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Old Hollywood's Sure Thing

William Wyler is a prime example of the Hollywood craftsman who thrived under the studio system from the 1930s to the 1950s. For many years he was everyone's idea of a great and bankable director, a master of box office wonders (Mrs. Miniver [1942], Ben-Hur [1959]) and tasteful literary adaptations (The Heiress [1949], Friendly Persuasion [1956]). His painstaking methods with actors earned him the nickname "90-take Wyler," while his signature mise-en-scène—based on long takes and the dramatic possibilities of deep focus shots—enthused the likes of André Bazin.

The Oscars piled up, but in the 1960s, Wyler's critical reputation began to tumble. Increasingly, his restraint came to be seen as frigidity, his oeuvre was taxed as academic and bloodless, and it was argued that his pictures were more significantly influenced by co-workers (notably producer Samuel Goldwyn and the great cinematographer Gregg Toland) than by any identifiable style or thematic consistency. Although Film Forum's 34-film retro is not likely to pop him back on the throne, it does include some rarely seen and underrated plums, among them archival prints of Wyler's intriguing first sound pictures, and could jump-start a few reappraisals.

Wyler was born in Alsace, of Swiss-German parentage. His mother's cousin was tycoon Carl Laemmle, head of Universal. "Uncle Carl" brought "Willy" to America where he made his debut as director in 1925, at age 23, then ground out over 20 two-reel silent westerns, but it was only with the advent of sound that he began to make a reputation for himself. Hell's Heroes (1930), his first all-talkie, is a strikingly photographed oater that breaks with formula, down to an unhappy ending. Bleaker still is A House Divided (1931), about a father and son in love with the same woman; it's a strong study of brutal patriarchy, memorable for Walter Huston's ferocious performance in the main role. Actor and director teamed up again for Dodsworth (1936), based on Sinclair Lewis's novel about the disintegrating marriage of a middle-aged couple during their first trip to Europe. Huston is superb as the plainspoken Midwestern businessman whose blissful world falls apart. The film remains the most emotionally compelling of Wyler's career.

Acrimony and old lace: Dingle and Davis in Little Foxes
photo: Film Forum
Acrimony and old lace: Dingle and Davis in Little Foxes

Indomitable Bette Davis was in her feverish element in the trio of dramas she made with Wyler: as a headstrong Southern belle in Jezebel (1938), the adulterous wife of a planter in Malaya in The Letter (1940), and the rapacious central figure in Lillian Hellman's deep-South potboiler The Little Foxes (1941). The Letter, top of the three, based on Somerset Maugham's tale of sexual hypocrisy in the tropics, kicks off with a great murder scene, and goes from strength to strength—it's Wyler's most skilled directing job of the 1940s.

He was commissioned a major in the Air Force during World War II and on his return to Hollywood shot his most famous film, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), his last picture for Goldwyn. Hailed as a masterpiece, it copped seven Oscars. Although it contains moving passages, Best Years is not much more than a conventional drama on the problems of servicemen attempting to adjust to life in postwar America, well served by an all-star cast and Toland's ingenious deep-focus setups.

Best Years is not Wyler's most overrated film—that laurel goes to his ponderous adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939), with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff. Olivier worked with him once again, on Carrie (1952), a total box-office flop, rarely revived, and Wyler's magnificent ugly duckling. Jennifer Jones appears in the title role of this adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's dark novel Sister Carrie, set in turn-of-the-century Chicago, and she's fine, but Olivier brings the show grandeur with his marvelously detailed performance as Hurstwood, a good man who takes refuge from a loveless marriage in a grand passion that destroys him.

Wyler shot The Collector, his last first-rate film, in 1965. This bravura, basically one-situation, two-character thriller, based on John Fowles's novel, concerns a repressed young London bank clerk who kidnaps and sequesters the girl of his dreams. His performance as an angry young psycho made a star of Terence Stamp. Refreshingly nasty, The Collector is every bit as perverse as the times would permit.

 
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