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    Rebuilding Robert Fuest's Wuthering Heights

    Posted by Justin Humphreys on

    Director/production designer Robert Fuest’s 1970 adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1970) is an anomaly among Fuest’s work in that it isn’t an anomaly. Fuest’s films are marked by their unconventionality, their eccentric humor, and their flamboyant stylishness, particularly his The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) and The Final Programme (1973). Wuthering Heights is, in many ways, off-kilter in his oeuvre just by dint of being a relatively normal adaptation of a time-honored Gothic romance.

    That American International Pictures produced Wuthering Heights seems superficially like as wild a departure from form as Fuest’s involvement with the project. By 1970, AIP’s mainstays were drive-in quickies loaded with acid-tripping and chain-whipping. AIP, however, had its reasons. Wuthering Heights offered them a youth-oriented property that allowed them to capitalize on the popularity of Franco Zeffirelli’s hit version of Romeo and Juliet (1968); AIP had an extraordinary knack for sensing trends and exploiting them to the utmost. The novel’s literary merit also gave AIP a patina of respectability, and, more importantly, it was in the public domain. As AIP vice-president Sam Arkoff’s son, Lou Arkoff, once told me, after the success of AIP’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, “Public domain was gold.”

    The film might not have differed but so greatly from AIP’s previous efforts, in those respects, but its straightforwardness and relative normalcy were very atypical of Fuest. But Fuest’s versatility shone through and Wuthering Heights became a hit, as well as AIP’s first movie to play at Radio City Music Hall (in February 1971). The film’s success briefly elevated Fuest’s directorial career, especially with AIP, and helped its screenwriter, former graphic artist Patrick Tilley, segue into a successful professional writing career. But prior to its release, AIP sheared nearly forty minutes off of its running time, leaving its first two acts somewhat jumpy and bridged with narration by Nellie the maid (Judy Cornwell).

    As I got to know the late Bob Fuest, he showed little bitterness about the film’s recutting, though his wry disdain for AIP was apparent. “They had read the Classics Illustrated comic of Wuthering Heights,” he laughed, “but they had never read the novel.” Fuest expressed mixed feelings about the film, and was dissatisfied with its cinematography, which perplexes me. He said that during production the film’s director of photography, John Coquillon, told him “If I’m ever rich, I will pay to reshoot this movie.” I have no idea why either of them would express any qualms about it: Coquillon’s imbued the film with the kind of weather-beaten, autumnal look that made his collaborations with Sam Peckinpah so striking.

    My curiosity about and appreciation for Bob’s Wuthering Heights continued to grow through conversations with Fuest and multiple viewings of it. Its missing scenes became ever-increasingly fascinating for me, particularly because no one had ever described them or even bothered to discuss its reworking at any length. I gradually acquired stills of deleted shots, and eventually corresponded with Patrick Tilley. With Pat’s help, I began thoroughly figuring out Wuthering Heights’ missing pieces, which were so glaring at times that at least one character, Hindley’s (Julian Glover) son, Hareton, was completely erased from the onscreen action. Pat himself was stunned recalling how long his original script was and, in hindsight, it does seem incredible that a tight-fisted outfit like AIP would allow so much footage to be shot, especially by a fairly untried director like Fuest.

    With my audio commentary for Twilight Time’s new hi-def Blu-ray of Wuthering Heights, I have tried to help repair Bob Fuest’s original vision as best I can. Unless a full restoration of the film is mounted, which seems unlikely, this is the completest recreation of the film ever done. If it helps viewers envision Fuest’s operatic romance in something close to its original form, then I have done my job. I also hope that this gorgeous new transfer will also help heighten the film’s reputation, which has steadily grown since its generally hostile initial critical response. As Fuest told Anthony Petkovich in Psychotronic Video magazine: “. . . As the years go by, the ratings get higher and higher. It’s very strange, isn’t it? And I think to myself, ‘Where were those critics when I needed them?’ Now, instead of getting two-and-a-half stars for the movie, I’m getting five stars.’” Bob Fuest was a wonderful person and artist, and my commentary is a gesture of deep affection and respect for him. To quote the film’s dialogue: “I shall love him and carry him with me. . . He’s in my soul.”

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    Justin Humphreys has written two filmmaking studies, Names You Never Remember, With Faces You Never Forget (2006) and Interviews Too Shocking to Print! (2014). He has catalogued, appraised and sold rare and unique artwork, scripts, books, posters, awards and other materials for private estates. Through his association with Bonhams, he has worked on that auction house’s recent joint memorabilia collection offerings with Turner Classic Movies, most notably cataloguing the original Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet which set a World Record ($5.375 million) as the most expensive prop to ever sell at auction. He is the curator of the estate of legendary fantasy filmmaker George Pal. TT’s Wuthering Heights disc, starring Anna Calder Marshall and Timothy Dalton and featuring Michel Legrand’s eloquently haunting score on an Isolated Music Track, debuts December 19.