At its deliberate, engrossing best, the directing style of William Wyler, who died last Tuesday at the age of 79, achieved a sbutly concentrated formal beauty and dramatic intensity. It was a curiously impressive style: Wyler seemed to impose a distinctive look in the act of trying to conceal it to pretend that the movie story was "telling itself." The paradox was that his style seemd all the more imposing for the effort to appear self-effacing.
In person Wyler embodied his style in a peculiar way. A small, robust, sharp-eyed man of cultivated Swiss-German parentage, he seemed disarmingly cagy. You always suspected there was a far moe calculating and acute mind beyond those smart eyes than his modest, guarded replies, revealed. As with his style, which admiring French critics and filmmakers referred to as "the style without a style," there was something astutely sneaky about him.
Among Hollywood filmakers the Wyler style was widely respected as an exemplary, "classic" achievement, and it certainly one of the classiest that ever emerged from the Hollywood studio system. If you recoiled from vulgar, obtrusive direction and aspired to an optimum of visual clarity and emotional involvement, Wyler's approach could not be surpassed. It suggested an ideal approach to movie expositionlike a prose style steamlined to express thought smoothly and lucidly.
According to the testimoney of Lillian Hellman, who adapted two of her plays for Wyler film versions, the greatest pioneering exponent of dynamic editing, Sergei Einstein, was enthralled by Wyler's technique, which minimized cutting in favor of sustained scenes shot in remarkably deep focus from discreetly revealing angles. On a visit to the Soviet Union, Hellman found Einstein screening "The Little Foxes" incessantly.
The quality of illusion that kept Eisenstein spellbound can be appreicated time and again in such characteristic Wyler movies as "These Three," "Dodsworth," "Dead End," "Jezebel," "Wuthering Hieghts," "The Westerner," "The Letter," "The Little Foxes," "Mrs. Miniver," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "The Heiress," "Detective "story," "Carrie" (the 1952 movie version of Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" costarring Jennifer Jones and Laurene Olivier, in his least-known impressive screen performance), "Roman Holiday," "Friendly Persuasion," "The Big Country," "Ben-Hur," "The Collector" and "Funny Girl."
A lot of durably satisfying entertainment is contained in this roster. It's as solid as respectable Hollywood career is ever likely to be.
The list also indicates that Wyler's achievement ranges across a variety of genres and stories. Wyler was not a screenwriter and rarely, if ever, originated the material he directed. Operating in a collaborative medium within the Hollywood studio system, he obviously relied on the talents of others. At least one of those talents, the great cinematographer Gregg Toland, who shot eight Wyler features from "These Three" to "The Best Years of Our Lives" and perfected a lighting technique for deep-focus composition in the process, was no doubt indespensable to Wyler's development.
Wyler didn't make a distinctive contribution in the area of story or theme, but the Hollywood system had never been organized for breakthroughs in subject matter. Accepting the most promising and intelligent properties offered him by producers like Sam Goldwyn, Wyler made an indelible contribution to Hollywood by mastering a richly textured and evocative pictorial style.
It was an accomplishment that did not come easily, and it subjected the actors who worked for Wyler to extraordinary creative pressure. Charlton Heston, who played a major role in "The Big Country" and won an Oscar in the title role of "Ben-Hur," described the process eloquently in his journal, "An Actor's Story." During the rehersals for "Ben-Hur" he wrote, "Willy has brought out its virtues in his usual manner . . . picking, carping, nagging, fiddling; a reading here and a gesture there until you are trammeled and fenced in by his concept . . . which you then realize is excellent."
Wyler concentrated on achieving nuanced acting within a frame composed for expressive visual patterns. Typically, the imagery locates the characters in persuasive, realistic settings while simultaneously creating opportunities for spatial relationships that somwhow illuminate emotional relationships. A sense of intimacy is preserved along with a sense of spaciousness.
Wyler gave the actors room to manuever, and they're rarely isolated from their settings or other key performers. At the same time, it's apparent that the compostion imposes controls. It may not crowd the action, but it's not about to miss anything of significance.
There are many examples of the distinctive Wyler touch. One of the most famous is the homecoming scene of Frederic March in "The Best Years of Our Lives," Wyler's Oscar-winning triumph of 1946. Newly returned from four years of military service, notably as a documentary filmmaker attached to the Eighth Air Force, Wyler immediately responded to the subject matter of "The Best Years," an account of the readjustment problems encountered and apparently transceded by three servicemen.
March's character, infantry sergeant Al Stephenson, is returning to social and domestic security. His old job as a bank executive awaits him, and so does a loyal, affectionate family. The reunion with his family occurs early in the film, and there's no urgent dramatic reason to feel overwhelmed by it. And yet the reunion is staged and shot in a way that endows it with an extraordinary, self-contained evocation of pathos. It's an episode that reamins durably affecting, a Primal Sentimental Scene.
The action is very simple. March arives unnanounced at his apartment and rings the doorbell. The ring is answered by his teen-age son, and March silently directs him to suppress his impulse to shout the happy news. The camera observes the scene from one end of a ong foyer, with the front door located in the right foreground and the entrances to several rooms visible along the corridor. The camera doesn't budge, and the focus is sharp throughout the narrow breadth and extreme depth of the image.
From a back room we hear the voice of Marchhs wife, played by Myrna Loy, asking who was at the door. No answer from the men. In a moment March's daughter, played by Teresa Wright, enters from a doorway on the left, reacts and is also sworn to silence. Loy repeats her question. Still no answer. Finally, she appears at the far end of the corridor and stops in mid-sentence when she recognizes the visitor. March and Loy hold their positions briefly and then rush to embrace at about the midpoint of the corridor. In the foreground the children quietly move out of frame at the left, leaving the moment to their parents.
This banal domestic scene appears strangely exalted by the stillness of the camera, the luminous clarity of the image and the spare, eloquent movements the camera is ingeniously positioned to observe. It's also exalted by the music of Hugo Friedhofer, who composed an exceptionally stirring score for the film. Nevertheless, Friedhofer's masterful orchestral gloss doesn't make or save the scene. It completes an emotional vignette that has already been masterfully orchestrated for the camera.
The entire movie might be described as a masterpiece of luminous banality. The pitfall for a director like Wyler is that his expressive skills may be too refined for the frequently pedestrian material he's trying to illuminate. I've never been sure the stories being told in "The Best Years" fully justify the uncanny clarity and tenderness with which they're depicted, but that style of depiction invariably stirs me.
No one orchestrates sequences for the camera quite the way Wyler did.
A musician of sorts in his youth, he often inspired comparions withsymphonic conductors.
The composer Miklos Rozsa, recalling his collaboration with Wyler on "Ben-Hur," wrote that "There wasn't the smallest detail that escaped his attention. He molded the performances of his actors as a sculptor molds his clay or a conductor molds a phrase, until after innumerable takes he got what he wanted. Once I told him that he reminded me of Toscanini, as only he could command six or seven rehearsals for a concert."
The meticulous working methods Rozsa alludes to made Wyler a somewhat tyrannical eminence in Hollywood -- the respected but also exasperating "perfectionist." His determination to achieve the optimum take and his curiously reticent, roundabout approach to guiding actors in the general direction he wanted, rather than straight there, created the legends of "40-Take Wyler" and even $90-Take Wyler."
Explaining his method, the direction said, "When I come on the set, I've studied the scene, and I've got a vague idea of how I want to play it, but I haven't mapped it out exactly as some directors do. Before I can make up my mind definitely, I've got to see the actors doing it. Also, I want to see what the actors have to contribute, so I don't tell them very much . . . It happens very often that the actor will have a different idea or an even better idea . . .
"Sometimes I'm not very articulate with the actor. If you point out something, it may become too prominent in his thinking, and the scene will suffer."
It's not difficult to see how this method could prove maddening to actors. At the same time, it has won over many reluctant luminaries, including Bette Davis and Laurence Olivier, who credit Wyler with transforming them into accomplished screen actors in "Jezebel" and "Wuthering Heights," respectively. Moreovbr, there's an Academy Award record that speaks for itself: Wyler, a three-time Oscar winner and 12-time nominee, directed 14 performances that won Oscars and another 18 that were nominated for awards.
One of those Oscar winners, Heston, summed up the rewards of enduring the creative treatment inflicted by this elusively brilliant Hollywood stylist: "Doing a picture for Willy is like getting the works in a Turkish bath. You damn near drown, but you come out smelling like a rose."