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The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)
William Wyler applies the full power of his directorial precision to The Heiress, a close adaptation of Henry James’ novel Washington Square. Telling the tale of Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), a dowdy but wealthy heiress who becomes the target of a playboy (Montgomery Clift) whom her father (Ralph Richardson) suspects of being a gold digger, this is a costume drama that remains tightly focused on its central conflict. Indeed, after an early sequence at a dance, the bulk of the narrative unfolds in the Sloper family’s expansive New York home, which grows increasingly claustrophobic as Catherine becomes more aware of her paucity of options. The style becomes so oppressive, and Catherine’s circumstances are so geometrically defined by the other characters, that The Heiress feels like a chamber drama by its end. At every step Wyler charts the characters’ deliberate slide into venomous territory, resulting in a work that feels meaner in tone than James’ novel (Typical line: “My father wouldn’t abuse you… he doesn’t know you well enough.”), if only because it allows us to hold out hopes for a happy ending for a longer time. Wyler still locates the sadness here, though, spinning Catherine’s hardening of feeling into an odd mix of tragedy and emancipation.
As much as The Heiress presents a battle of wills, it also is a battle of acting styles. The film’s four leads (de Havilland, Clift, Richardson and Miriam Hopkins) each perform with entirely different mannerisms and vocal rhythms, not only giving the impression that these characters are ill-matched as societal equals, but almost that they are in different films. Clift’s method suaveness clashes with de Havilland’s stagey awkwardness, and both seem uncomfortable around Richardson’s imported propriety. This friction only intensifies the drama, turning what is already a tightly focused script into an almost unrelenting attrition of Catherine’s dignity and faith in others. Even as it is made evident how mismatched Catherine is for her role in life, the possibility of hope persists.
The Heiress is immaculately constructed and performed, making it a classic of its genre. The deservedly Oscar-winning art direction emphasizes staircases, doors, and mirrors, respectively emphasizing freedom, confinement and duplicity. These instances of editorializing are typical of Wyler’s deep focus style, which is somewhat reduced in power here when compared his very best moments, but unobtrusive enough to allow the story and performers to remain the focal point. Fortunately, each is in fine form in The Heiress, an outstanding literary adaptation and a superb example of Hollywood fare at its most intelligent and sharply honed.