Depth of Vision: The Grounded Cinema of William Wyler

Depth of Vision: The Grounded Cinema of William Wyler

Last month, during a visit to the Criterion offices, Oscar-winning writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret, Manchester by the Sea) sat down with us to talk about a filmmaker whose work has long captivated and inspired him, the legendary William Wyler, ten of whose classics are now streaming on the Criterion Channel. The following text grew out of that conversation.

William Wyler directed some of the greatest Hollywood movies of the twentieth century. He had his own way of doing things, and he was allowed to have his way on big productions because he made hits. His movies are unique both in how they are shot and in how closely the stories and characters are observed. There is an emotional depth and solidity to his work that you just don’t find everywhere else. From the domestic conflict of Dodsworth (1936) to the epic spectacle Ben-Hur (1959) and the extraordinary work in between, his films are so varied and so cinematic: beautiful-looking, dramatic, romantic, funny, and, above all else, intensely moving.

The first Wyler movie I remember watching is Wuthering Heights (1939), which I saw when I was pretty young. Obviously, when you see a movie as a kid your impressions are very different from those you have as an adult, and the main things I remember from watching Wuthering Heights for the first time are Laurence Olivier’s cocked eyebrows, and how handsome he was in profile. That, and how incredibly mean the characters were to each other; how tempestuous and willful and stormy they were. When I rewatched the film years later, my friend Patsy Broderick pointed out the light gleaming off Merle Oberon’s front tooth in her death scene. She said, “That tooth makes the whole scene.” And so it does. But between Olivier’s raised eyebrows and Merle Oberon’s gleaming tooth, it’s quite a movie.

Wuthering Heights

A little later on I came to Dead End (1937), Wyler’s Lower East Side drama. Of course I didn’t realize he had directed all these movies until I was older. At that point it didn’t occur to me that movies had directors. For a long time, I put Dead End in a sort of junior-mint category, but boy is it great. In my favorite scene, Humphrey Bogart, as Baby Face Nelson, asks his beaten-down mother (Marjorie Main), “Ain’t you glad to see me?” She cracks him in the face and says in her miserable drawl, “That’s how glad I am! You dogggg . . . you dirty yellow dogggg, you.” Wow. Still, the real star of the movie is the set. You don’t often think of movies for their great sets, but of course there are so many. This one is exceptional—a whole neighborhood, really: a long, crooked, narrow street lined with alleys, tenements, and abandoned buildings, the spider webbed latticework of clotheslines and fire escapes, even a section of elevated train tracks and a piece of the East River at the bottom of the street, with a pier for the boys to dive off; and looming over everything, the white-on-white, high-toned apartment building, complete with Ward Bond as the uniformed doorman sweeping away the city dirt and street kids alike, and a second-story breakfast patio for the French lessons of the little rich kid the street gang nearly beats to death. The movie also sports a lot of bravura lighting effects, especially toward the end, when Bogart stalks Joel McCrea under the elevated tracks through a rippling pattern of slatted light.

When I was in my twenties, Patsy Broderick introduced me to Dodsworth, the story of a marriage in decline of such psychological acuity that friends seeing it for the first time routinely express shock and amazement that it was made in 1936—as if nobody had personalities or psychology or complex adult relationships in 1936. But never mind. It’s one of my favorite movies. It’s actually a surprising number of people’s favorite movie. Everything in Dodsworth is exceptional. Story, script, performances, camera, music, sets, costumes, everything. It’s as close as you can get to a perfect movie. I guess you could quibble that it doesn’t operate on the same scale or with the same scope as, say, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), but to me it’s the more grown-up movie. Grown-up in the way a lot of movies from the grim 1930s often feel. During and after the Second World War, American movies seem to start expressing some kind of resurgence in hopefulness, also in naivete, and you see a return to the so-called American innocence that no character from a pre-Code drama would have recognized.

“When I first saw Dodsworth, I was already on intimate terms with two-thirds of the movies that would mean the most to me, so there was the additional thrill of knowing I had a new jewel in my mental treasure chest.”

When I first saw Dodsworth, I was already on intimate terms with two-thirds of the movies that would mean the most to me, so there was the additional thrill of knowing I had a new jewel forever tucked away in my mental treasure chest. I felt the same when I first saw The Best Years of Our Lives, probably in the same year. This movie may be Wyler’s masterpiece—although of course there’s no reason to choose one. The story of three GIs and their experiences rejoining civilian life after serving in the Second World War, it’s an unusual film in many respects. At nearly three hours long, it’s twice the length of most movies of the time. It costars Harold Russell, a nonprofessional who lost his hands in the war and was fitted with prosthetic hooks. It features groundbreaking cinematography by the giant Gregg Toland, who continued his exploration of deep-focus photography, pioneered on Citizen Kane—with its low angles, extremities of light and dark, and ingenious cinematographic tricks—to bring scenes of everyday life in a Middle American city leaping onto the screen. More than apposite for a story that plays out against the rigors and routines of daily life so much more intimately than most movies of its time, despite its deftly intertwined plots and three love stories—or stories about love.

For a movie with such an emotional wallop, it’s instructive to look at Wyler and screenwriter Robert Sherwood at work in the very first scene: Air Force Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), still in uniform, is at the airport, looking for a flight home. Just as the ticket agent tells Fred nothing is available for three days, a big and prosperous middle-aged businessman steps up with his suitcases to pick up the tickets his secretary reserved for him. The deferential ticket lady checks him in, mentions an excess-baggage fee, and the businessman says it’s no problem and asks how much. Fred steps out of the way as the luggage is handed over.

The Best Years of Our Lives

It’s easy to see how this scene would go in what I will call the average modern movie. The ticket lady would be dismissive and rude, the businessman obnoxious and superior, and Fred himself either aggrieved and wounded, or aggrieved and bitter. In other words, the scene would turn on the personal shortcomings of everybody but the hero, with the broader issue—the crummy treatment of returning vets—highlighted or not, depending on what kind of movie it was. I think that’s a fair projection and not a caricature.

In our movie, the ticket lady is polite and friendly, the businessman all business but perfectly civil, and Fred not aggrieved, just anxious to get home and easily cheered when he is steered to another airline. (He becomes plenty bitter later, but not over trifles.) Why is this a million times better? Because the movie does not suggest that everybody at home was personally, irrationally awful to the returning vets. The movie is about how badly out of step the servicemen found themselves with the natural hum and buzz of life at home, and how hard it was to find common ground with their closest friends, loved ones, and all those who didn’t fight in the war and who are now going about their business, as Fred remarks, “just as if nothing had ever happened.”

It’s just endless how good The Best Years of Our Lives is, but I must also mention the wedding scene at the end. With Dana Andrews in the extreme foreground, in silent conversation with Teresa Wright in the deep background, Fredric March and Myrna Loy watching from the side, and the marriage of Harold Russell and Cathy O’Donnell’s characters in the middle—well, what can I say? The shot is like Velázquez’s Las Meninas in its combination of figures and who’s looking at whom, each supercharged with emotion, undergoing utterly authentic life-changing moments in a very ordinary setting. 

The most famous moment in The Best Years of Our Lives is the hallway scene, where Myrna Loy and Fredric March see each other for the first time. The shot itself is too beautiful to discuss—and has been discussed beautifully often enough—so I’ll back up to the sequence just before it.

“Wyler makes the shot of the door itself enough to bring tears to your eyes.”

The Best Years of Our Lives

Al Stephenson (March) is going up in the elevator to see his family for the first time after three years in the Pacific. He’s getting really nervous. Then he steps out into the hallway and is facing his own front door. Somehow, Wyler makes the shot of the door itself enough to bring tears to your eyes. Anyone who has ever been away from home for a very long time knows how it feels when your own front door looks both vividly familiar and totally alien at the exact same time. I don’t know how in the world Wyler captures that feeling, but he does. There’s light falling on the door; the camera is set back far enough that we can see Al’s whole body from behind as he approaches. When he rings the bell, we can hear muffled voices from inside. That rings amazingly true too—the contrast between the casual voices inside and what Al is going through outside, between those voices’ light, bustling tone and the emotional charge of his experience just outside the door. The combination of the lighting, performance, camera, sound, and music exactly captures the feeling of the scene. It’s something that I tried to bear in mind, on a much simpler level, for the homecoming sequence in my own movie, You Can Count on Me, when Mark Ruffalo’s character arrives in his hometown. At least, I tried to maintain an awareness of the physical setting, how the character relates to it, and how the camera can help reflect his experience.

Wyler doesn’t do a lot of fancy camera moves. He pushes in; he pans, he cuts, he tracks. But as somebody once said, he puts the camera in the only place it must be for each scene. I can’t say he does this with every shot, but it’s often true. In Dodsworth, for instance, there’s a whole visual story charting how the Dodsworths (Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton) relate to each other physically over the course of their disintegrating marriage. In one amazing scene, they’re getting undressed for the night in their Paris hotel suite. With the camera barely moving, he starts to undress; she comes into the frame and takes her dress off with her naked back to the camera; the camera moves past her and stays with him until he takes his shirt off, then picks her up again, now in a robe, and leaves him behind as she crosses the room to put on some cold cream. The camera pans back and forth a lot, and it’s not all one shot, but the light movement and unromantic undressing for bed show how physically close they are with each other, how really married they are. The scene devolves into a whopper of a fight that drives the first deep wedge into their twenty-year marriage.

Dodsworth

Later on in the movie, in the culminating fight scene, he knocks on her bedroom door. She comes to the door, undressed but holding something in front of her chest. Immediately they are at odds, and after a few words she asks, “What did you want?” Right away he says, “Have things got this bad, Fran? . . . If things have got this bad, they’ve got to stop altogether,” and the scene takes off. But again, the physical action betrays a deep understanding of how people really relate to each other. He goes to her door in a moment of loneliness and feeling for her, but when she answers the door, instinctively covering herself up, as if he’s somebody who mustn’t see her undressed, the scene is ignited, and they are both driven to the final break.

“I remember hearing or reading of Bette Davis and David Niven saying what torture it was to work for Wyler, and how they’d do anything for him anytime. Which you can well believe.”

I like some of Wyler’s movies better than others, but I can’t think of many bad performances in any of them. Laurence Olivier is famously very hammy in Wuthering Heights. Wyler tried to sit on him the whole time, but in the end, he’s great. Everyone knows Wyler tortured actors and made them do endless takes—and that he would even read the newspaper while he was shooting—and often used the first couple. I don’t know where that perversity came from. Sometimes actors don’t know their lines very well; on the other hand, these were some of the greatest actors ever to perform, and I don’t believe that Bette Davis didn’t know her lines. I’m not that well versed in Wyler’s biography, or the story behind most of his movies, but I do remember hearing or reading of Bette Davis and David Niven saying what torture it was to work for him, and how they’d do anything for him anytime. Which you can well believe.

Sometimes a director’s shortcomings can point to what it is that works so well in his or her best work and why. I recently saw Mrs. Miniver (1942) for the first time, late one night when I was flipping channels. Never having seen Greer Garson before, that was a treat in itself, but I think the strengths and weaknesses of the film are really interesting. Mrs. Miniver is about life on the English home front during the war; near the end there’s a big flower show in the village. That’s where I came in. Lady Beldon (May Whitty), the grande dame of the little town, judges the flower show and also competes in it. She has won best rose year after year, but this year she has real competition for the first time, from the stationmaster, played by Henry Travers. The stationmaster is an old man, unassuming and hardworking. He really wants to win the prize, and he really has a chance—his rose is widely acknowledged to be at least as beautiful as Lady Beldon’s, and everybody is wondering if she’ll award him the prize or not. After some persuading by Mrs. Miniver, she decides to do the right thing. It sounds like nothing, but it’s very gripping and oddly moving. The ceremony is cut short by an air raid in which the town is bombed by the Germans—an incredibly rough sequence. Anyway, I was riveted, and I thought to myself, “Oh, this is Mrs. Miniver! What a fool I am to have waited so long to see it!”

Mrs. Miniver

Later on I watched the movie from the beginning and was a little disappointed, though I still admire it. At one point Mrs. Miniver (Garson) has a run-in with an escaped German flier who holds her at gunpoint in her kitchen. It’s much more sensational stuff, and not nearly as effective as the flower show or the brutal intrusion of the bombing run into the ordinary life of the town. Perhaps it’s an anomaly, or a weakness in the script, but Wyler doesn’t handle the sequence nearly as well, which I think speaks to who he was as a filmmaker and the kind of work he excelled at. If you think about his best movies, there’s not much sensational action in them. Ben-Hur is the great exception, of course. But if you leave out the chariot race, which is one of the most amazing action sequences ever filmed, there’s not much in Ben-Hur that can hold a candle to any of the movies I’ve been discussing here. To me, what’s unique about him are his insight into how people interact emotionally with their physical environment, and within it, and how artfully he explores those interactions on film. All his best work deals with those interactions—including the great chariot race, it occurs to me. There was a brief period when Wyler was down-rated for apparently lacking a personal stamp. I suppose that’s to be expected when you can make a flower show as exciting as a chariot race, but with time and distance it’s easy enough to see the genius in a director who can breathe life into either one.

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