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Goldwyn's Masterpiece. Fresh look shows `Wuthering Heights' timid, compared with Bront"e novel. FILM: REVIEW

EVEN in Hollywood, it's rare to find so many great names on a single credit list: Directed by William Wyler, the maker of ``Jezebel'' and ``The Little Foxes'' and ``Friendly Persuasion,'' among other legendary hits. Camera work by Gregg Toland, the greatest cinematographer of his day. Written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, perhaps the most celebrated writing team in movie history. Music by Alfred Newman, a leader in his field. And, oh yes, the cast. Laurence Olivier as the impetuous lover Heathcliff; Merle Oberon as the woman who loves him but spurns him for another; and David Niven as the man who takes her, prompting a bitter revenge from his rival. Plus unforgettable players like Donald Crisp, Flora Robson, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Leo G. Carroll in the bit parts.

Samuel Goldwyn used all the resources he had to make ``Wuthering Heights'' a sensational picture. And five decades later, plenty of moviegoers agree with the New York Film Critics Circle verdict in 1939, when it named the film best picture of the year.

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And that was a year that included ``The Wizard of Oz,'' ``Stagecoach,'' and ``Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'' not to mention ``Gone With the Wind.'' Small wonder that many critics consider it the best 12-month period Hollywood has ever known.

Seen today, ``Wuthering Heights'' certainly looks good, especially in the handsome new prints made by the Samuel Goldwyn Company for its current 50th-anniversary revival. That company's chief is Samuel Goldwyn Jr., by the way, and he says his father was more proud of this movie than of anything else he made during his long career.

I can't say ``Wuthering Heights'' still has the incredible power audiences found in it 50 years ago, however. To put it simply, the movie is too tame in the way it treats Emily Bront"e's timeless story of love, revenge, and class struggle on the English moors. Rereading the novel recently, I was struck again by the savagery of its emotions, and by its willingness to push characters and situations far beyond the limits imposed by most 19th-century authors.

By contrast, the movie looks like - well, a high-quality production of the late '30s. It has a thin veneer of excited feelings and unruly behavior, but it's always well mannered and correct just beneath the surface.

You can spot this trouble in the directing and the dialogue, which are too careful and controlled, with little of the fly-away spontaneity that pulses through the novel. The performances have the same problem. They're too polite for this story - even that of Olivier, who cares more about Heathcliff's underlying innocence than the passions that rule him.

For just one instance of the movie's conservatism, compare the ending of the book (several pages of brooding mystery as Heathcliff succumbs to a wished-for death) with the finale of the film, which dribbles away in a standard shot of Olivier and Oberon walking side by side into eternity. You know they're ghosts because they're transparent. And that's trite.

``Wuthering Heights'' is, I hasten to add, a hard story to adapt - its relationships are as complicated as its emotions, and even the Spanish master Luis Bunuel didn't quite hit the mark when he filmed it with characteristic surrealist touches. In all, Wyler's version is a fine example of classical Hollywood filmmaking. But if you want the full experience of this dark and stormy tale, spend a few evenings curled up with Bront"e's novel. Nobody has improved on it yet.

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