he rapes Blanche: and from that point on, both characters are never the same again. With lies and deception at the center of it all, Blanche and Stanley are teetering on the edge of insanity by the end of the work.

         In conclusion, I believe the films and literary works Wuthering Heights, Washington Square, The Heiress, A Doll’s House, and A Streetcar Named Desire all reflect the fact that living a life based on lies and deception will ultimately spell doom for all involved.

Tommy Dillard

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