Based on the classic 1847 text of Emily Brontë, this 1939 incarnation of Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler, sets up the all-engulfing tragedy beautifully. Since its setting, the windswept Yorkshire moors, is a desolate place at the height of summer, having to fight your way through the teeth of a snowstorm is not for the faint of heart. This is the mistake made by Lockwood (Miles Mander), a temporary resident of nearby Thrushcross Grange. Seeking shelter from the blizzard, he staggers through the door of Wuthering Heights, finding the atmosphere within just as icy. The master of the house, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier), reluctantly provides a bed but seems ill at ease with his visitor. There is a sad tale behind his indifference, one which the elderly housekeeper Nelly Dean (Flora Robson) is happy to share.
An epic tale of wild, romantic passion, set amongst the heather and wind-swept gulleys, Wuthering Heights is stirring stuff. Presenting a vision of undying love, it has its genesis in the innocence of youth and resolution in the chill of death, the entire spectrum of emotions is played expertly by Brontë. Such a tale calls for a top-notch cast; players who can emote the sheer stubbornness, which makes Cathy and Heathcliff destroy each other while remaining deeply in love. So staggering is Heathcliff's pain that he is willing to use Cathy's sister-in-law, Isabella Linton (Geraldine Fitzgerald), as a weapon, caring nothing for the poor lass. It is a measure of Cathy's stoicism that she refuses to budge even under these conditions, pretending that she actually loves Edgar (David Niven).
With emotional wounds such as these, kept forever raw by constant needling, Wuthering Heights should be a veritable raging tempest. This version comes close, with Olivier providing most of the flashes of brilliance, but ultimately bogs down by refusing to fully let go. Heathcliff and Cathy rip each other, and everyone close by, into pieces yet this awful agony feels muted. A significant problem is that the story's core is smothered by melodramatics and Alfred Neman's overbearing music score, with a too-heavy string section. Too much is forced and, hence, false. By far the best moments occur when Cathy and Heathcliff are alone on the moor, free from restraint. Left naked like this, Wuthering Heights is scorching in spots, whereas overall it merely smoulders.
The underlying strength of Brontë's story still shines through the Hollywood murk, which indicates just how good the movie could have been. Fine cinematography by Gregg Toland and evocative locations set in the Southern California hills, help immensely, creating a definite mood of impending disaster. In the end Wuthering Heights is a fine tale, of course, but there is too much in the way in the film to really appreciate the cinematic rendering here.